Family autograph quilt
Article by J.A. See


hen Oakville, Ontario, art quilter
Linda Achen conceived the idea of
a family album quilt decorated
with signatures and sayings of
relatives for her young nephew in 1998, she was
evoking a tradition begun by women during the
nineteenth century. Then, as now, quilts had
transcended their utilitarian function as bed
warmers and had become objects to be decorated
and individualized, serving also as teaching aids for
mothers showing their daughters how to sew, and as
a shared experience for groups of women gathering
to put their skills to use while enjoying each other’s
company. These decorative coverlets were often
created to mark a particular event or milestone, with
patterns formed from the different combinations of
shapes and colours, and also by the addition of
embroidery and other embellishments.

In the United States during the 1830s and
1840s, this decoration took on a strong graphic
element when signature quilts were made for
families heading West, taking with them mementos
comprised of pieces of cloth signed by relatives
and friends, stitched together and presented as a
parting gift. Signatures on such quilts were inked
and sometimes topped with embroidery, providing
a double layer of graphic decoration. Beginning in
the late 1800s, such quilts also came to be used as
fundraisers in North America: individuals or
families would buy a space on a quilt and it would
be auctioned with the proceeds donated to
charities such as the Canadian Red Cross.
The album quilt was a variation on the
signature theme. In the style of autograph albums,
in addition to one’s name, the writer would include
a short verse or small drawing on his or her panel,
making each block of the quilt unique.

These historical precedents were appealing to
Linda Achen. The family was spread across Canada,
and the quilt would serve as a symbol of strong
family ties, and as a means to bridge the geographic
divide. The autographic feature offered individual
relatives the opportunity to write a permanent
message to their then-youngest family member.
And to further personalize the experience for the
individuals and the recipient of the quilt, each
family member traced his or her own hand onto
yellow cotton squares, and wrote on the cut-out
shapes. Achen had seen appliquéd ‘hand blocks’
before and thought the palm provided a good
space upon which to write. Historically, families
used old worn clothing to make new quilts. These
were intrinsically ‘memory quilts’ because when
one saw a piece of a coat or shirt in the quilt it
conjured the memory of the person who had
owned that garment. Because the recipient of
Achen’s quilt was still very young, she realized that
fabric memories would not mean anything to him,
so conceived the idea of preserving the memories
in the person’s hand with a thought or saying from
that person.

The quilt has its own memory of place. The
hand tracing and much of the writing was done
during a family reunion in Prince Edward Island in
the summer of 1998. Participants ranged from the
three-year-old himself, whose small hand and foot
form the panel in the lower right corner, to his
then eighty-one-year-old grandmother. Some
people completed their messages that day, others
carried their square back home for further
contemplation before writing, and six other family
members who were not present also received
squares and instructions. The pieces of fabric
travelled to Alberta, Saskatchewan and New
Brunswick, slowly making their way back to
Ontario where the last square was annotated in
September 2010.

The overall effect of the quilt is striking:
yellow hands of different shapes and sizes point in
different directions, anchored by the strong black
ground that brings out the black writing on each
panel. It also provides a more ‘mature’ dimension
to the colourful animal patterns of the printed
fabric. The handwriting is a collage of individual
styles and generations—the sure, clear pen of a
teacher, the youthful strokes of a teenage cousin,
the shaken but painstakingly executed script of an
ageing grandfather. So too the chosen words
reflecting the experiences of the writers, words of
advice based on personality (from the amateur
pilot: “Fly high, and keep your air speed up!”; from
the musician: “Take the path less worn, that’s
where great things are born” and from the athlete:
“Play fair, play hard.”).

The graphic messages on this quilt link three
generations through space and time, capture a
family, and tell the story of what these individuals
valued most. Signature quilt, album quilt, mnemonic
device, this familiar object recording the
hand to text actions of its makers, lies not in its
domestic function as bedcovering but rather in the
more basic text (from texture) of common bonds,
of family ties and shared affections.

J.A. See is a decorative arts enthusiast from Hamilton,
Ontario, with a particular interest in women’s textile arts.

Linda Achen
Family autograph quilt,
Cotton, pieced, quilted,
machine- and hand-sewn
with inked signatures
1.68 x 1.21m
Photograph by family