It was the first weekend of December 2010 that I met Therese “Terry” Mihlbauer at the Unitarian Universalist Church Craft Show. Terry walked up to my booth and upon learning I restore quilts told me about a special family quilt she would like to have restored. Since it was a two-day show Terry brought her grandmother’s 1930’s flower garden quilt to church the next day and we laid it out so I could view both its beauty and its challenges. I told Terry I could restore it, but it would be a major undertaking and I couldn’t just work exclusively on it, because I had other client’s projects to do too.
Terry was agreeable knowing she was leaving it in caring capable hands. The work commenced: first identifying and laboriously picking out 62 blocks, then finding an array of vintage and reproduction fabrics to replace them. This particular quilt was laid out in concentric circles where each circle had its own color scheme starting with a red block in the middle and ending with a circle of twelve pink blocks at its zenith. After the hunt I called Terry and asked her if we could meet so she could approve the color choices. I sweet-talked her into joining me in a “Quilt Crime Investigation” where I dress up in surgeon’s garb and we conduct an autopsy of the quilt to determine how it came to be in its current condition and how it would be brought back to life.
I consider this one of the best autopsies I have ever conducted because Terry was the best next-of-kin. The shoot was done in February 2012 and she brought family photos to share and talked about the quilt and its history.
Terry related her grandmother, Catharine “Kitty” Doyle Kitty, was born on December 28, 1892 in Ironton, Wisconsin to William and Eleanor (nee Hamill) O’Brien. She died at age 99 on July 14, 1992 one week shy of Terry’s son’s first birthday. The family hoped she would make it to 100 and although she seemed to try, it wasn’t to be.
Kitty married widower Jerry Doyle who had three daughters Mary, Helen and Ann in 1926. Jerry and Kitty had three daughters Eleanor, Nora (Terry’s mother) and Patricia. Helen, Nora and Patricia are still living.
Terry recalled how every summer her family would visit Grandma Kitty at her home on North Park Street in Reedsburg. Her husband Jerry had died long before Terry was born and she never remarried. Terry’s mom and her siblings, their spouses and children would have such great reunions when they were all together at Grandma Kitty’s home:
“In her den my grandmother had a bed where this quilt would lay, for as long as I can remember.
The den was off the dining room and bathroom and next to the staircase leading to the upstairs.
The den was a place where we pounded on grandma’s piano, explored her walk-in closet, took naps and sometimes slept. It always seemed like a magical room to me and the quilt is associated with everything good about her. While she was a talented seamstress, making her grandchildren pajamas every Christmas, eventually she went blind in one eye from Glaucoma.
Long after her death I was happy beyond belief when my Aunt Pat asked me, during a visit to my parents, if I would like to have the quilt and my grandmother’s wedding dress. While I don’t believe my grandmother ever quilted, and I know she did not make this quilt, that has never stopped me from associating the deep love she had for all of us and so many happy memories with quilts.
I used quilts as the theme of my wedding when I got married in 1989 it was the wedding ring quilt. I have always felt quilts symbolize so much about a person, their lives, their history and what is important to them.”
During the autopsy we discussed the use of vintage and reproduction fabrics. Terry was pleased that vintage fabrics were predominate. Only two reproduction fabrics will be used because of the large number of blocks needing to be replaced in those particular color schemes.
After the autopsy the hand marking and hand cutting of the hexagons began using a plastic template and scissors. Each block is made of 19 hexagons so 1,178 were cut and each color set was placed in a plastic bag to keep them safe and clean.
Stitching the blocks became a matter of time management. Blocks were sewn at Snider Marching Band Competitions, the car dealership waiting room, and Pitch and Stitch at the TinCaps baseball games. When we flew to San Diego in 2013 to watch our son Robert graduate from USMC basic training, the meal tray was perfect to hold the thread and hexes while I sewed them together. Stitch by stitch the blocks were completed.
Next, rows of the blocks were sewn together to create a string to slightly cut down on the amount of time needed to blind applique them in place. With each completed string you could vividly see the striking difference as the quilt came back to life. Once they were all in place the hand quilting began and finally the quilt was rebound in late summer 2018. Throughout it all, Terry and I kept in touch, I would send her photos and she would give me payments while the work progressed. Neither one of us thought it would be 7.5 years later but we both agree it was worth the journey and the beaming smile on her mother’s face when she was reunited with the quilt at Thanksgiving says it all!
Terry wrote me, “Thank you for restoring this quilt. I will ensure it remains in good hands until I die and when I am gone. Restoring this quilt was investing in the memory of Grandma Kitty and ensuring that this quilt would continue to remain in my family as a cherished part of the life we shared with her.”
What more can one ask for to know one’s talent has had such an impact on someone’s life?