(Above: a packaged quilt pattern from McCall’s, circa 1930s; a fresh look at the quilt block from the book Link to the ’30s.)
The authors of the popular books Fancy to Frugal and Link to the ’30s come by their passion for antique quilt patterns honestly. As young children, sisters Kay Connors and Karen Earlywine were already playing with fabric and learning to sew. As adults, they’ve let their love of fabric take them back in time—all the way back to the 1930s. Read our interview with Karen and Kay to discover how their love of 1930s fabrics and vintage quilts began. See a slideshow of quilts from both books at the bottom of this post.
Meet authors Kay Connors and Karen Earlywine
What can you tell us about your earliest sewing memories?
Karen: Sewing was always a part of our lives because our mother did alterations, and her mother made our clothing when we were children. Both were skilled seamstresses, although their areas of expertise were different. I don’t really think either of them did it for enjoyment as much as for necessity—one did it for income, the other for the economic value and satisfaction of a job well done.
It was natural that we would begin sewing for ourselves, since in our experience that was what women did. I was the last to teach myself because I was the youngest. From about age 11, Kay made clothes for me and Mother as well as for herself. I will always remember those matching purple gingham dresses we all had for Easter one year!
Kay: Our grandmother put me on her lap at about age 4 and let me sew seams while she pumped the treadle. I don’t ever remember a time that sewing wasn’t a priority.
When did you both first become interested in quilting?
Kay: As with many quilters, sewing clothes left me with many remnants. Because I had always loved quilts, it was natural to utilize my scraps that way. In 1973, when I decided to start quilting, it was a solitary endeavor and so I was self-taught. Quilt guilds, quilt shops, quilt books and great fabrics were scarce!
Karen: I became interested in quilting in the early 1970s when my girls began to want clothes from the store. I was actually glad that I didn’t feel I had to keep their rapidly growing bodies covered in homemade clothing, but sewing was so much a part of my life that I needed another outlet for my habit. Quilting was a challenge then because of the scarcity of information and appropriate fabrics.
Where did you get your inspiration for the beautiful quilts in Link to the ’30s?
Kay and Karen: Writing this book was something we had talked about, but we needed time to research because we wanted to stay true to the old quilts. Then we got a little nudge. The box of old newspaper ads we were lucky enough to acquire gave us the opportunity to make quilts from that era that were not commonly seen. We were already collecting reproduction fabrics and had made a few quilts with them, so this new supply of ideas was a gold mine!
A 1930s quilt, found faded and in tatters, gets a makeover in “Rings ’N’ Things” from Link to the ’30s (get the ePattern for $4.99).
Why do you think Link to the ’30s resonates with so many quilters?
Karen: I think readers enjoy being able to make the quilts that may once have been in their families but were worn out or discarded during a time when quilts were not valued as they are now. I always remember our grandmother who sewed for us, saying, “I just wish I could get rid of all this old stuff and go buy some new things!” Now we call that old stuff “antiques” and feel lucky that our grandparents were too frugal to discard anything.
Kay: Link to the ’30s allows people to share the excitement of taking quiltmaking back a step, slowing down, carefully cutting and piecing, creating something that isn’t “quick and easy.” A completed challenge is so satisfying!
What inspired you to write Fancy to Frugal?
Karen: The reception to Link to the ’30s was gratifying. Writing a quilt book for the first time and making the quilts on a deadline is very hard work. I compare it to childbirth. Our mother always said that if you really remembered the process you would only do it once, but the child is worth the trouble. That is also true of a completed book. And there were more quilts we wanted to make, so why not do another book? Also, my husband needed something new to brag about—he’s my biggest cheerleader.
Kay: There was no way we could cover the subject with only one book! As of this writing, we hope to do a third book with more wonderful ’30s creations.
A Nancy Page Quilt Club clipping found in a Spokane, Washington, newspaper becomes “Starlight” in the book Fancy to Frugal.
How would you describe the difference between the utility quilts and fancy quilts of the Depression era?
Kay: Utility quilts were made for warmth and reflected the economic deprivation of the Great Depression. No concern was given to palette or pattern, and often the quilts were stuffed with another quilt or raw cotton or perhaps an old military blanket. The fancy quilts were planned out, and fabrics were chosen with more care, even though they may have been remnants. Other quilts were made from mail-order kits of die-cut pieces. Hard times could not stifle the desire to be artistic, to create something bright and cheery.
Has writing Link to the ’30s and Fancy to Frugal increased your appreciation for the quilters of the 1930s?
Karen: I don’t think my appreciation for quilters of the past could be increased. When I think about all the modern tools I have, as well as the living conditions we are so fortunate to have now, I am even more impressed with the work those long-ago quilters did to keep their families warm.
(Right: A teddy bear made from an old “folksy” quilt shows an example of quiltmaking in which every scrap of fabric was used, without an apparent pattern or plan.)
Kay: When you write a quilt book, you spend a lot of time on math and geometry (triangles, arcs, etc.), and you marvel that the old quilts were so precise without the tools and techniques that we have today. And really, don’t we all applaud the spirit that overcame those dismal times and produced such gorgeous quilts?
Are you drawn to quilts from another era? What is it about them that appeals to you? Share your story in the comments.