Memories of making a memory quilt (get the tissues)

PaperGirlIn March, PaperGirl (aka Mary Fons) put out a challenge to her followers: write about the last quilt you made. Our director of marketing (aka Karen Johnson) was up for the challenge.

You see, Karen was in the midst of making a very special quilt. A quilt for her parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. A quilt that was going to capture her parents’ history—their family, their loves, their life. And when you’re creating a quilt like that, you want to share the story of its making. And so Karen did.

After blessings from her parents and from PaperGirl—and from Karen, of course!—we’re sharing Karen’s story with you today. (And because her quilt is now stitched, signed, and delivered, we get to show you lots of photos of it, too!) Perhaps Karen’s story about her quilt will inspire you to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and share the stories behind your quilts too.

Karen JohnsonOne night in February, I woke from a sound sleep and sat straight up in bed. I have to make a quilt for my parents, I thought.

You see, my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary is fast approaching. Their milestone is coming more quickly than I’d expected, especially for preparing a suitable gift. But now I had the perfect idea. I began planning a quilt in my head.

It would be a memory quilt, with photos.

I suddenly had an immense amount of work to do, and a very tight deadline. Since I work full time, it all needed to be done during weekends and evenings. It took three weekends just to gather all the photos. Many came from my brother and were already digital, but many more were safely tucked away in my storage unit, and they needed to be sorted, selected, and scanned.

I scanned and printed the photos onto fabric-transfer sheets (I used these)—and then I read the instructions. Apparently, printing colorfast photos on fabric is a two-step process. Over two weeknights, every available surface in my small apartment was covered with fabric-transfer sheets. All needed to be heat-set, cooled, and then rinsed, dabbed, and heat-set again.

I’ve always loved these photos, but making the quilt brought me even closer to them, and of course, to the people in them. I handpicked each photo for its meaning to my parents and to our family. I carefully ironed and washed each fabric-transferred photo, and then ironed them again. Each fabric photo was cut by hand, ensuring no one’s ears were chopped off by my rotary blade.

Finally, I began to piece the quilt together, planning the layout as I went. First was my parents’ wedding photo: front and center. I surrounded the beautiful old photograph with strips of fabric and pressed the seams away from their smiling faces. Then, I added their baby pictures. My baby pictures. My brother’s baby pictures. My daughter’s baby pictures. As the quilt grew, so did my memories of every stage of my life, through my parents’ eyes and through the pictures.

This quilt is filled with meaning. Joy, laughter, and sadness for those who are no longer with us. Graduations, weddings, and other milestone moments. There’s one photo where my dad has his hand on my mom’s shoulder in a quiet moment, when they didn’t know a camera was near. Love shining through. The forced smiles in many of the posed shots—everyone hating something about their face. More smiling babies, messy toddlers, a first missing tooth, bad haircuts, old friends. Life. My family’s life.


I don’t often spend time with these photos. They’re usually tucked away and aren’t regularly appreciated. A quilt will change that.

The quilt will soon be off to a long-arm quilter and I won’t be carefully ironing my brother’s smiling face any more. In a few short weeks it will be in my parents’ hands, and likely hang on a wall in their living room (though I’d prefer they snuggle under it). We’ll all admire it, but never again will I feel so close to those photos. So involved with them.

It’s a special thing we quilters do when we make a quilt for someone we love. But toss in precious photos and it becomes something else entirely. More than a photo album, more than a quilt. A family. A memory. A quilt.

As I snap myself out of my reverie, I realize I will be with many real-life family members as we gather to celebrate my parents’ 60th anniversary. And we’ll take more photos.

Which quilt might you write about?

  • One that you made and gave away
  • One that you’re making right now
  • One that’s still a twinkle in your eye

Tell us in the comments—and Karen, thanks for sharing your story.









28 Comments (leave a comment)

  • Such a special loving story. I have given away most of the quilts I have made, but the one I’m most proud of is the one I made for my parents 60th wedding anniversary. I had taken a class to make dimensional flowers and I used every technique I learned to create blocks with baskets of those flowers and I love that quilt. On the back I wrote the story up until then. My mother liked it, but never put in on their bed to use it. My father built a stand for it and they kept it next to their bed. When he died and she moved to her own apartment and my sister suggested she use the quilt on her bed. When it needed washing I held my breath when my sister told me, but it came out perfectly. Mother died at 100 1/2 and I will continue to write our story.

    —Ellen on June 23, 2017
  • The quilt that is the most memorable for me is a baby quilt I started for a friend’s first child, a boy who was to be named Ian. I actually got on the ball when I first learned that my friend Jennifer would have a little boy and got the quilt top done. But as the pregnancy progressed there were problems. Little Ian would not be able to breath after birth but for a very short time. Jennifer bravely carried little Ian until she went into labor, delivered, and held her son for 20 minutes before his death. She and her husband couldn’t decide whether to bury Ian with his quilt or to save it. They kept it. When the next baby came along, they were going to use Ian’s quilt for her but I made her a quilt and one for the little girl they adopted and the next little girl. My eyes still tear up. They did bury him in the little sweater/hat combo I made him.

    —Elaine West on June 23, 2017
  • Oh yes, I made a memory quilt for my mom-in-law, and it lives at my house now, for she has passed away. I will teach my grandkids the stories from the quilt…
    here is just one of the blocks in it:

    —Snoodles on June 23, 2017
  • The one I’m making right now, I was hoping to finish it for Fathers Day but life seems to get in the way so I’ll shoot for Christmas. I’m making a memory quilt for my husband. He has lost his mom and dad and his brother all within five years. I have the photos, I just need to print them and sew them to the quilt and add borders. I’m going to make a pillow case to wrap it in. This is my first memory quilt and I’m looking forward to making more.

    —Valerie Thompson on June 23, 2017
  • I would write about the quilt I made and gave to my daughter. I used pieces ( 2″ squares) from every outfit I made her from birth to sixth grade. She still has the quilt folded in a corner in her bedroom where she sees it every day, has repaired damage from her cats and remembers what outfit the fabric came from. Maybe one day it will be passed on to another generation.

    Debby on June 23, 2017
  • I made a photo quilt for my mom’s 65th birthday as well as my in-laws 50th anniversary. Both completely different but oh, so beautiful for them!!

    —Bernadette Schultz on June 23, 2017
  • My favorite quilt is a Memory quilt that I made for my 75 year old mother. It was a 5-generation quilt, starting with my mother ‘s parents. Each picture was framed with dark brown and the other fabrics were very light to medium browns and greens. I used embroidery designs of leaves and flowers for the quilting. My sister wrote a poem that I embroidered and my four siblings and I all signed. I made that into one the square at the bottom right of the quilt.

    —Rosanna Ray on June 23, 2017
  • I’m making one right now. I saw this pattern a year ago for a modern take on a The yo-yo’s are appliqued on vertical strips and set vertically down each one with every other strip of yo-yo’s being off set. It really caught my eye. Well, I had knee replacement surgery a month ago. Prior to it, I was looking through my potential projects for some handwork I could do while I as sitting around on the mend. I chose to tackle this one since it takes 390 yo-yo’s! The reason this one spoke to me is because my health has been a yo-yo for the past two years–mainly dealing with horrible knee pain, weight gain, plus a few other things. This quilt will represent my journey over the past two years and how I came out of it–stronger and better! Life is like a yo-yo, there will be ups and downs, but hopefully more ups and try to have a positive attitude through it all.

    —kay jackson on June 23, 2017
  • My parents will celebrate their 66th anniversary tomorrow! They are both pretty healthy for being 90 and 86 years old. I made a photo quilt wall hanging for their 50th anniversary that hangs prominently in their apartment. I won the First Place ribbon for hand-quilting on this quilt.

    —Karen on June 23, 2017
  • I made a quilt for my youngest son’s wedding shower. It was a yellow and gray (their wedding colors) diagonal strip quilt. I shopped for appropriate fabric for a year, toiled to make each block perfect, and was rewarded with a big gasp from the attendees when the quilt was opened. What a joy for me to give them this gift.

    —Betty on June 23, 2017
  • In April of 2001 my neighbor asked if I would make a memory quilt for a family reunion to be held on July 16. She gave me family photos and certificates that dated back to the 1800’s, some were marriage and baptismal records from France and Canada, as well as immigration certificates from ancestors who immigrated to the United State in the early 1900’s. The oldest photo was of a great-great grandfather. I accepted the challenge. There were a lot of photo transfers to fabrics to be done. I began to assemble the photo fabrics with the oldest in the middle. I used fabric scraps from my stash to frame each fabric and added strips to space the photo fabrics where needed. I was working on a June 22 deadline because my family was scheduled to leave for a road trip on June 23 and we wouldn’t return until July 20. Just before I was ready to do the machine quilting I showed the top to my neighbor. That was when she told me that one of the photos she had given me included a young boy and that it would cause a problem if that boy’s picture would be on the quilt. I appliqued a rectangle of fabric over the boy, so that the original photo of 4 people turned into two photos separated by a fabric strip. The finished quilt was about 52″ X 52″. I was proud of my work as it was the first memory quilt I ever made. I added a sleeve and provided a moulding strip so the new owner could display the quilt if desired.
    The family reunion took place near Port Huron, Mi. Tickets for the quilt were sold at $1.00 per. One cousin bought 25 tickets. The relative who bought the winning ticket only bought one. She was given the quilt in a cotton pillow case along with care directions.
    Fast forward one year: my neighbor called to tell me her cousin’s house caught fire and everything was gone including the quilt that was still in the pillowcase in the closet since she took it home. She had never displayed or used the quilt!
    All that is left are the photos of the quilt that I took during the making and when it was finished.

    —Carol Fetsco on June 23, 2017
  • Almost all of my quilts have stories, from the first project I started (a Diary Quilt, using Mimi Dietrich’s book) to quilts my sons helped design for their beds, to my most recent creation, a tribute to the six years I spent living in Brazil. I journal each one in a book designed just for that, and in my blog.

    —Heather V on June 23, 2017
  • I have made three memory quilts. The first for my father when he turned 90. I did an album cross so that all of his friends and relatives could write him messages. Some of those blocks crossed the border to Italy and Canada and here in the U.S. I typed up the messages so my father could read them without pulling out the quilt. By the time I was done machine piecing and hand-quilting the quilt was 120×120, with two pillow shams, and was pictured with him in the local newspaper.
    The other memory quilt was for my father-in-law when he turned 100. This was a picture quilt with his parents, sibling, children, in-laws, grand children, and great grand children. I hung it in our local show and some attendee saw it and commented that she knew a lot of people in the pictures. I was not there, and did not get her name. I wish I had.
    The last memory quilt was one of all my father’s ties after he passed away at 97. That was a folded log cabin and reminds us of the ties he wore in the grocery store that he owned for 50 years, along with his white shirt and apron.
    I had a good cry over all these quilts that remind us all of good times passed.

    —Linda on June 23, 2017
  • One that I made and gave away.

    —Karen Hootman on June 23, 2017
  • One that is still a twinkle 😉

    —Ann Austin on June 23, 2017
  • When each of my grandchildren graduated from college I made them a memory quilt using baby pictures and ones from their childhood.

    Hilda on June 23, 2017
  • One day a customer walked into quilt shop—and 2 hours later I was planning a quilt for a "comfort quilt" to give to a family member who would be at M.D. Anderson for cancer treatment. I planned out my own design, with strip pieced hearts set in joyful color squares and outside borders where I hand quilted hearts and bear shapes. Fast forward–several Monument producers were in Galveston, as was I, and I asked if they would like to go to Ronald McDonald house with me as showed them the small quilt. They were eager to go and tour this NEW facility. Pretty soon we all had misty eyes because the buildings downspout tops were teddy bear shapes, the front door had hearts and bear shapes, and as we walked into the family room the fireplace mantle area had grey and white marble hearts and bears set into the surround. Now I knew why that new customer–from Galveston–smiled so broadly when she saw the drawing of my quilt gift.

    —Elizabeth Schnelle on June 23, 2017
  • Reading about Karen’s memories makes me want to do one for my son and daughter-in-law as we recently lost their only son to suicide at the age of 15. This will make a wonderful life story for them of him!!

    —Marilynn on June 23, 2017
  • I loved the story about the memory quilt, I think partly because I had just given one to a dear friend a week ago. There are four of us ladies who were next door neighbors for about 25 years before several moved to new locations nearby. We all had kids of similar ages, so their friendships were strong for many years as well. About five years ago one of the ladies was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and over the past few years has had to give up her job and driving due to her condition. Even though she lives about 45 min. away from the rest of us, we go out and pick her up for a day’s outing at one of her favorite activities and lunch out at least once a month. Last fall the three of us talked about something special we could do for her birthday this summer, and we decided on a memory quilt. The three of us participated in one way or another, from gathering pictures to buying the fabric, to hand-stitching the binding on. We included pictures of her grandparents, parents, husband, children and grandchildren. In the center were several of their wedding pictures, and we also included pictures of the four of us friends at different places we have visited. At this point in her disease, she still knows who everybody is, but if and when that changes, she will have the most important people in her life to wrap around her in love.

    —Mary Jo on June 23, 2017
  • I made a tshirt Quilt for my son’s high school graduation. Every team he was ever on, from about 5 years old through high school. It was such fun to revisit those special memories.

    —Welton Renee on June 23, 2017
  • 60 years wow! I have made three memory picture quilts for cousins. It was work. If I would write about a quilt it might be my first quilt and how my mother gave me a piece of my dress school fabric she was making to put into my Sunbonnet girl she was helping me make when I was six years old. How about that! My mom is 92 and still quilting and thinks modern and keepsake.

    —Linda Christianson on June 23, 2017
  • I made memory quilts for my 2 sisters about 15 years ago. I started with my parents wedding photo and added ones of my grand patents then Family photos including my children. For my youngest sister’s i added her family and her daughters wedding and 1st grandson .For my older sister some of her best friends were added at her request. My photos were on glossy special photo paper ironed on to plain fabric (printed in reverse) so it wasn’t recommended to wash the quilt and certainly not iron the photos.
    I still have pieces of photo printed fabric I started for my own quilt, and would also like to add more photos to my Youngest sister’s of her newest grandsons.

    —elizajane on June 23, 2017
  • I would have to make houses in the exurbs where i live, houses on big lots where everyone has a couple of dogs in the yard.

    —Peggy Kerr-Meyering on June 23, 2017
  • I made a quilt for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. I used the Double Wedding Ring pattern: 9 rings; Mom & Dad in the middle and their 8 children all around. Names and dates were inked in the centers and special novelty fabrics were used in the rings. It still hangs on Mom’s wall almost 20 years later. Dad passed away last year.
    I am finishing up a quilt for my sister who lives in Florida. It’s a Christmas quilt featuring Santa at the beach! Included are special fabrics like footprints in the sand, hibiscus flowers, sea turtles, and lots of ocean blue. My goal is to present each of my siblings with their own Christmas quilt in the near future!

    —Linda Towers on June 24, 2017
  • In 2004 I designed and made a Quilt for my favorite Aunt Kathleen. I would visit her every year when I would fly into Albany, NY. We would sit and have tea in an Irish tradition, discuss our mutual love for special linens, doilies and beautiful items of the past, and tell stories of our lives in humorous ways. We shared a special bond each of us being the family matriarch of our respective generations, suffering losses through the years and being the family caretakers.She was a blessing to me. The Quilt consisted of appliqued tea pots of all varieties sitting on half moon doilies in each block as if they were sitting on a table. I called it "Tea With Aunt Kate." She treasured the quilt so much that she wanted me to have it back someday when she passed to be our special memory. She passed at the age of 99 and that quilt is with me today hanging on a quilt rack in my home. A special memory of my love for her and the special bond we had.

    —Barbara Theriault on June 24, 2017
  • There are a couple that are still a twinkle in the eye. One is a T-shirt quilt for my nephew and we have the t-shirts he wants used in it. The other is one that I want to make several of because our whole family loves Disney. I have saved a fair number of the bags that we got our items placed in, some patches that were gotten years ago, the booklets that eventually became leaflets from each time there, etc.

    —Judith on June 24, 2017
  • After my daughter, Virginia’s girls basketball team won the first 6A championship in Texas three years ago I had a bright idea to make her a quilt with pictures. I had only been quilting for maybe 9 months to a year and had no idea how to get started.I used bandanna’s with leopard print for the wildcats mascot and trimmed each with school colors & put the pictures on top. I wanted to have it done by Mother’s day to give her, but it wasn’t so I gave her a card & told her that her gift "was a special order and should be in soon". I made a few calls, got the pictures & 3 months after the win, I presented Virginia with a king size quilt loaded with pictures. She didn’t realize I actually made it until she saw the scripture and dedication sewn into it. It now hangs in her game room. My next one is now in the process for her husband. They just won the boys 6A basketball championship this spring and his will be totally different. It will have a basketball court panel in the center with mascot embroidered on each end of the court to match their high school court and then the team and individual pictures will be all around it. Can’t wait to finish and give it to him.

    —Virgie Viverette on June 28, 2017
  • I spent many long hours appliquéing Toytime circus for my granddaughter for her graduation from cot to single bed, upon receiving it, she was very excited when she saw all the animals, in lovely pinks & green fabrics, loved rolling around on it, telling us all the noises each animal made. Her mother (our daughter in law) folded it back up, put it back in the bag, said ‘ it’s lovely but not required, thanks’ i was so close to tears that we left the house. I couldn’t bear to have the quilt that I’d spent so long making in my home, so we sold it. Sad that it was not appreciated, but not my granddaughters fault. Want to make another one for my daughter’s son. I know it will be loved, appreciated & used! Thanks

    —Debra Lock on November 23, 2018

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