In May, 2008 I saw my sister, Greta, for the last time alive.
I saw her again 6 months later on her death bed. That wasn’t living. But I did see her in May, and we went together to the Schneider Haus, as we had three or four times in Mays before, to see their quilts and to talk to the people at this old Mennonite settlement, preserved as kind of a living museum of what the early days in Kitchener Waterloo must have been like.
On this day we talked with the museum folk about the furniture in the rooms, about the quilting, about the worm composting they were doing. We wondered, in fact, at how their composting could be so dry, when ours is perpetually wet. And I lingered at the front desk, where, as we were about to leave, I pointed out to my wife, Diana, the request for submissions for squares for their annual themed quilt. Well, maybe, she thought. And Greta urged her to take the material, sign up to receive the required piece of cloth to include, and she could decide not to do it later if . . . And Diana did sign up.
She got the piece in the mail, the theme was Wash Day Blues. We’ve talked now for years about the convergence of labor and art in the quilting process; and here, with the theme itself engaged the concept as well.
In November Greta died and Diana worked earnestly on the piece to submit to Joseph Schneider Haus. Diana wrote about it when she submitted the piece, April 2009:
My block is bordered in blue fabric with small white hearts representing memories contained in love. I remember the
women in my northern Wisconsin family who always hung the wash outside on a clothesline. The open air and sunshine made everything smell fresh and feel soft. I didn’t always enjoy pegging the clothes onto the clothesline, but I always enjoyed taking the laundry down!
In this block I am also remembering my sister-in-law, Greta Cramer. Greta introduced me to the Joseph Schneider Haus and to the annual Mennonite Relief Quilt Auction when she learned of my renewed interest in quilts. I used the challenge fabric to make the small quilt (which is being hung on the clothesline) as a reference to Greta’s consideration and concern for me.
Last May, when my husband and I made our annual visit to Waterloo to celebrate her birthday, Greta didn’t feel strong enough to attend the auction, but she suggested we visit the Joseph Schneider Haus together. It was then that I learned about the Quilt Block Contest. She encouraged me to make an entry.
Greta died in November, 2008. Finishing this block has been a labor of love and remembrance.
As Diana noted, Greta did not accompany us to the big Mennonite Relief Quilt Auction, a tremendous production that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars. Diana and I went, had their special breakfast, wandered the grounds, spent time in the great arena (a hockey arena of course) where the auction took place, and browsed the various booths and food stands. Thousands of people mingled. Inside the arena at the quilt auction, some 200 quilts sold for as little as $75 to as much as (in 2008) $20,000. Outside under the trees various odds and ends were auctioned off, usually for less than $25 — tools, kitchenware, gardening implements, toys etc. In between the two auctions, just outside the quilt arena, one vendor without a booth professed to sell nothing and was willing to bargain over how much his nothing cost.
We returned year after year to the auction; we did not intend to bid. We just watched. The fair was always convivial and joyful (except for the occasions when the bidding accelerated into a war, usually between two stores that coveted a particularly fine quilt each one wanted for its own collection) and we’ve picked up a bargain or two in the various booths. We’d complete our day by making our way to the place where an army of volunteers was creating fresh strawberry pie, made on the spot. This last was a participatory experience, not simply an observational one.
You can see some of the photos here of the fair. You can get a sense of the organization that it requires, the number of volunteers
involved, the immensity of the work involved in some of the quilts. The crowd, as you can see, is enormous, at least early on. As time wears on the audience dwindles, and if you can wait long enough, your chances of getting a deal are greater as the interest wanes. The auctioneers are professionals who volunteer, about 5 of them who alternate the demands are so great. Runners (also auctioneers) work the audience, reporting the bids and urging the bidders to greater heights.
In the back are the racks where the quilts are staged and the prospective buyers along with those who have come only to admire. Volunteers with their special gloves for handling the quilts bring them to the stage, where others lay them out on a table, get them ready for the display board, then place them where the audience can see them. When the sale is complete, the quilt is removed, bundled, and gotten ready to give to the lucky buyer.
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Some time last year we learned that Diana’s piece was accepted, and more, she won an honorable mention in the beginners category. Schneider Haus notified us that the quilt was being bound and photos would be available soon. We’ve just gotten notification that the quilt has been hanging in the Schneider Haus, and we have the photos to show. You may have difficulty locating the square, but if you look closely at the lower left corner, you will find it. The quilt
itself is rather a beautiful combination of work, one which does bring together, visually as well as in the material that makes up the work, labor and art.