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Quilted history

After more than 100 years of use, the colors and memories that Mary Jane Arnfelt's quilt invokes are still vibrant.

"It's not beautiful, but it's a wonderful quilt," said Arnfelt, a Cottage Grove resident. "When my husband lived with his grandmother, it kept him warm. Later, when we were married and lived on the farm, it kept our children warm."

Arnfelt's story was one of many told last Saturday as members of the South Washington Heritage Society displayed quilts they had made or been given.

Cottage Grove resident and Bulletin reporter Judy Spooner opened the program with a brief history of quilts and how they were made and used by women throughout American history.

"Women used quilts to express their creativity, make political statements, mark special events and pass on societal norms," Spooner said. Although not a quilter herself, Spooner sews and was intrigued with the story of quilts and women. She asked society members to bring their favorite quilts, and "it snowballed," she said. "Everyone has a story in them; you just have to ask."

The Arnfelt quilt -- a version of the log cabin pattern in wool and corduroy -- was made in the late 1800s by Richard Arnfelt's grandmother, who was one of the first babies born in Waseca County.

"When my husband was 5 years old, the family farmhouse burned down," Arnfelt said. "He was sent to town to live with his grandmother for a year while the house was rebuilt. The quilt was on his bed. He told me he had to attend a quilting session with his grandmother every Tuesday and every time they put the backing on a new quilt, it was at his grandmother's house.

"He hated quilting, but he knew a lot about it," Arnfelt laughed. She still uses the quilt -- made from scraps of old clothing from many Arnfelt family members -- when it is especially cold.

Frankie Ratzlaff, of Old Cottage Grove, inherited a friendship quilt from a second cousin, Mary Van Alstine, who embroidered the names of her mother's friends and relatives on the squares of fabric. Her mother had grown up in Denmark Township, but later married and moved to Canada. The quilt was a reminder of her youth spent in Denmark Township.

Ratzlaff said the quilt will be displayed in the Denmark Township Historical Society Museum, which is planned for the old school house at Point Douglas.

Ruth Pommerenning painted and appliquéd a memory quilt to commemorate her 50th wedding anniversary. She and Hank Pommerenning were married June 3, 1950. Squares on the border of the quilt depict moments from the couple's honeymoon, first house, children, grandchildren and cruises.

"I didn't have room for all the cats we've owned," she said.

An all-white angel quilt displayed by Jacquie Register was made for her while she was recuperating from the death of her first husband, and undergoing treatment for cancer.

Register's friend Marlene Davidson of Lakeville made the quilt and as she worked she prayed the angel would watch over and take care of Register. Within a 15-month period, Register lost both parents and her husband, and two weeks later was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Register, of Eagan, has quilted since 1980. She is a member of the Dakota County Star Quilters, whose members are busy making quilts for two nationwide projects -- Home of the Brave and Valor Quilts.

Register said a Home of the Brave quilt will be made and given to the family of every Minnesota service man and woman to die while in service in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Valor project's goal is to make and give a quilt to every service member who has been wounded in the line of duty. The quilts, all free, are made from Civil War replica prints.

"This is a different war," Register said. "We have to make sure our troops are supported, that they know we care."

In other wars, according to Spooner, quilts were made and sold to raise money, or they incorporated messages and pictures and were sent to men serving overseas.

During the Civil War, women made and sold quilts to raise money for both Rebel and Yankee troops. They were used by the Underground Railroad to help escaping slaves, Spooner said. Specific patterns were part of a secret code to guide runaway slaves on their journey north.

"Quilts are expressions of hope, desire, frustration and sorrow," Spooner told attendees at the meeting. "They are documents that illustrate the strength and creativity of generations of women."