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Quilting queen creates historic quilt

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By Nick Schrager

Sometimes, you hear people say, ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to.’ Not so for Clara Mae Blandford’s quilts. They’re still made the old fashioned way – by hand with needle and thread. The Springfield woman’s home is a virtual quilt museum, containing some of the finest examples to be found anywhere.  

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Clara Mae turned 98 this year and recently finished a very special quilt - made with a found quilt top - possibly more than 100 years old. Clara Mae’s friend, Joyce Boone, described the origin of the quilt top.

“My grandmother, Margaret Browning Canary, was born in 1880,” she said. “She did all their sewing. She did a lot of crocheting. She made all their clothes. She was quite a seamstress. She died in 1963.

“I was cleaning up her house and was making my last go-through to get all the garbage and take it out to the street. There was this garbage can and I looked in it and I thought, ‘oh, this looks like oil rags or something.’ I poked around and it was dirty.  I reached in and I pulled it out and I said, ‘that looks like a quilt top.’

“I thought it would be really neat if that was Granny’s quilt top. I put it in a garbage bag and brought it to the Springfield laundry. They very carefully cleaned it. They were so tickled to see it. One of the ladies said, ‘that’s a bowtie.’”

The lady was referring to the bowtie quilt pattern. At the time,  Boone was unfamiliar with the terminology.

“I was looking all over, trying to figure out what she was talking about,” Boone said.

Boone tried to find someone to complete her grandmother’s quilt, but had no luck. She put the quilt top in storage, where it remained for decades. She forgot about it until this year, when she cleaned out her closet and rediscovered it. Thinking of her friend, the great seamstress Clara Mae, she called on Blandford.

“I told Clara Mae about it,” said Boone. “She wanted to see it. She fell in love with it and - she can tell you the rest of the story.”

Blandford giggled as she started telling the rest of the story. Holding the quilt on her lap, she pointed to pink flowered cloth squares that make up about half of the quilt top.

“See those?” she asked. “Those are chicken feed sacks. It’s put together with chicken feed sacks.”

Younger people might think it unusual that a feed sack would be made of such beautiful material. However, in the early 1900s, housewives commonly re-used feedsack cloth for linen, towels and clothing. Starting in the 1920s, as a marketing ploy, feedsack manufacturers started making the cloth bags in attractive colors and designs. A quick search on eBay revealed a surprisingly lively market in vintage feedsack material.

Blandford sews for fun now. Since retiring in 1964, she’s made more than 100 quilts. She’s working on a “Jacob’s Ladder” quilt right now. But for most of her life, Clara Mae sewed out of necessity. 

“I have sewn all my life,” she said. “I used to make all my clothes, all my kids’ clothes, my boys overalls. I sewed all my life. I just love it. My mother taught me how to sew.”

Sewing was just one of Blandford’s many chores.  

“I’ve stayed in Washington County all my life,” she said. “It has really changed a lot. People used to work to do for themselves. This subdivision used to be part of a farm. My husband Pat and I lived down here on the farm. He’s gone now. My husband worked in Oklahoma all the time. He worked in road work. He was gone all the time. I raised my family all by myself.

“I tended the cows all by myself and the sheep, the hogs, whatever he had. We had our garden and I would pack bushel baskets of green beans, tomatoes, potatoes, down this hill. I raised my own chickens. We killed our own hogs and I milked the cows with my hands. I did my own canning. I canned vegetable soup and I canned apples. I canned green beans and I just canned everything I could get my hands on. That’s what we lived on. Apple butter – I couldn’t tell you how much apple butter I have made in my lifetime. We gave a lot of it away.

“It was just different. We worked for what we had. Now, it’s just so different.”

Blandford is ready to pass along her quilting skills to young people.

“I would if they asked me to, but they never asked me,” she said. “It would give them something good to do when they retire.”

The master quilter said the key to a happy life is to make the best with what you have.

“When life throws you scraps, make a quilt,” she said.