Sarah Irwin, or “Granny Irwin,” was one of two girls in a family with eleven children. Her sister, who was much older, married and left home when Granny was young. Hence, she and her mother cooked, washed, and sewed for her nine brothers and her father. They also did the milking, much of the gardening, and the canning and drying of all the food. Granny was a prodigious worker, even in her eighties, and had little time to pursue her own personal interests. Therefore, it was surprising to find this purely aesthetic Christmas quilt which she had made.
Her son later commented, “I always thought it was the prettiest quilt I ever saw. But, the only time she ever used it was around Christmas time. She’d get it out a few days before Christmas and use it as a bed cover until around the first of the year; then, she’d put it away for another year. She made it, I think, about the time she was married in the late 1890s.”
The embroidered subjects on this typical Victorian crazy quilt are in relatively high relief and include a number of symbols that related to Granny Irwin’s life. The Lord’s Prayer occupied the center portion of the quilt, and she was sure to include some of the names of her kith and kin. For as long as she had lived, she raised chickens, and their eggs were her only source of income. Therefore, she included chickens, ducks, and a strutting rooster on her beloved quilt. Granny Irwin adored music, so she was sure to include several musical instruments—including a fiddle and a Jew’s harp. I had heard that in her youth, she loved riding side-saddle; so, it was not surprising to see a horse included in the collage. The quilt also contains a dog, a butterfly, a bird, and the phrase, “God Bless Our Home.” But, the most powerful feature on the quilt is a terse, revealing, and somewhat sad sentiment expressed in two simple words, “Remember Me.”
Like many women of her era, Sarah Irwin had little identity of her own. Her home was “Uncle John Irwin’s place,” and she was “Uncle John Irwin’s wife.” Although she was happy and content to love and work for others, she had little to leave behind for which she would be remembered. There would be no legacy, and had it not been for this Christmas quilt, there would be nothing personal or physical to indicate that she ever lived. It seemed that she sensed this, and was—perhaps unknowingly—crying out that she not be forgotten.
Ever since Granny Irwin first displayed her quilt in the front room of her home, it has served as a sign of the Christmas season. Over 120 years later, her creation continues to serve this purpose, as every December, it is prominently displayed in the Museum’s Hall of Fame for all to see. Sarah, the jolly, energetic woman who spent her life doing for others, has not been forgotten, and by carrying on her tradition, we hope she never will be.