Friday, March 13, 2015

My Grandmother's Dutch Girls

I believe that every child should have at least one possession that is theirs and theirs alone. Something handmade especially for them by someone who cared enough to spend the time on them to sit down and make it. I come by this honestly, I think. Both of my grandmothers were rather crafty. One of them ensured that every one of her grandchildren had a crocheted blanket for them to leave the hospital with. (She also made various other toys and things for us throughout our lives.) The other one made me what I considered in my young life to be the best blankie ever. (I also blame her for my addiction to flannel that I think is a direct result of this blanket...)

When I was very small, my paternal grandmother made a blanket for me. It was the very best, most perfect blanket in the whole wide world- or, at least, in my young life. It was soft, and cuddly, made almost entirely of flannel. It had a matching pillow that was just as cozy. There were little "dolls" on the front with colorful dresses. My grandma called them "Dutch girls". I loved that blanket. I pretty much dragged it absolutely everywhere. Eventually, my poor little blanket, damaged and worn, was packed away to keep it from falling to shreds. It was pretty much loved to death (a fate suffered by my very favorite doll ever, as well). 

Years passed, and I missed my blanket. I had such wonderful memories of cuddling up in the soft flannel. I was convinced that there was no other blanket as perfect as my Dutch girls were. So, I made up my mind to recreate it.

It took me forever to choose the fabrics for my blanket. At the time, I was working purely from memory. By the time I got ready to figure out a pattern, I had already purchased all of my fabrics. Then we dug out the original blankie. And I found a few surprises.


(gratuitous shot of my well loved matching pillow with stains and disintegrating stitches as proof of a hard life)

Above is the original Dutch girls blanket made by my grandmother, Virginia Callis. The first surprise was this hole in the thing, which is presumably the reason my mother confiscated it and packed it away in the first place. Neither of us has any memory of what might have caused this. (Although, she did look at the edges of the holes and posit that perhaps scissors had somehow been involved...)


The next thing I noticed was how the blanket had been constructed. (Hint: It was not pieced together with the "proper" quilting techniques that I had been reading about. Which was a huge relief, because I was completely intimidated by the studying up I was doing, and I was convinced that I was going to make a complete wreck of the whole project....) You can sort of see it in the picture above, but here's one a little bit better.


Turns out that the entire blanket was made from one solid piece of white flannel, with everything just appliqued to the top of it. (Not always in exact alignment with each other. I love that about this blanket!) And as seen here in this close up above, when the sashing ran a bit too short at the bottom, she didn't worry too much about it. :)

The third thing I realized was why none of the little sunbonnet-ed quilt patterns I had found were looking exactly right to me. I think I looked at every single Sunbonnet Sue pattern ever published or posted online at the time, and there was always a detail or two- besides the name- that was just not quite right. Grandma's pattern was just different. 

Turns out there's a reason for that. She didn't actually have a pattern, as such. With a bit of close study, you can see that every single little girl on the blanket is just a teensy bit different from all of the others. My grandma hand-drew each piece herself, with no patterns to trace. Well!

That was obviously beyond my imagining, brand new quilter that I was. I was stumped for a bit, not being able to draw up any little Dutch girls freehand that passed muster. I did try. But none of them looked right. Just like with the patterns I had collected, something was just a bit wrong with every single one of them.

In the end, I searched the blanket to find my very most favorite shapes for each part of the pattern, and I stuck them onto the photocopier so that I could trace my grandma's original pieces. Then I pieced together a doll that I thought was pretty close to perfect. And I did a test run.


Not bad, but not perfect enough. So, back to replace a piece or two, and then I had one that I was happy enough with to do the embroidery:


This is the one I eventually settled on. Every little Dutch girl I've made since then has been based on the pieces from this first test block, pieces originally drawn by my grandma. 

I set to work with my collected fabrics and started to build a blanket big enough to properly snuggle up under. This is what I finally came up with:

(Not the best picture, I know. The wind was awful that day. And it has rained ever since. But I think it's enough to get the idea.)

I'm still using this blanket today. It lives on my bed, it gets dragged around the house- by me and by the kids. It gets used for indoor picnics, for sleeping on the couch when we're sick, covering chairs for building blanket forts, even just for covering cold feet... It has probably been abused in every way known to small children by now. I know it has been washed about a hundred times. So far, it's still holding together, something I consider no small feat when I take into account that not only is it my very first blanket/quilt ever, but that it is entirely hand sewn...

I've made quite a few Dutch girls since then (although I switched to the machine for the piecing now, only the blanket stitching is still entirely by hand). I still have a lot of leftover bits and pieces from this blanket downstairs. I could probably make half a dozen blankets from them, if I were so inclined. But instead of the more pastel looking dresses and solid colored hats, I moved on to more patterns and brighter colors.

When I was expecting my first baby, I agonized a bit over what sort of blanket to make for him/her. By the time they told me it would definitely be a girl, I was so horribly confused- should I knit it? Or would it be better to crochet one? But then, I walked past my Dutch girls one day, and I knew. I had to make a flannel blanket, and it needed to be Dutch girls.

By the time my second little one came along, I knew that I would definitely be making Dutch girls. If the baby was a girl. (I still had no clue at all what I would do for a boy, and I was pretty convinced it would be a boy for that exact reason...) When they finally confirmed that I was getting another little girl, I was more than ready to start making Dutch girls again. My older girl picked out the flannel for the back and sashing on this one, because "this is the one that the baby will love, Mommy!" :)  And I'm sure that the purple and flowers had nothing whatsoever to do with her choice... Right...

 Although, I have to admit that I was more than a little bit surprised that she didn't go for a flannel that was pink...

So, there you have it. That's the story of my favorite blanket. The best blankie anyone could ever ask for, despite it not being precisely perfect in every technical detail. 

I can only hope that some of my blankets may be as well-loved someday. At least a couple of them are off to a good start. :)  And I sort of hope that someday- a very long time from now (decades!)- there might be a grandbaby who needs a Dutch girl blanket of her very own. It's a good tradition, I think. 

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