Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Story of an Old Sewing Rocker

About ten years ago, a friend, who I will call Mary, gave me this old sewing rocker. Rocking chairs without arms are called sewing rockers because the person sitting in the chair can do handwork without bumping into the arms of the chair. This chair is small and sits about sixteen inches from the floor.
Mary and I are both retired teachers. On the first day in a new job, I stopped to talk to her because she was reading a picture book about quilting to her first grade class. Our friendship developed from common interests of quilting, knitting, and gardening. Mary's husband's grandmother, Olive, was the original owner of the chair. Family members recall the petite woman sat in this rocker as she pieced and quilted. Mary owns a few of her quilts. We both agree she did beautiful hand piecing and quilting.

When I placed the dusty chair in our basement, I wondered if someone had taken an ordinary chair and screwed it onto rockers in order to make a comfortable chair for Olive. This fall I contacted a local man who refinishes old furniture and made arrangements for him to inspect the chair. When my husband and I took the chair to his shop, we enjoyed looking at his work. He is a meticulous craftsman who enjoys restoring old pieces. The gentleman thought Olive's chair was quite sturdy and was willing to take on the project. We agreed on the cost of his work and left the chair. About six weeks later, we returned to pick up the rocker.

Olive's refinished chair is beautiful. The craftsman took the rocker apart in order to remove all of the paint. Then he carefully cleaned each piece, put the rocker back together, stained, and finished the chair. At least, I think he put it together before staining and finishing. I was so taken by the newly refinished chair I forgot to ask about all of his process. The chair is made from four different woods. The seat and back are made from oak paneling while the rungs under the seat are from oak. The rockers are made from maple, a hard wood, while the legs and other curved pieces are alder wood. Alder, related to birch, is a softer wood often used for carving or pieces which need shaping. The thoughtful craftsman had used oak and maple in the pieces that needed to be sturdy and alder when he needed to shape curves. I imagine he thought the paneling would do for the back and seat.  Perhaps he chose it for the distinctive grain.

Recently, I asked Mary what she recalled about the long ago quilter. In 1877, Olive and her husband Hugh left Black Earth, Wisconsin and settled in southeast Nebraska. At the time Olive was twenty-five years old and the couple had been married about a year. Hugh and Olive had two daughters and one son who was disabled due to his difficult birth. Mary thought Hugh ran a "team and wagon business." He may have rented out a team of horses and a wagon. He also repaired wagons. Perhaps he crafted the chair for Olive or perhaps he received the chair in trade for his work. Perhaps he hired someone in the community to make the chair. That part of the story is lost.

When I look at the chair, I imagine Olive rocking as she mended socks, made clothing for her family, and sewed quilt blocks. I wonder how many needles she had and if she unraveled garments in order to have sewing thread for quilt piecing. When Hugh died in 1916, Olive was fifty-two years old. Perhaps she rocked in this chair as she grieved and pieced her life back together. Perhaps she helped with the business or perhaps she sold it and lived on the income. I do know she hand quilted through her lifetime. Together Olive and her unmarried daughter took care of the son who was unable to walk until Olive died in 1940. She was 86 years of age.

The little refinished chair does not look as if it is over one hundred years old. It is quite sturdy and I plan to spend some time rocking in it. After the holidays, I may go through my quilt projects and find something to finish. Perhaps I will knit in this chair. Mary is now in her eighties and happy for the rocker to have a new home. I like to think Olive would also be pleased the chair is being used by another woman who enjoys handwork.



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