On the back of the quilt, along with her signature and the date, Caroline Nihiser wrote something her granddaughter Amanda told her—“You’ve worked on this quilt my whole adult life.”
Nihiser started working on “12 Years in Baltimore”—a Baltimore Album-style quilt that won first place and best in show at the State Fair of Virginia and was juried into an international quilt show—in 2006, a few years after Amanda graduated from high school.
She finally finished it in April.
“Sticking with it was the hardest part,” Nihiser said.
She even put the unfinished quilt away for a few years, while she was retiring from her career in Drury Hotels, remarrying and moving from Missouri to Spotsylvania County.
But she always knew she would finish it. And when she did, she didn’t want to just “put it to bed.”
So Nihiser entered it in the State Fair of Virginia contest—the first time in 25 years of quilting that she has entered one of her quilts in a competition.
When she went to the fair last month to work her assigned shift at the Virginia Star Quilters guild booth, Cheryl English, manager of the fair’s arts and crafts competitions, met her at the door.
“She said, ‘Are you Caroline? Follow me,’” Nihiser said. “She led me to the quilt and showed me the ribbons. She said, ‘You’re going to be the talk of Virginia.’ I’ve never been so honored.”
Baltimore Album-style quilts were first seen in the 1840s. They originated in Baltimore, which was the second-largest city in the U.S. at the time, and a prosperous seaport.
Baltimore Album quilts reflected the city’s prosperity. Unlike traditional quilts, they weren’t made with leftover fabric scraps but rather with newly purchased fabric.
They were traditionally signed by the maker and by family members and friends, who would pen poetry and sayings on each block. Each block in a Baltimore Album quilt has a different design, usually floral, and often featuring lyres, cornucopias, wreaths and vases.
Nihiser’s Baltimore Album quilt is jewel-toned, and the block designs incorporate delicate beads and strands of metallic thread.
She braided and ruched fabric to create a three-dimensional effect for some of the flowers.
Though Nihiser said she doesn’t design her own patterns because she “isn’t an artist,” she had no pattern for any of the hand-work on her quilt. She chose all the fabric styles and colors herself and added personal details, such as a tiny monarch butterfly and a miniature album that opens up to reveal the names and birth dates of her four grandchildren.
Nihiser said she took up quilting when she was raising her granddaughter.
“I was home more and needed something to fill the time,” she said.
Her mother and grandmother quilted but didn’t teach her. She said their work was amazing—she still has quilts they made—but that they would have called themselves “utilitarian” quilters.
“They quilted with scraps of clothes that they had made,” she said. “Now we go out and pay $12 a yard for fabric.”
She learned the craft by reading books about it and estimates that she’s made at least 100 quilts.
“I probably have 10 or 12 projects in progress right now,” Nihiser said.
She’s made quilts for all her children and grandchildren and for her two great-grandchildren. With the Virginia Star Quilters guild, she stitches quilts for babies in the Mary Washington Hospital NICU, seniors in area nursing homes and service members suffering from wounds or PTSD through the Quilts of Valor Foundation.
Nihiser said she will never sell a quilt.
“I give them away,” she said.
In an upstairs bedroom in her Spotsylvania home are stacks of quilts in different patterns, sizes and themes. One of the most personal quilts she ever made was for her granddaughter’s high school graduation in 2004.
The pattern is in the high school’s colors of blue and gold and on the back, Nihiser penned diary entries describing every day of Amanda’s life from the day she started the quilt to the day she finished.
She also included pictures of her granddaughter, whom she raised, from infancy all the way through her senior portrait.
At Amanda’s graduation party, she and her friends spread out on the floor to read the quilt.
“She treasures this,” Nihiser said. “She says, ‘If there’s a fire, grab my quilt.’”