Caleb slid out of his bed to greet another golden autumn morning. His big brother, James, was already outside working, probably helping Pa mend fences. When he heard his mother fixing breakfast in the room below, Caleb hurried to dress. But where was his favorite brown wool shirt?
He dug through the blankets, then searched under the bed. No shirt. So he just pulled on his pants and shoes and climbed down the ladder from the loft.
“I can’t find my brown shirt,” Caleb told his mother.
Ma looked up and smiled. “That shirt was getting so worn out that I made you a new one. Here, try it on.”
Caleb took the shirt from his mother and examined it closely. It didn’t have as many thin places as his old one, and no buttons were missing. But something was familiar about it. Quickly Caleb slipped on the shirt, buttoned it up to his chin, then huddled close to the stone fireplace to warm himself. He didn’t say anything to Ma, but he knew that James used to wear this shirt. Ma had cut it up and made the shirt smaller. Caleb couldn’t remember, but he suspected that Pa had worn the shirt before that, just as he had the old brown one.
After breakfast, Caleb kept so busy with his chores that he forgot all about his comfortable old brown shirt. At the end of the day, while Caleb’s sister, Dorcas, washed the supper dishes, Ma brought out her scrap bag. One by one she pulled colorful pieces of cloth from it. They fluttered down noiselessly, covering the wooden floor like a rainbow. Caleb watched with wonder.
Because women in the frontier settlement traded fabric swatches, some of the bright pieces in Ma’s scrap bag had once belonged to the neighbors. Caleb recognized nearly every scrap. One strip was from a petticoat that Dorcas had outgrown. Another piece came from James’s old black Sunday trousers. Caleb spotted parts from Grandpa’s winter coat and a few inches of his friend Willy’s knit cap. On top of the pile lay Caleb’s favorite brown wool shirt.
Ma announced, “I’m going to make a quilt.”
Caleb had already figured that out. Often when Ma sorted through her scrap bag, she had a patchwork quilt in mind. So he wasn’t surprised to see her cut his old brown shirt into several pieces. In fact, Caleb expected the shirt he was wearing to be cut up for a quilt when it was worn out and too small for him.
Night after night, when the day’s farm work was done, Ma and Dorcas sat by the fire, sewing the cloth pieces together. Moving smoothly, Ma’s practiced hand worked the needle in and out in tiny, even stitches. Every scrap was precious.
“Isn’t this one too small, Ma?” Caleb asked, picking up a little square of flowered cotton.
“No piece is too small, Caleb,” Ma assured him. “We’ll need every one.”
One afternoon Caleb came in from feeding the chickens to find Ma in her rocking chair with the patchwork pieces.
“This gives me a chance to sit down,” she told him, “while still keeping my hands busy.”
Caleb gently fingered an odd-shaped piece of Grandpa’s green winter coat. In his imagination, it still smelled of smoke from the campfires Grandpa used to build on his hunting trips. Last fall, when Caleb turned seven, he was allowed to go with Grandpa and Pa and James to hunt for food for the winter. Rubbing the green wool against his cheek now reminded Caleb of Grandpa and his stories around the campfire. He was glad that his mother had saved the old coat. Caleb watched her fit a piece of it into the patchwork quilt top.
“Who are you making the quilt for, Ma?” Caleb asked.
As soon as the quilt top was finished, Pa and James set up the heavy wooden frames. Dorcas helped Ma tack the backing of the quilt to the frames. It was a piece of coarse homespun cloth Aunt Polly had made—a bright strawberry red that made Caleb think of summer. Ma and Dorcas pinned the thick wool batting to the cloth. Finally they spread out the patchwork top and stretched it over the batting.
Caleb stood back and gazed at the quilt top. It was a wonderful kaleidoscope of patches, all sizes and shapes, fitted together with neat little stitches. In the center, Ma had sewn a square of brown wool cut from Caleb’s shirt. He knew what came next: a quilting bee!
Aunt Polly and several ladies from neighboring homesteads gathered to help Ma sew the three layers of the quilt together. Sitting around the frame, the ladies chatted as they worked their needles up and down through the layers of fabric. Caleb and his friend Willy crawled under the quilt and watched the thread make a fine white trail all across the red backing.
Every time a needle ran out, the boys rushed to thread it. By the end of the day, when the sewing was done, Caleb and Willy had each earned a shiny penny for keeping the ladies’ needles threaded.
It was almost dark when Willy and his mother and the other women rode off for home. Then, with Pa’s help, Ma carefully removed the quilt from the frames. “Tomorrow I’ll bind the edges,” she said.
When Caleb scurried down from the loft the next morning, Ma was already sitting in her rocking chair, with the quilt overflowing her lap. Caleb settled on the floor next to Dorcas, who, like Ma, was folding under the edges of the backing and the top and stitching them neatly together.
“Can I help?” Caleb asked.
Ma smiled at him as she patiently worked her fine little stitches. “How about your chores, Caleb?”
Caleb went outside to help James stack the wood Pa had cut. As he worked, the boy thought about the quilt. Its large and small patches of red, blue, and green, some plain, some fancy, reminded him of Grandpa, Ma and Pa, James and Dorcas, Aunt Polly, and all the neighbors. He thought of his own brown wool square in the center. “We will need every patch,” Ma had told him.
That night when Caleb climbed up to his bedroom loft, Ma was waiting to tuck him in bed under the new quilt. “I told you I was making this quilt for someone special,” she said, kissing him good night.
Caleb wrapped himself in the quilt with its comfortable old patches and smiled.