Thursday, July 12, 2018

Amazing Grace: Quiltmaker Extraordinaire

A footnote from history by Stephanie Grace Whitson

Detail, Petit Point Basket by
Grace McCance Snyder
photograph by
Stephanie Whitson
For this lover of most things historical, visiting a new place usually means checking out at least one museum. The state history museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, was one of the first places I visited as a new resident. I was drawn to a display case on the main floor of the museum, where the largest piece of needlepoint I'd ever seen was on display. Imagine my amazement when I got close enough to realize that it wasn't needlepoint. I was looking at a pieced quilt, with the tiniest patches I had ever seen. How was piecing such tiny triangles even possible? 

That museum visit introduced me to Grace McCance Snyder, who came to Nebraska in 1885. She was three years old, and would later recount, "I do not remember the ride through the hills to Poppie's claim, but I can still see the homestead as it looked when we pulled into it that day--just two naked little soddies squatting on a bare, windswept ridge above a narrow, winding canyon." 

Grace's first Nebraska home was a 12 x 14 sod house built by her father. It had a wood floor, and "after the walls settled Poppie plastered them with a smooth, hard finish of canyon clay and water. A coat of whitewash every six months or so kept them clean and white." As a mother herself, Grace would one day look back and say, "... to Mama it must have seemed poor and desolate ... she had grown up among the green fields and woods of Missouri where she lived in a big white house ... I wonder, now, how she stood the hard life we lived, those first years in Nebraska."

Grace McCance Snyder's memoir, No Time on My Hands, was one of the first books I read about pioneer days in Nebraska. It's wonderful reading, but it's Snyder's incredible quilts that have won her fame. 

Snyder's first quilt was "played to death," since Grace was the second of seven girls, but it's creation is a touching part of her story. It was her job to herd her father's cattle on the open prairie. Finding the task lonesome, Grace begged her mother for some scraps of fabric, and pieced her first quilt--a four-patch doll quilt. 

As a teenager hired to teach three boys on a remote ranch, Grace remembered that the rancher's wife thought it improper for the schoolteacher to help with everyday chores. As a result, "From the time I left the schoolroom until bedtime, I had nothing to do except work on my pretty quilt and write a few letters ... if it hadn't been for the letters from home ... I would have curled up and died of homesickness long before Christmas."

The Snyder's wedding photo
As a newlywed, Grace would use the quilt she'd made during that long, lonely winter to cover canned goods boxes on which she laid an old bedspring. Voila: a couch. Her daughter, Bertie, remembered, "As soon as supper was done, Mama's day's work was mostly over. She went to her rocker in the living room. She either crocheted or cut and sewed quilt pieces." Nellie shared, "Mother pieced all the quilts we ever used for bedding ... she belonged to a club that made quilts, too: it was their 'welfare work.' But all the time she was also making the lovely quilts of her own that she kept to use or to give as gifts to relatives and friends." 

Grace Snyder on her way
to vote for the first time.
April 20, 1920, women had just received the right to vote in Nebraska, and a 38-year-old Grace Snyder donned her best riding habit and rode nine miles northeast of the ranch to a one-room country schoolhouse to vote. 

It wasn't until after her two daughters had graduated high school and left home that Grace turned their bedroom into a sewing room and began to make what she would call her "show quilts."  

Detail, Petit Point Basket,
photographed by Stephanie Grace Whitson
The quilt I saw that long-ago day at the museum is perhaps the most famous. Created in 1942-43, Petit Point Basket is based on a china pattern.
Inspiration for Grace McCance Snyder's
Petit Point Basket Quilt
Author's collection
Eight of the over 85,000 tiny triangles sewn together create a quilt block about the size of a stamp.

In 1999, when Quilter's Newsletter Magazine asked 29 quilt experts to select the 100 best American quilts of the 20th Century, over half of them chose this quilt in the first round of nominations. The quilt is treasured by the Nebraska History Museum, and if you ever visit Lincoln, you can see it by opening the drawer of the special display case constructed to protect this national treasure from the ravages of dust and light. 

When she was 91, Grace asked to return to the ranch (from the house where she lived with a daughter in town) and ride a saddle horse again. She did it. She was 98 years old when she was inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame in 1980, and passed away quietly in her sleep at the age of 100. Her descendants still own the ranch where she and husband Bert put down roots. And they treasure the quilts she created.

See more of Grace McCance Snyder's show quilts here:  

Did you know about Grace McCance Snyder? Have you seen any of her quilts? What artifact or place makes you wonder about the past?


No Time On My Hands undoubtedly played a role in my becoming a novelist. Just as quiltmaking helped Grace McCance through a long, hard winter, quiltmaking provides an escape for Jane Prescott in The Key on the Quilt. Jane is serving a ten-year-sentence at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, even as she hides a startling secret. A caring physician will eventually help unravel the hidden meaning behind Jane's Courthouse Steps quilt.

The Key on the Quilt is only $2.99 as an ebook. 


  1. What a wonderful story! I confess that even though I love this blog on history, museums have not been my most favorite pastime. I think I need to change that and explore. I know that one item I have seen before is the mourning jewelry made of the deceased's hair. That custom is not one I would care to adopt, but I know it was a tradition.

    1. Museums strive to be more interactive now ... maybe give them another chance. Just FYI, hairwork wasn't always created with the hair of the deceased. Sometimes friends created these things, too. I saw a large one in St. Joseph, MO once that had a list of the friends who contributed hair to the project!

  2. Lovely post with amazing history about Grace McCane Snyder. The quilts are absolutely beautiful and intricate. The time that must of went into each one. The Key on the Quilt sounds like a great story.

    1. So glad you enjoyed hearing a little about Nebraska'a amazing quilter. Thanks for letting me know.

  3. Thank you for this interesting post. I did know about Grace before. The details about the quilt are amazing. I believe the book, No Time on My Hands, was the inspiration for the musical play, Quilters, which is one of my very favorite plays.

    1. Now that you mention it, I recall reading that the authors of that play did interview Mrs. Snyder.

  4. Wow! The detail is amazing....I am just starting to quilt and can't even imagine working with such tiny pieces. I have not heard of Grace, but certinaly will be looking to learn more and would love to visit the museum and see the quilt.

    1. It's fun to say hello to a new quilter. The thing I love most about the world of quilts is that there is a place for everyone no matter what they enjoy ... handwork, machine quilting, history, modern art, etc. etc. It's a terrific world to be part of IMHO. ENJOY! My best friendships came from the world of quilters. Hope you love it.