Hot Cotton and Hissing Irons —Remembering Noni


By Jessi SouzaMille Lacs Band Member

Some of my earliest memories are of my mom getting her sewing things together, Singer sewing machine tucked up under one arm, and her “good“ scissors in her sewing basket under the other. She'd head over to Grandma's house about 100 yards to the north. My family lived in four small HUD homes on a 40-acre plot of land east of Hinckley. There was a deeply worn path between our houses that we would follow many times each day. It was always a good day to smoke cigarettes and gossip over coffee. Or throw a quilt together.

My grandma would be ready for us and have her huge iron set up on her creaky, ancient ironing board. Music of some kind, usually old country or an old powwow record (Buffy Saint Marie was in heavy rotation), would play on her record player or radio and was often punctuated by the sharp hiss of her iron. The place was filled with the wonderful aroma of ironed cotton. It’s a distinctive smell that brings me instant relaxation. A large part of my sewing today is done to think about my mom and grandma as I make quilts, and to be lulled by the smell of freshly ironed cotton.

Mom and Noni would plan together, heads bent over a piece of scrap paper or the back of a bill envelope, trying to figure out how big the quilt pattern squares should be to make sure it was the size needed. There weren’t any set colors; they both worked off patterns in their heads. Plans depended more on what fabric they had on hand than elaborate design. Simple as that. Back then you didn’t go to Joanne’s for fabric at $16 a yard.

My Noni’s favorite type of quilt to make was a scrap quilt, sewn from the leftover scraps saved over decades. She had a box with old work shirts, outgrown kids’ dresses, and old coats. No strip was too small, no chunk too oddly shaped for her not to piece together into a crazy menagerie of warm, heavy goodness. She liked to call these “Tom T. Hall“ quilts, as she felt the country artist of that name wrote songs that had no discernible pattern or meaning. She loved how warm they were and how they made use of every bit of something. She was not a woman to waste anything.

Once they figured the design out, it was up to me or my sister to iron the scraps of fabric into a neat stack that we would then pass to Mom to cut into pieces and stack again near the sewing machines. Noni would be sewing at 100 mph, and then my sister would cut off the long line of sewn pieces, cut them apart, bring them over to me for ironing, and so on and so forth.

Before too long, we were spreading beautiful quilt blocks over her floor, so she and mom could have a cigarette break and look at it spread out, commenting on how it would look once finished while sipping yet another cup of steaming, black coffee. It was incredibly comforting as a kid, watching them talk and smoke as I danced around the blocks on her floor waiting on lunch to be done, with nothing to worry about but my belly.

The only time Noni would ask to have her picture taken was when she finished a quilt. She liked to hang it on the clothes line or the side of her house and proudly pose with it. Once that was over, it was usually neatly folded and given away to someone in the family. Oftentimes, she and mom would crank out a few block quilts to give to the drum group that Grandma sat on. She was not active with the group except in providing blankets for dances when needed. She enjoyed going to dances down at the village center at Lake Lena and was always proud to trade quilts for a dance.

Noni would sit and scope out the night, nodding to her friends around the drum, each woman cannily eyeing each other’s quilt designs and colors and perhaps planning then who to ask for a dance, in the hopes of snagging the quilts they liked in the return dance. Nothing escaped her notice.

On the ride home, she would sit with her new blankets on her lap, examining each for quality and durability, sometimes admiring the extra steps someone took to make it durable, sometimes clucking her tongue at shortcuts in the process. Her quilts were sought after, and for good reason. She made things to last and took her time.

I love the look of pride in her eyes as she stands next to her quilts, looking back at me from faded photos in our family albums. She was confident in her abilities and knew her own mind. If she liked something, she liked it, and did not care what others thought. That impressed me greatly as a kid. She was quiet in life but loved bright colors in her fabric medium.

I'll never forget working on my very first quilt all on my own. I was 17 and wanted to make a crazy scrap quilt like hers. I remember sewing and sewing in the summer heat and bringing it over to show her when it was done. She sat looking at it for the longest time, up close, spread over her table with her glasses pulled down on her nose so she could see the stitching. After a few minutes she declared it a “Job well done, Weezy“ and promptly followed me and mom outside to hang it over the line and get a picture. I still look back at that picture, and I see that I'm not looking at the camera. I'm looking at Noni as she stood behind mom, watching me proudly pose with my blanket.