Black Cat Crazy Quilt fragment by Nell Breyton of Edwards, Saint Lawrence, New York

Three Black Cats – by Bill Volckening

Black Cat Crazy Quilt fragment by Nell Breyton of Edwards, Saint Lawrence, New York

Quilter’s signature – Nell Breyton of Edwards, Saint Lawrence, New York

Sometimes a quilt can touch our lives, even when made by an unrelated person over 100 years ago. Nell Breyton of Edwards, Saint Lawrence, New York, must have lived on a farm. Her wonderful cotton crazy quilt, which is technically a tied comforter, includes depictions of animals. It is backed with Red Feather scratch feed sacks from R.H. McEwen Milling Co., of nearby Ogdensburg.

The quilt was made with cotton fabrics, and was probably made toward the end of the Victorian crazy quilt period, around the turn of the century or in the first quarter of the 20th century. It includes a wide variety of brightly colored print fabrics, and is done in blocks. The backing has traces of ink showing through where the Red Feather logo appears on the underside of the fabric. The same coral colored fabric is brought from back to front for the binding.

Nell Breyton surely had special affection for the wide-eyed black cat at the center of the quilt, and so did I. The cat looked just like my cat Boo. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Boo, back in 1997. Her name was Sammy, and she was so shy, she hid her face as I cradled her. She would often appear with a surprised expression, and because of that, her name gradually evolved from Sammy to Boo.

Bill Volckening - Boo

Boo, Bill’s pet of many years, when she took a turn for the worse: “Nell’s quilt comforted both of us.”

In recent years, Boo hadn’t been wearing that surprised expression as much. She was having medical issues, seizures triggered by sound. Her medication had a calming effect, and during this period Boo became much more affectionate. She was always by my side. I realized she wouldn’t be around forever, and that was what made the quilt so attractive. It would be a way to remember her when she was gone.

Most of the time, Nell’s quilt was stashed away on the top shelf in my bedroom closet, but I brought it out again on January 7th. That was the day I finally had to say goodbye to little Boo. The poor cat had taken a turn for the worse over the weekend, and I wanted to know she had touched the quilt before we said goodbye. Nell’s quilt comforted both of us.

Bill Volckening - Lulu

Lulu, Bill’s new arrival: “With a face like that, I could never be upset with her.”

A few days passed, and I was very lonely, so I went to a local cat shelter to see if there was a special cat in need of a good home. There was. Although I’d heard black cats were the ones people least wanted to adopt, I didn’t necessarily set out to get another black cat. It just happened that way.

When I was making my way around to visit all the cats, I said hello to each one. Some spoke back. One cat, a beautiful, sleek, 9-month-old named Loana, had a whole conversation with me. She looked very much like Boo, and also the cat from Nell’s quilt. It was love at first sight, and I decided to call her Lulu. After getting to know her, she’s definitely a Lulu! When I catch her climbing the bookshelves or napping on top of a stack of quilts, she’s got the same wide-eyed expression. With a face like that, I could never be upset with her.

In quilting circles, people sometimes say, “quilts are cat magnets,” and it’s true. Quilts and cats have a lot in common. They are soft, warm, and comforting. Nell Breyton forever memorialized her cat with the quilt, but she did something even more remarkable. She captured the expression of the cat so beautifully the quilt would forever remind other people of their own cats. Lulu hasn’t seen Nell’s quilt yet, but she will when she’s all grown up.

Black Cat Crazy Quilt by Nell Breyton of Edwards, Saint Lawrence, New York

Black Cat Crazy Quilt by Nell Breyton of Edwards, Saint Lawrence, New York.
Collection of Bill Volckening.


Bill Volckening
Portland, Oregon

…and More Quilts and Black Cats!

Want more?  Check out this quilt photos, and read the story behind it on Bill’s blog.


Photography on this post courtesy of Bill Volckening.




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