Making the Most (of) Mistakes

My life as a quiltmaker (for chronological order, read oldest post to newest)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

52. Baby quilts

I began this account of my working life with one baby quilt, and I'll end with two. Now there's progress for you!

Here are the two quilts I made for my two incredibly precious granddaughters, cousins born just four months apart. Now there's togetherness for you!

I carved linoleum blocks with flower and leaf motifs and used them with fabric paints to stamp the central design of the quilts. There is a stray flower on the "June" quilt, where I accidentally dropped one of the inked blocks. Now there's a mistake for you!

I 've told the stories I needed to tell of my quilting life from then to now. How do I wrap it all up? No need to summarize--enough said. Now, at long last, there's brevity for you!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

51. ForestTree

The simple act of sewing pieces of fabric together has yielded many complicated projects--and also many moments when the effort/result equation just doesn't seem to balance and I know I can't sustain the attention required to finish. Throwing away such labor-intensive samples is too painful, so I live with the stored scrap piles that result. Flotsam and jetsam from at least three of those projects unite here in ForestTree.

I had been pulling out some old bits and pieces to make a few pillows for a quick sale, when three separate "false starts" just fell serendipitously near each other onto my floor, and I saw how the gray strips, green curvy triangles, and pieced leaves from long-forgotten projects could work together. The act of beginning to work had offered up a quick and satisfying solution to a problem I didn't know I had been considering (after only hours and hours of failed efforts on the original components, but who's counting?).

The edge treatment was unusual for me: I left the lower edge uneven and unfinished, following the forms of the "trees," the white batting defining the bottom edge of the piece. That's what felt right, and it was satisfying to create something that had a feeling of rightness about it. When all is said and done, that's what I'd like to continue to do. Seems simple enough, but it is just as difficult as it has ever been. The distractions of life pile up. There's a planet to save. People to care for. Rejections to withstand. The occasional success. Physical limitations. When I began to write these blog entries, I said that I'd arrived at a sweet spot. Now I'd revise that to "bittersweet"; all this revisiting of my past work has unearthed a complicated feeling of nostalgia, which encompasses loss as well as gain. I used to think about things and then do them. Now I think about things, do them, and then think about having done them. I am less sure about the results, but more content to trust the process. My own edges are unfinished, occasionally threatening to unravel. There's much more chance and much less control in life than I'd like sometimes, but there is that feeling of rightness to keep me going.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

50. Wishing Well Quilt

"I wouldn't want this quilt, not my colors." So said one of the passersby to whom I was trying to sell raffle tickets for this quilt. Others bought the tickets only after telling me they cared about the cause, if not the quilt. It was yet another reminder that the objects which have been an inordinately important part of my life do not have the same significance to all people. But this particular work at least had the potential to do a bit of good. It was made--with help from my guild members--to call attention to the terrible events happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. My nephew is one of the many Americans serving in Iraq, and though I fervently hope he returns unscathed, war will always leave its mark. Funds raised by this quilt were donated to the Wounded Warrior Project, to take care of returning soldiers.

Ten t-shirts shirts, representing all branches of the military, were ordered from the "Take Pride" website to form the building blocks of this quilt. When first opening the package, it was impossible to imagine how I would ever work them into one quilt--fuschia with brown with red, white, and blue? Providentially, some of the decorator sample fabrics I'd been given just happened to include multiple colorways of beautifully embroidered designs which helped enormously with the job of coordinating and taming the riot of color. The rest of the quilt's story fell into place, and I fervently hope that some day the events about which it reminds us will be resolved as well.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

49. Suedecloth quilt

Life really can turn on a dime. Making quilts suddenly seemed a bit irrelevant when my younger brother suffered a stroke. It was immediately clear that he would never return to his job, and it gradually became clear that he would be living alone, an hour and a half away from where I live, with limited resources and limited abilities.

While he was still in rehab, I got a phone call from an interior decorator in my town who was moving across the country and wanted to know whether I had any use for hundreds of sample fabrics, beautiful silks and cottons, embroidered textiles of all kinds, wonderful colors...a real treasure trove for someone like me. All the fabrics were bound in sample books and would need to be cut out of them; paper labels and identification stickers would also have to be removed. Many hours would be needed to prepare them for use.

My brother had more hours than he knew what to do with as he sat alone in his apartment trying to come to grips with his life. So my work became relevant in a new way. Every week when I'd visit, I'd bring a batch of sample fabrics and take home the ones he'd cut apart. The repetitive action of cutting fabrics apart was soothing to him in the same way that the repetition of the quilting stitch is for me, a meditation of sorts. Spring-loaded scissors assisted him, as his stroke-affected hand could do no more than hold the fabric, while his less dominant hand did the cutting. Then I introduced him to the rotary cutter, and he would cut free-hand curves after selecting two fabrics and stacking them on top of each other; I would take the results home, stitch the curved pieces together, and then return them to him so he could stack them again and cut more curves. Finally, in an effort to keep things interesting, I brought out an extra sewing machine, which he learned to use despite being essentially one-handed. He could sew basic shapes together; as long as we allowed a lot of "leeway" in the seam allowance, I could trim the excess later.

He was smart enough to know that if I had to trim all the pieces he cut for me, he wasn't being much of a help. Since he really cared about doing useful work, I wanted to make some quilts in which I didn't have to do anything to the pieces he gave me other than put them up on a design wall and sew them together. The quilt pictured here is one of the results of that process; after the pieces had been arranged, they were top-stitched onto a batting and backing. It was a novel way for me to work, and we both appreciated the results.

During these visits my brother and I reconnected in a way we hadn't since childhood, reminding each other of events long-forgotten and talking about things that were important to us, as though we had all the time in the world. It turned out that he didn't have all that much time: barely enough to make a few quilts and pillows, but more than enough to create memories that will be with me always.

48. LocoMotif 2

All these years of using fabric, and I still have as much as ever--like loaves and fishes, or coat hangers that multiply in closets. But the determination to make good use of my collection remains strong, and the impulse to bring things together that were never meant to be juxtaposed is more appealing than ever. Fortunately, the number of ways I can manipulate fabric has also multiplied over the years.

The piece shown here is the second of two based on my photograph of an old locomotive up in Lowell, Massachusetts (see entry #25). This time I began by printing the photo on fabric. Then I edited the photo with a few computerized filters, and printed those out, cutting them up so I could use a bit here or there. Going through my fabric collection let me find anything that remotely suggested a theme of train, wheel, machine, gear, track, or passenger. Fabric markers, trims, and embroidery floss made it possible to create new fabrics out of old. Working intuitively in choosing and creating the fabrics, I found myself summoning analytical, persnickety editing skills when it came to positioning those fabrics. That turned out to be a good combination for me, although I spent way too long creating the composition. Or maybe I spent exactly the right amount of time, but was horrified at how much that was! This process doesn't get easier, because each new piece, with its own requirements and unique challenges. Drat.

After I had completed the piece, the New England Quilt Museum sent out a call for entries for an exhibit centering on the city of Lowell; the decision to enter was a no-brainer, given that the subject of the piece was a Lowell landmark. It was accepted and hung in the show. There was a fairy-tale ending for LocoMotif 2: a dear friend bought it for her husband. I just love it when that happens!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

47. Capital T

Sometimes I get stuck. Not because there aren't enough ideas, but because there are so many that my head starts spinning and I don't know what to focus on. At those times retracing my steps a bit and going back to some unfinished work can give me a starting point. This was such a piece: begun in enthusiasm, abandoned in frustration, and reclaimed in time.

Years earlier while on a studio retreat, a small dyed/photoexposed piece of fabric featuring a repeated capital "T" in a beautiful script had inspired me; in a trance-like state with no distractions, I grabbed a background fabric and a handful of other fabrics which were shot through with shimmery metallic threads. Unhesitatingly I frayed the edges of the small squares I had cut, remembering my mother fringing the edges of checkered fabric to make a tablecloth. I was left with a pile of glitzy fuzzy fibers when I was done. All to the good: I dropped the fibers onto the central "T" piece and massaged them gently into place in the corners. I lined up the squares and stitched everything down. The whole process took very little time; I worked without thinking. But when I returned home, the easy state of mind left behind, I folded the piece up and stored it for later.

Much later: when I decided to enter the members' show of our local Arts Museum but had nothing ready, I dug the piece out from my piles of unfinished stuff and felt I was back where I belonged. Somehow in the interim I had figured out how to finish it; cutting bamboo pieces from my garden and grabbing ribbons off my shelf, I prepared it for hanging. I entered the show, received an award of merit, and sold it to someone whose name began with "T." I was back in the saddle again, and it had felt practically effortless. It was play. And when it's play, things always work.

46. Rug wool

These aren't quilts. They are made of tougher stuff than the lightweight cottons I often use, and they are made to withstand foot traffic, chair legs, or hot mugs of coffee on tables. The materials here hail from the wool clothing of previous generations. A motley collection of colors, a bit of order imposed by the maker, stitching: they are enough like quilts to satisfy me.

In making "East Meets West" with family linens and laces, I had begun to connect present with past. Looking through all of the old textiles I inherited because no one else wanted them, I felt I understood at least something about all those people who took the time to work these fancy fabrics, because I too have spent so many meditative hours making things that are unnecessarily time-consuming and elaborate.

My mother-in-law's mother was one of those people. She made incredible braided rugs, and when she died she left behind many bags of wool strips, beautifully cut, folded, stuffed and sewn, all prepared to be braided. My husband thought he might use them to make a rug some day. Although that may still happen, in the meantime I've snagged some of the wool. It's not in me to braid rugs by hand the way she did. But it's fabric, and I think it's clear by now that I have a really strong impulse towards recycling "good stuff" and a really good sewing machine that can easily zig-zag wool strips together. My "grandmother-in-law" spent lots of hours cutting up the usable parts of old clothing--been there myself!--and preparing it for a second life. I could neither duplicate nor throw away her efforts, and rugs like these--or table mats, chair cushions, and coasters--have been a happy diversion and a way to add a new chapter to the story and new life to old memories.