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

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

5. Threads

The quilt pictured here (shown at the end of its usable life) is a complete mystery to my current self; I can't remember why I felt the need to apply the seam binding that now hangs off the central seams. Decoration? Camouflage for mistakes? Our great-Aunt Helen's green silk pants live on in shreds and tatters, revealing a “first” in this quilt: a polyester batting accompanied by actual hand quilting. My way of working still linked me to generations of imperfect quiltmakers before me who made up their own rules as needed. The hand quilting and the rail-fence border finally connected this quilt to the first one I ever saw.

Thus far, though I have talked about mistakes, I haven't been talking about struggling through a mistake-making process that can lead to personal growth. I've been describing the one place in my life that was free of struggle, full of bad sewing and great joy. Nothing was at stake, so if I did something less than perfectly, I could easily finish the project and move on, knowing I'd do better the next time around. But this unnamed quilt is possibly the last I made in a truly un-self-conscious way. There's a sadness in that for me, as I now realize that becoming more sophisticated in my working methods meant thinking more, and thinking more carried the danger of feeling less as I created. Making a quilt is a process of joining disparate elements into a unified whole. The more I made quilts, the more I felt that quilting was one of the elements that would make me whole. That made them important. Now there was something at stake. One thread had ended, and another was about to begin.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

4. Quilter + nursery school = House on a Hill

Unencumbered by batting, I proceeded to make a third quilt, unwittingly beginning work on a “series” as I made the first of several window coverings completed over the years. My older son had come home from nursery school excited to show me how he and his classmates had been sprinkling grated crayons on paper and ironing them to form colorful designs. Well! I had crayons. I had old sheets. I had a playroom window without a curtain. I had a picture in a magazine of a house on a hill. These ingredients came together in the hand- and machine-appliqué curtain shown. Themes that have endured through my quilting years had already begun to emerge in this third effort: a combination of hand and machine work when the handwork became too tedious or too slow; use of fabrics other than cotton; and a “binding” made from the kind of “shiny” fabric that was more commonly used on edges of blankets. I would prefer to think of the recurring themes as my way of repeating what worked, but it wasn't so much that these things worked particularly well as that they were the only solutions I had as yet devised. In hindsight, I realize that I loved solving problems as much as I loved sewing, and I kept trying to find new ways to use my solutions. Which often led to new problems. Which was GREAT because it gave me new chances to solve them. I now realize that I was making progress and was learning for myself (the hard way, aka the way I learn everything!) the reasons why legions of quilters before me had chosen some processes and materials over others.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

3. The Coverlet Quilt

Before I made my second quilt, we had had a second child, and I was working at home as a typist while my husband pursued his Ph.D. in English and American Literature. As you might imagine, we had precious little money, so hobbies that depended on recycling old clothing were okay by me. By that time I had seen my first quilting magazine, which contained two bits of valuable information that led to this quilt: first, a picture of the “starburst” pattern block, and second, a nugget of text stating that if the quilt didn't include batting, it was called a “coverlet” quilt. Aha...quilts didn't always have batting: here was a way to deal with the fact that I didn't know what batting was or how to get it into my quilt and keep it there through the washing process. I chose the eight-pointed starburst block to use up various pieces of my husband's shirts and pants, along with other collected fabric odds and ends. At the time, I used my best judgment—flawed, as it turned out—to sew each diamond-shaped patch to the next, sewing the eighth patch to the first when I had come round to the beginning again. This method yielded a star-shaped volcano with a hole in the center. I persisted in block after block, thinking that as I got better they would flatten out and the center holes would get smaller. Apparently I didn't get that much better, because the holes didn't get smaller. Yet I progressed: the situation led me to do my very first hand appliqué and to use my very first batting, as I plunked down a cotton ball in the center of each star and hand-sewed a fabric circle in place to cover the (w)hole mess.

Friday, February 16, 2007

2. Beginnings

Looking back, I see that I never could have resisted the siren call of fabric. Though there were no hand-made quilts and no quilting grandmothers in my childhood, fabric images figure largely in early memories: I can still see in my three-year-old mind's eye a dress with pink rosebuds and green leaves, with green velvet ribbon around my waist. In first grade there was a red/blue pleated wool skirt my mother made me, and then the white cotton voile of my first communion dress, later dyed a robin's egg blue. With warm weather came a pink plaid seersucker skirt and blouse, and a white piqué sundress with green pea pods printed on it. Winter nights featured a purple satin puff that wrapped around my brothers and me as we watched t.v. in the dark...I could go on and on.

All these memories and associations were there to be invoked when, as a second-year college student, I was awed by the quilt my friend's mother had made for him when he was about 13 years old. She had since died, but he had brought this treasured possession to college with him. Instantly captivated by its multiple small strips of fabric and its tiny stitches, I didn't realize at the time that I had just seen my first hand-quilted rail fence patchwork. I didn't realize at the time that I had just seen my future.

A chord had been struck, and it echoed when I had my first son in 1974. While I'd always loved working with my hands, every craft had served up its limitations—or mine. I had knitted sweaters and not gotten around to the arms. I had completed one motif out of four on an embroidered tablecloth, and a few flowers out of many on a crewel bouquet. As a young wife I'd made a ripple stitch afghan that rippled in ways entirely foreign to the intentions of the pattern writer, and I'd completed a crocheted sweater for my husband that fitted him—and restricted his motion—like a suit of armor; it was probably bulletproof. And though I enthusiastically made many of my clothes, I began to think it wasn't a good thing that people always asked, “Did you make that?”

Now I had a perfect little son, and he deserved a perfect quilt that would be as treasured as my friend's. As it turned out, I'm the one who treasures that first quilt, the more so because it may well be the most imperfect quilt I've ever made and is certainly one of the richest in the lessons it taught me. As I travel to give trunk show/lectures about my quilts, this is the one that people remember—never mind that I've made national award-winners since. This is my “calling card.”

Pictured here is the first quilt of a person who simply took the plunge into a craft about which she knew nothing. I had sewn before and I had seen one quilt: that was the extent of my credentials. Jumping in feet first is an excellent strategy if you want to learn a lot, learn it fast, and are willing to sacrifice quality. This quilt started its life as a rectangle made of patchwork squares. As you can see from the picture, that configuration did not endure. Lesson 1 was learned at the first washing: cotton shrinks maybe a little, poly/cotton blends shrink not at all, but wool really shrinks a lot. And that wasn't the only lesson I learned, only the most obvious.

I knew that quilts were used like blankets, so they had to be warm. I had gleaned that layers were involved but didn't really understand how to accomplish that. I wanted it to be warm for my little son, though, and believe me, it was: the inside layer of that first quilt is a navy-blue pin-dot quilted bathrobe that I had cut up. Sandwiched between the patchwork top and an old light green sheet, it did the trick. Blanket binding finished the job. This quilt includes fabrics that my very first junior high school students brought me when they discovered I liked to sew, as well as fabrics from maternity dresses I made. For all of its mistakes, I doubt that I could ever bear to throw it away. It brings a smile to my face as it tells of a quilter that was a little “off.” Off and running.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

1. Why quilts?

But to begin at the beginning, why this blog?

Shortly after my second son was born, I took back my own last name. At the time, my husband was pursuing a Ph.D.; I was a housewife, young mother of two, former English teacher, and part-time wage earner who really needed to figure out what her life was going to be about. My symbolic name-retrieval—and all the thoughts leading up to it—marked the end of a time when I had all the answers and the beginning of an era of asking the right questions. I had set in motion changes which ultimately led to a career in quiltmaking. Now that I am in my fifth decade and have found some answers (this time unaccompanied by the arrogance of my youth), I've also learned that I can share my “wisdom” only with people who want to hear it. I am writing so that those people can find what I have to offer: comfort and company along the way.

This blog will tell the story of how I became a professional quiltmaker. I have achieved neither artistic nor financial stardom. As far as I know, parents do not usually cradle their infants while murmuring hopes that their young offspring will some day become quiltmakers. Yet though I can imagine living many different lives, this path I've wandered onto rewards me well, allowing me to work with mind and hands together, feeling fulfilled without ever being bored. I've arrived at a pretty sweet spot and can tell you what the rewards and trade-offs have been. When I began a journey to discover what my life's contributions could possibly be, there were books (Jean Ray Laury's Getting It All Together at Home, Anne Truitt's Daybook, Madeleine L'Engle's Circle of Quiet come to mind) which helped me think things through, even though I had to find my own answers. Now I can offer a chronicle of how an ordinary person with ordinary talents and foibles gets to live in an extraordinarily lucky way, making objects which I hope are more beautiful than ugly, which travel farther and wider than I ever could, and which in all probability will outlast me. It is a story told in words and in quilts, and while the quilts always have an element of line, the story is not so linear. It turns out that I have made quilts not to express myself, but to learn who I am. While making a living, I have made myself a life.