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

Friday, January 25, 2008

33. Memory quilts

New ideas in curved piecing, ever-increasing numbers of students, and travels throughout New England doing "trunk" shows and workshops for quilt guilds: these were exciting times for the artist in me. And yet just at this time, my commission work gradually began to shift away from art in the usual sense. The change began when one day a woman called, asking if I could make her a quilt from the shirts, ties, and pants of a husband who had died quite suddenly. The quilt would be used by the infant he had left behind. I don't have a picture of this quilt, and while I can't recall its details, I do remember listening very carefully as she told me what she wanted. I made a traditional quilt of squares, a quiet quilt of subtle colors. I remember a powerful feeling of having to get this right. I remember that it packed an emotional wallop for the woman who commissioned it. I remember wondering whether I would want to be reminded so poignantly of someone who was missing.

Then, I got another call. This time it was about a father's neckties and a daughter who wanted very much to be reminded. A few months later, a wife commissioned memory quilts for herself and her grown children. And little by little, I found myself not only commemorating graduations and special birthdays by making t-shirt quilts, but meeting with people who, having lost loved ones, were faced with clothing that was too difficult to part with and yet had to be dealt with somehow. While explaining to me what they wanted to keep from these piles of lived-in fabrics, they were also giving voice to their grief as they told stories of the person who had lived in them. All of these quilts ultimately spoke volumes to their owners; all told stories with neckties or sweatshirts, denim or polyester doubleknits. Gradually I have realized what a privilege it is to help tell these stories, each one unique and precious beyond any visual or tactile measure.

Now I have come to appreciate the full impact of the lesson learned from "Bobby's" quilt (see blog entry #17), because I must truly listen for the details when telling a story that is not mine. Word of mouth continues to bring such work my way, and I celebrate the fact that my quilting life has given me a calling as well as a career.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

32. Millennium Crazy: Why 2K?

As the twentieth century was coming to an end, more than a few somebodies in the quilting world issued a challenge: to make a quilt which would include 2000 different fabrics. Hundreds were begun and many were finished, including my offering shown here, an homage to the crazy quilts of old using a method that would have been all-but-impossible without today's sewing machines and rotary cutters. Made with a curved piecing technique, it was designed improvisationally, as I simultaneously "drew" and cut lines, often across seams which would have unraveled if sewn by hand. No two blocks are identical.

I thought I'd have no trouble finding 2000 different fabrics on my shelves, but my stash was less extravagant than I'd thought. Happily, my fabric shortage turned into a blessing as I begged from friends and used fabrics from my own and loved one's pasts. This is a nice way of saying I was ready to pounce upon any friend who was wearing a shirt I liked. There is even a bit of a "mother of the bride" dress from one friend. The result is "Millennium Crazy (Why 2K?)", which celebrates 2000 (the year I turned fifty) by including fabrics from each decade of my life since 1950.

If you were to look at only one--any one--of the squares that make up this quilt, you would notice (1) no fabric has been used more than once within the square, and (2) the square itself is unattractive (to put it kindly). I began the quilt with the idea of constructing one set of blocks from the center out (making them "flower"-like) and another set which would include leaf-like shapes. It quickly became clear that I would have to use lights and darks carefully so that the intended shapes could be seen. There was such a cacophany of fabrics that the quilt needed clear organizing principles or it would look as much of a mess as a lone block does. The quilt is interesting to me because it uses so many fabrics, but its success lies in the organization and repetition of shapes and values, if not fabrics.

And speaking of repetition of fabric...I had developed a careful system for counting the fabrics I had used and moving them to a different place after use, and I was able to follow the "rule" for making a millennium challenge quilt because of that system plus a very good memory for fabrics--very good, but not perfect. When the quilt was nearly finished, I noticed a fabric that had been used twice. And then another. Really searching now, I found one more--and stopped looking. My own personal rule says "never rip apart if you can fix it any other way". In this case, the other way was simple: change the rule I was following. So, my quilt may be the only millennium challenge in which there are at least 2000 fabrics used only once, with a bunch of extra pieces added "just in case" of an undiscovered repetition. It would make an interesting challenge to find the duplicates, though you'd have to be as crazy as the quilt to want to count them.

This one-of-a-kind crazy celebration was published in the 2003 Quilt Art Engagement Calendar. Even more important, the process of making it restored excitement and anticipation to my quiltmaking, prompting loads of ideas for exploring this technique of simultaneously drawing and cutting fabric and bypassing the template entirely. A new series was launched along with the new century.