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

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!