“Handcrafts belong to an earlier world, the slower pace of preindustrial life where one had the leisure to sink deeply and profoundly into the rhythms of nature within and without and to feel a connection with the earth as a living spiritual entity.[…]
“Self-expression, whether individual or tribal, religious or secular, is to my mind one of the most beautiful impulses that we humans possess. We look at our brief time here on earth; we perceive our inconsequentiality in a vast universe of planets and stars; we know our connectedness to our ancestors and descendants and feel our mortality as we pass along the eternal continuum of time; and yet we still want others to know who we were, how we lived, that we were here and saw and felt and knew beauty.The pioneer women with lives of endless work, half buried underground in sod houses on the prairies, often without trees or neighbors for company, fashioned quilts out of pieces of cloth, which might have been the only color they saw for months on end.[…]
“And now, when, with each piece of handwork I do, I connect with the centuries of women who cultivated their inner lives and expressed them through the humble works of their hands.” The Knitting Sutra—Craft as a Spiritual Practice by Susan Gordon Lydon.
As I went on my search for the stitch work of my fore mothers, I was happy to find out that there were quilters in my family. I am sad to think that I may not find any examples of their work.
Not knowing I had this heritage, when I was a young adult I became interested in making quilts. The first quilt I ever made I gave away to my boyfriend to take to college the summer after my senior year in high school. I made it from fabric scraps left over from articles of clothing that I or my mother had made for me during high school. There was a shiny light blue piece from the dress my mother made for a dance my junior year. A pastel yellow fabric with tiny pink rosebuds that was made into my senior prom dress was also in the quilt. In many ways it was a quilt of memories.
I cut little 4-inch squares out of the fabrics and created 3 by 3 larger panels with a loose repeated design (the four corners and the center square within the nine-square panels matched, the remaining four squares in the panel were somewhat random). I backed the quilt with a soft flannel and tied the layers together with yarn knots at the large panels’ corners. I remember sitting in my parents’ family room and sewing it together.
My boyfriend loved the quilt, used it at school, and really cherished it for a while, until we broke up at the end of our junior year in college. The quilt, if it still exists, is probably stained and crumpled in the corner of a garage or basement somewhere. I should have kept it.
The second quilt I made, I also gave away. When I found out that my boyfriend’s older brother and his wife were expecting a baby, I bought yellow gingham and while muslin and fashioned it into a quilt. I think the squares were probably about 6 inches. I drew little designs on the white muslin: an alphabet block, a teddy bear, a duck, among others. I embroidered the designs onto the fabric. My boyfriend and I broke up before the quilt was finished or the baby was born, but I finished it anyway and delivered it. It was the first and only time I saw the child, and the last time I saw the quilt.
The third quilt that I made was more functional than sentimental or aesthetic. I had just moved to Cincinnati and started a job and I decided I wanted a blanket for picnics. So I bought four pieces of fabric: a floral pattern, and three solids in the colors of cream, rust, and brown. I made large panels out of the pieces of fabrics and just sewed them together. Thirty-three years later, it is now torn and stained in the back of Mark’s truck. It has been used for romantic picnics early in my relationship with Mark; for small family picnics when I’d take our firstborn son to meet Mark for lunch; for baseball games, Fourth-of July fireworks, and days at the beach.
I’ve always thought I would like to make a “real” quilt from a pattern. I don’t know if that will ever happen. I would also like to make a crazy quilt, which may be more likely to happen. A couple of years ago my daughter Anna helped me make a quilt for my new grandson. Several years earlier I had found a picture of a dragon quilt pattern online and bookmarked the page, anticipating I might want to make it when my oldest son, who loves dragons, had a child. When I tried to go back and buy the pattern, it was gone, offline, kaput. But I still had a small picture of it I had saved. So using Adobe Illustrator, I traced the picture, enlarged it, and printed patterns from it. Anna helped me shop for fabrics and sew it.
I have embroidered pictures hanging on my walls, although again, most of what I made I’ve given away. I have simple crocheted shawls in the closet. I sewed outfits for myself, and my children, including many costumes. I have dresses I made for Anna and boxes of scraps of fabric and bits of ribbons and lace that I can’t bear to part with. And like my Grandma Smith, I have unfinished needlework projects stuffed into cupboards.
I’ve made things because I needed them, and I’ve made things because I wanted to create something beautiful or meaningful. I have my mothers before me to thank for my ability to do this. I am proud of the simple, big-hearted, talented and creative women who came before me, and those who may follow.
See The Stitches We Leave Behind under the Series tab above for more links in this 10-part series.