One of my secret guilty pleasures is hand work, as in knitting and needlepoint. You’ll be forgiven if you’ve never seen me engage in this type of activity – it usually manifests itself in long lonely stretches like graduate school or overseas postings. I’m not particularly good at anything in particular, although truth be told I actually made and sold some cunningly crafted scarves at highly inflated prices thanks to the complementary hat crocheting skills of my friend Celia (this was in the pre-crash glory days of 2007; not sure that’s a repeatable event). Anyway, it has been a while since the last orgy of crafting creativity, so no one was more surprised than I when I said an enthusiastic “yes!” to my friend Barbara’s generous invitation to come out to her place in the country and to spend this past weekend….quilting.
Like with anything else, knowing the history of an item makes it all the more interesting to me – the sense of being a part of a long and and fascinating tradition – all the while getting to play with a room full of cool tools and natter away with a most thoughtful and interesting person. I’ve learned that quilting in Europe extends back at least to the glory days of the Crusades in the 12th century as battened fabric kept riders warm as they spent weeks on horseback en route to the Middle East. When the tradition made its way over to the Colonies in the 18th century, it was (to my surprise) only the most affluent households that had the expensive printed fabric (and more importantly, the leisure time) to engage in this kind of superfluous crafting; humbler families had to make use of woven or pressed wool coverlets with far less design. Quilts served as a way for a young woman to demonstrate her skills with a needle prior to her marriage and then to decorated her home after taking the vows.
Barb, a dear friend of long standing, comes by her interest naturally as the granddaughter of an Amish quilter. Amish quilts both reflect their social tradition and transcend it in subtle ways. While traditionally made only of sober and culturally approved solid colors in geometric shapes and patterns, the artisans have been able to use this constrained palette in strikingly ingenious ways. Here’s an example:
While not constrained to only this style, Barb has been at this endeavor for some years and has built up a lot of knowledge and expertise. She was invited to show one of her pieces in Ireland last year and has entered another in the State Fair this year. When she invited me out to try out this sport, I held no illusions that I would be able to come anywhere near level of beauty and intricacy that grace her home. That being said, I was intrigued by the chance to try something brand new under her guidance and to exercise a different part of my fevered brain after seven weeks of Advanced Grammar Pilates with my long-suffering summer school students.
After casting about for a sufficiently interesting (yet achievable) project for me, we decided on a doll quilt (aka cat quilt), a roughly 16″ by 20″ finished piece made up of a small selection of traditional colors and patterns that would give me a good sense of all the steps involved without sending me in search of a padded cell. This proved to be the perfect project – challenging without being overwhelming, requiring skill and concentration but not demanding perfection.
Barb’s physical layout is impressive. She’s got a whole room in the basement filled with finished projects, a ping pong table pressed into service as a work zone, loads and loads of fabric all arranged by color and size, a highly advanced industrial-strength quilter’s choice computerized sewing machine, gadgets of all sizes, shapes, and colors, books galore, you name it. I knew, however, that I was in the presence of a Jedi master when I caught sight of the Wall O’ Thread:
No excuses for missing buttons, that’s for sure.
You will, of course, not be shocked to learn that I chose a project that would help me alleviate my continuing bereavement over my Georgian cat (who appears to be doing remarkably well, from the thoughtful photos I get from her new family). In that spirit, I chose to use prints and colors that would reflect her beautiful diverse coat integrated with a black background which will match my wonderful Portland cat, Squeaky, who I was able to briefly visit last week. (I look forward to rejoining her in a month or so.) Barbara’s cats Smitty and Gracie approved of the project, so it was a go.
Making a quilt — even a smallish one with a fairly simple pattern – is quite the undertaking with numerous sharp tools and painstaking tasks. A little personal back story is needed here. Back in junior high and high school, I belonged to 4H (yes, true thing, actually entered cookies and aprons in county fairs) and even took sewing lessons. It was the predominant culture in the rural township where we were living, plus, my mother thought, a useful skill for the future. So thankfully I have old muscle memory experiences of ironing, measuring, cutting, pinning, stitching seams, ripping seams out, and so forth, which all came in handy (even if they had to be brought into the 21st century with HAL the “smarter than I’ll ever be” sewing computer). Here’s a shot of me throwing caution to the winds and actually QUILTING (putting a thread pattern on the pieced fabrics) under Barb’s watchful eye:
Now, I should add that I certainly was not locked in the cellar and deprived of all creature comfort for 48 hours in service to the arts. Barb and her delightful spouse plied me with wonderful meals, engaged me thoughtful conversations, and hosted me in the most comfortable room and sleeping climate (Cool breezes! Pillowtop mattress! No 24/7 traffic drone!) that I’ve enjoyed in many a moon. I’m just focusing on the quilting bit as a way of telling the story.
So Sunday afternoon, after two pretty serious days of work, I finished up my little project with not a small amount of accomplishment. Here’s the tired-but-proud quilter:
…and a close-up of just the piece itself, complete with the feline-approved print on the backside:
Well, who’d a thunk it? Now plans are afoot to include two other friends in a bigger and better quilting frenzy next summer. I’m so grateful to Barb for her generosity and expertise and for the invitation into this wildly different world than my normal academic and computer-based environs. Now I’m interested in exploring more fabric-inspired projects as a way of engaging brain and hands. (As Rachel would say, watch this space).