First of all, let me share news of a dream come true: I did, indeed, finish the quilt profiled in my February 4, 2014 post, the one I started in 2003 or 2004. I put in the last stitch just before the equinox and before the weather really turns cold. It is really a pleasure to have a new quilt to sleep under now–and later, too, when the furnace goes on for the duration. As promised, here is a little photographic proof. I dream under quilts every night, and when I am not actively working on a quilting project I dream of doing so. (If you scroll to the end of this post, you’ll see how I organize my dreams in three-ring binders. Since I do every stitch by hand, I would need to be hale and hearty for another thousand years to make every quilt I imagine I shall, and yet, the dream of new projects never dies.
I have also been thinking about what quilts symbolize these past few months. I respond not only to the sheer graphic and tactile nature of quilts but also to the romance of their history, the poetry of their names, and the satisfying, puzzle-solving aspect of cutting out pieces and making them work. Here is a photo from my office. It was taken about the time I started the above quilt, and the border of the frame echoes for me the appeal of quilts.
I think we all want to get it — life — figured out, to recognize satisfying patterns. As far as that goes, of course, it is a bit of a mirage or at best a moving target. Figure out one conundrum and another one pops up. Finish one quilt and (as with that mythical beast, the Hydra) another dozen projects rise up and ask for attention.
The poet in me enjoys the names of quilt patterns, and the novelist is intrigued by the stories implicit in the names, in the lives of those who imagined and made the quilts, and those who lived and died depending upon them. Today, I thought of the names of the quilt patterns I have already made. Here is a partial list:
Postage Stamp Baskets
Moon and Stars
Santa Fe Fiesta Plate
A Walk Through the Woods
Many people share an interest in the literary possibilities of quilts. At the lofty end (quilt-batting pun intended!) is a work of high literary merit: Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, a novel I read and have written about.
This work, published in 1996 and short-listed for the Booker Prize, is a work of fiction that uses a patchwork of narrative techniques to applique speculative fiction on top of historical fact to (re)create the mystery surrounding a double murder in Canada in 1843. As those of you who have read it will recall, Atwood very effectively uses the names of fifteen different quilt patterns as chapter titles. The action moves (perhaps in part ironically) through “Jagged Edge” and “Rocky Road” to “Young Man’s Fancy” and “Secret Drawer” to culminate in “Tree of Paradise.” Atwood is a poet of great skill as well as an internationally acclaimed novelist. She makes the most of the poetry, mystery, and history of these anonymous, collective, evocative folk art terms as she structures her beautiful, bleak, and demanding fiction. (If you are interested in scholarship on the quilting motif in Atwood’s work, look here.)
Not in the mood for the bleak and demanding, however beautiful the rewards? You might enjoy the series of “cozy” mysteries. Some years ago, I bought a number of paperbacks at a quilting shop that has since closed, and I still enjoy the fine storytelling of Earlene Fowler and her Benni Harper mysteries. This amateur sleuth was raised on a California ranch and remains close to her father and grandmother who still work the ranch, while she has become an arts adminstrator in the nearby fictional town of San Celina (modeled on San Luis Obispo–much as my fictional Sundog, Minnesota is modeled on my home of Northfield.) The intrepid Benni specializes in folk arts; her grandmother, Dove, is a skillful quilter and belongs to a group of quilters; and Benni’s husband is the chief of police. I have enjoyed all of the first thirteen, and look forward to reading the last soon. Fowler is gifted in plotting and sense of place, as well as secondary characters. She also makes the skillful links between novels that allow the characters to grow and change, to create an abiding sense of a real world. The sixth installment, Mariner’s Compass, won the 1999 Agatha Award for Best Novel.
The titles include:
Goose in the Pond
Dove in the Window
Steps to the Altar
Sunshine and Shadow
I haven’t yet read the last two. There is also a companion volume to the series called Benni Harper’s Quilt Album which Fowler co-authored with quilter Margrit Hall. I haven’t seen it yet, but it contains photos and patterns of quilts, as well as bonus material on the characters, plot points, and places of the world of San Celina. I imagine it to be like Brunetti’s Venice by Donna Leon, but more graphically interesting.
Naturally, the most riveting reading in my quilting world are books about how to construct these flat-but-three-dimensional, practical show ponies.
Above you see the inspiration for dreams and future projects. I am planning to make a few wall hangings for myself in these crisp fall days, and then begin cutting out a special quilt for Julia’s college dorm room. It is less than two years until she will need it, and so I will have to work five times as fast as I did on this last one! I am looking forward to the challenges of speed and also of design, as she has requested an Amish pattern. Although I have long admired their designs, once bought a small quilt from an Amish farm in Wisconsin, and had several pieced quilt tops “fostered” out to Amish women for quilting, I have never made anything with all solid colors. It will be interesting to see how I do without the siren’s song of pattern to keep me awake.
Have you slept and dreamed under a favorite quilt or tried your hand at a quilted puzzle?
Later this fall, I plan to share one more quilt-themed post–on quilts as gifts. I think I shall wait until there is a touch of frost in the air.
Until another Wednesday, wishing you well!
In our house, there are three perennial places for quilts: two beds and one short wall in the kitchen near to the heart of the home. In the photo above, I am standing in front of a wall quilt I made for myself. The design is an emblem of wholeness and health, derived from the concept of the Bagua, a central tool of Feng Shui, the Chinese art of placement. I find that as I allow myself to register the energy of the spaces in which I live or visit–and make changes when necessary–I feel happier, healthier, and more productive. (You might have noticed the favicon for winonamedia.net, too, is a Bagua!)
In the photograph above is my quilt version of Memory Lane. It is an autograph book that I bought many years ago. Instead of autographs it holds photos of the quilts I have made over the years. There’s very little by way of notation, except for the year and initials I quilt into the fabric. While I always remember working on the piece, and I remember if it was for me or to give away, I don’t always know what year it was made or to whom I might have given any particular piece. In a future post–sometime in March–I will consider the gift quilts. Here, I am going to focus on some of my favorite pieces made for my own home: to adorn our walls or warm our dreams.
My First Quilt Pattern: The Drunkard’s Path
I learned how to quilt when I was in a graduate writing program. It was very soothing to have something visual and repetitive to do that counter-balanced most of my highly verbal day. I spent a year making these little two-piece, two-color blocks, then fitting them together into the larger blocks and finally assembling the overall pattern. For the longest time–years!–I had only the pieced top but no quilt. I hadn’t thought about the requirements of a quilting frame for example. Now, when I make a quilt to sleep under, I quilt the backing, batting, and top together in long rows and then assemble the quilted strips together before binding the edges. Since I don’t like working with a frame, this works well for me.
Eventually, I discovered that it was possible to have the pieced tops quilted by someone else. Through a quilting store in Edina, I was able to have the top above and the quilt below, quilted by Amish women living in Wisconsin. The stitching is exceptionally fine.
Postage Stamp Baskets
This quilt was the result of the first class I took. I made the top, and it was later quilted by the Amish women. I was especially happy to have incorporated some cherished scraps of Liberty of London and other fabrics left over from some dresses I had had made. (If you look closely, you can see me wearing one of those dresses in the third photo.) This is the quilt that has been retired from use as a coverlet and is now protected by glass and gracing our dining room/school room table.
Christmas Windows Quilt
This quilt was the first queen-sized one that I quilted myself. I spent many happy hours working on it during our time in Bayfield, Wisconsin. One feature that I particularly like was very time-consuming but worthwhile. I quilted all the lines on the oak leaves for each frame, which gives the fabric the look and feel of tooled leather.
A Walk Through the Woods
This was the last queen-sized quilt I made for our bed. I had a lot of fun working with the different “woodsy” images: trees, leaves, bear paws and wild geese traditional patterns.
There is a special enjoyment in making wall quilts. Since they are small, they don’t take as much time. I find I am more likely to experiment with an intricate technique or idea on a smaller “canvas”. It is also a satisfying way to use the small pieces of fabrics–scraps from other projects–and to justify investing in the quilter’s version of bon-bons: fat quarters. (Fat quarters–often pre-cut–allow a quilter to buy a mere quarter of a yard of fabric in a more useable rectangular shape than one would get if one asked for a quarter of a yard at a large fabric store.)
This one isn’t quite finished but is a quilted version of my astrological birth chart.
Moon and Stars
The quilt below was inspired by a picture I saw in a quilting magazine. The pattern is called “Moon and Stars”. The original was very different, a Victorian construction of black, maroon, and gold silk. I made this one in Bayfield when we had our little house there because we needed something to cover up an ugly utility box in the hallway. Because one of our favorite things to do up north is to star-gaze, I used fabrics that are more evocative of the night sky.
Speaking of the night sky, I used an astronomy text to design this quilt. I gave the stars the color they are said to have, and even put the layering of double stars in the right places. Although it is impossible to see in the photograph, the top border has crescent moons quilted into it, while the border has a sun with long rays.
Stars and Stripes
This quilt comes out each year for the Fourth of July. I had a lot of fun selecting fabrics from my stash and thinking about the borders.
Most Recent Design
I made this quirkily graphic wall quilt this year, and I had a lot of fun picking out new fabrics…not that I need any new fabrics. I have realized recently that I have enough ideas and fabric to make a dozen beautiful quilt tops.
Julia with Original Quiedie and a Bear-Paw Pillow
No post on important family quilts could be complete without a mention of “Quiedie”, the baby quilt I made when I was expecting Julia. Quiedie is well beloved, and though she has a new front and back layer of different patterns now, she is still the most precious family quilt of all.
In 2010, after making several of the Bagua wall hangings, I decided to try something else. I took photographs of each fabric square, printed the photos, and made a collage of them on a 12-inch by 12-inch canvas. I made one to donate to the Northfield Arts Guild’s 50th anniversary gala auction and one for myself. I love the portable and durable “canvas quilt” and keep it where I can see it every day.
Thank you for reading this! If you think of someone else who might enjoy it, please forward it to them. And, if you are not already a subscriber, I invite you to subscribe to the Wednesday posts I am sending out each week–it’s easy, it’s free, and I won’t share your address with anyone!!
“The Quilters chronicles the lives and quilts of pioneer women of Texas and New Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century. Compelling black and white portraits of the women accompany their moving oral histories, while thirty-six color photographs showcase the quilts. This award-winning book was the basis of the Broadway play Quilters, nominated for seven Tony Awards. Patricia Cooper taught at the University of California at Berkeley until her death in 1987. Norma Bradley Allen is a freelance writer who lives in Cedar Hill, Texas.”
The quote is from the Amazon page featuring this book, which is still–wonderfully and amazingly–in print after almost forty years. A copy of this book has been part of my own library since 1980–I bought it at a garage sale–it inspired me to begin making quilts, and it inspired this poem (written in 1983 and published in 2011 in the regional anthology Poetic Strokes.)
THE BOOK OF QUILTS
Every parting is a death; to join is holy.
I. The Photograph
Hattie Wooddell at 20, Jaspar, Texas
Wrapped in double wedding rings,
she rocks on the front porch, piecing.
Across from her, a tin love seat.
Above, the shingles, dancing octagons,
carry rain from the roof down
a glittering drain spout back
to the kitchen garden.
Her lap fills with diamonds
colored like new lettuce.
II. The Pattern
a reverse field:
Both dark and the positive, light,
tell of the first split;
birds in flight,
on sections of blue ether,
pennants of gold like standards,
quadrangles of blood.
III. Prairie Women
Is it the Lone Star or the Star of Bethlehem?
They pieced for sanity,
for silence in the wind’s continuing,
stasis in the shifting dust.
Their faded dresses,
rose, indigo, black,
warmed the cooling bodies of their dead:
an embrace to last.
They knew, they must have known,
that a central, vivid red, like fire at midnight,
outlives any dark;
that something resides in the groans
of windmills and tight joists,
in shingles creaking, and chicken wire,
and in the long boards of a house,
that some order abides
in even the craziest patched quilt.
I was inspired in so many ways but this seminal work of The Quilters. It combines the oral histories of women (and some men) who made quilts out of physical, economic, emotional, communal, and artistic imperatives, and it blends these first-person accounts with photographs of the quilters themselves, their quilts, and the elements in their world that gave rise to the shapes and names of the quilt patterns. It was revelatory to me to see photos of the cut ends of log cabin walls juxtaposed near photos of log cabin quilts, or photos of windmills and chicken wire paired with photos of windmill and hexagon patterned quilts.
In addition to writing the above poem, I learned how to make my own quilts while was working on a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry. Though I have a sewing machine and a rotary cutter, I typically trace and cut each piece by hand, hand piece, and then quilt by hand as well. The pace is leisurely, to say the least.
One of the last quilts I finished before Julia was born was her baby quilt. I have made a few since then, but they were for other people. Meanwhile, the quilts I had made for our bed were wearing out. One of my favorites (much mended, made the year Tim and I were married) survived the dumpster and has been repurposed as a covering for our dining room table. So I began fashioning a replacement…
Which brings us to today! Below is the center of the quilt I began about ten years ago to replace the Baskets quilt that was fast wearing out after fifteen years of service. It has been quilted and awaiting the finishing borders for … oh, about six years or longer.
Finishing this quilt has been on my New Year’s list of goals for three years in a row. I now have momentum. And when it is complete, I vow to post a photograph of the finished quilt!
Thank you for reading this! If you think of someone else who might enjoy it, please forward it to them. And, if you are not already a subscriber, I invite you to subscribe to the Wednesday posts I am sending out each week–it’s easy, it’s free, and I won’t share your address with anyone!
Next week, more on quilts!