I haven’t made a full sized quilt since 1997 or so, and I’m not particularly proud of having made the ones that I did back then. I’ve probably made twenty baby quilts however, and I’ve been wanting to make another full sized one. I’m not an art quilter by a long shot. There are people out there who quilt Very Seriously. I sew scraps together because my mother and my grandmother did it and I like making patterns with squares. And when I was a kid, I used to lie on my mother’s bed and stare at quilt squares made from 1930s dresses, 1940s feed sacks and 1950s aprons. My mother and grandmother would say, “this piece was one of my favorite dresses” or “this one reminds me of a dress my aunt always wore.”
I’ve offered a few times to my kids teachers to make a quilt for their class auction project. There was a felted quilt sold at the first auction I attended and I figured I could do something with at least equivalent aesthetic merit. No teacher has taken me up on it until this year, however.
Third graders in Portland Public Schools study city history, learning about the founders whose names appear on our streets signs and public venues. They study the historic cemetery near the school and take field trips to the downtown landmarks. They also study the city’s numerous bridges across the Willamette River. My daughter’s excellent third grade teacher has a crafty bent himself and knew of a technology to print drawings in color onto fabric, so he had each of the kids draw a sketch of one of the bridges, then picked a suitable balance of colors and printed them onto white cotton rectangles, roughly 8×12.
Like anyone who has ever quilted, I have several drawers of printed cotton in my house, so I put a pile in a basket and took it school. Each kid picked out two fabrics they liked and pinned their name to a scrap. (I learned that some third graders are not familiar with safety pins. A number of them asked why they are called safety pins if they are so pokey. I said they are less pokey than straight pins). Watching 26 kids pick colors and patterns was fascinating: whether they picked bright colors or neutral ones, whether they picked in gender conforming ways, whether they took a long or short time to select varied a great deal and reflected some of what I’d observed about their personalities.
Once I got them all laid out, the colored pieces cut and matched to the kids’ squares I figured a couple of things out. First, I had miscalculated the layout and would need to fill in a number of places with additional pieces. Second, I greatly preferred the resulting pattern, although it was more work. And picking colors is always my favorite part of making a quilt, so I could find pieces that complimented the kids’ color choices. My
daughter helped, picking colors, cutting out squares and laying out the pieces. My mother and my daughter helped iron it. My younger kids periodically decided they had to be the ones to raise and lower the lever for the sewing foot. This was no help to anyone.
It came together a little more easily than I expected, but it took a couple of weeks, sewing on weekend afternoons. When the top was done my husband laundered it (the bridge colors ran slightly, which I thought gave the squares a nice antiqued look) and I took it to show the kids, asking for some votes on whether to have a plain or elaborate border and a plain or patterned back. They voted for fancy border and plain back. The “plain back” was a king sized red flannel sheet that I had picked up at the goodwill with some idea of turning it into a rag rug, and had been using to layout the quilt and roll it up in to get it out of the way.
I thought it should have some batting, so I used a slightly worn flannel duvet cover that I had lying around. As it turns out I could probably just have used the red sheet. The finished quilt is pretty heavy. I greatly prefer heavy blankets, but not everyone does.
Finishing work has always been a bit of problem for me. I usually manage to sew puckers into the fabric while doing the top stitching. I’ve made some awesomely botched edges in my time, and can never make the binding work out right. I try to console myself by remembering that quilts started out as leftovers and scraps, held together any which way. I once went to a museum show of sharecropper quilts, many of which were carefully pieced out of worn blue denim overalls.
For quilting pattern I tried a spiral for the first time and it actually worked pretty well – only a couple of puckers. I paused for several days because I didn’t have binding tape. The major sewing stores are nowhere near my house but on a Sunday afternoon I plugged “fabric store” into the map app on my phone to see if there was some place in town near where my husband was doing yard work for some extended family. Behold, there was a
discount fabric shop just up Sandy Boulevard, so we packed the kids in the car and stopped by to see what they had. It turned out to be a small family owned fabric and rug outlet, selling an extraordinary array of sparkly trim, silk remnants, garish satin and polyester brocade and ethnic jewelry. They did not have wide cotton bias binding like I was looking for. But it was such a fascinating shop that I had to buy something from them, so I bought wide polyester blanket trim, like one finds on super fluffy baby blankets, and cotton ribbon tape, just because I liked it. And they didn’t have enough of the binding to do the whole thing in one color, so I got black and red, neither of which was a color I had originally envisioned.
Of course I had forgotten how to properly turn binding around corners, so of the four corners of the blanket, only one looks really good, but the colors actually came out pretty well. On the theory of covering my sins somewhat, I did a line of ornamental trim with the cotton tape. Apparently I can’t do conversions between yards and feet on the fly, at least not under the stern eye of the fabric proprietors, so I had twice as much binding and half the cotton tape that I needed. They let me exchange it. Then when I got the tape mostly fixed in place, the sewing machine needle broke. But it’s done now. It looks and feels like the quilts my mother and grandmother had when I was growing up. I hope whoever buys it enjoys it. I have never had a quilt of my own making on my own bed, as it turns out. Maybe I’ll see if I can change that.