I have a complicated relationship with quilts. They’re one of the few things I can reliably and consistently sew. They are a significant part of my maternal family culture. My great grandmother, great aunts, and several of my aunts have quilted out of necessity and for fun. I’ve spent many hours pondering quilt squares: squares in family quilts, made from dress scraps and feed sacks, crazy quilts with elaborate embroidery stitches, and quilts I’ve pieced myself. I’ve embroidered flowers and lettering on quilts, I’ve sat at a quilting frame and hand quilted (which is no damn fun at all), and I’ve sewed hundreds of quilt pieces together on at least four different sewing machines.
I’ve also put dozens, perhaps even hundreds of hours into making quilts for people who almost certainly didn’t deserve it. By “deserve” I mean that their and my relationship or connection was not sufficiently close or reciprocal to warrant the investment of my time and resources in a handmade quilt, and/or they might not even appreciate it. But for whatever reason, because I got some validation at some point for my ability to make quilts, I decided to keep making them, hoping that if I invested the effort, I would get something in return.
I started in about 1998 (not counting a sampler that I began hand-sewing as kid, which is probably still in a bureau drawer some place in custody of my mother). At least, I think that’s the first time I made a quilt for a baby. I’ve only made three “adult” sized quilts and two of them were among the worst emotional ROI of any tangible thing I’ve ever done. I continued as all my family and peers began having babies. I made quilts for colleagues for office baby showers, at two separate law firms. I made quilts for friends whose baby showers I also helped to host. I made quilts for babies born in my ex-lover’s family because I couldn’t bear to let the family go, even when I had been. Between my siblings and cousins, there were babies born in my family in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 (x2), 2005, 2006 (x3), 2008 (x2) and 2010.
Baby Shower in Cleveland (2001); Cousin’s baby in Virginia (1999)
I spent one afternoon sewing two quilts for colleagues, while I waited for a man to show up. He was in no hurry, although he was at dinner at his parents’ house a few blocks away. One of those quilts was for a colleague who had been trying with his wife for a long time to have children and were adopting a little girl from China. He and I weren’t close, but I felt pain associated with wanting a child, so I wanted to celebrate his being able to start a family. He took the quilt from me in the hall at the office, said a gruff thank you, walking away with it in his hand. I never received a note, although I suspect that his wife would be embarrassed by that lack. The other was for someone with whom I was actually quite close. She was one of two people who ever made a quilt for any of my babies, not that I expected any, since it’s not a particularly common thing to do. The other was from the wife of a man my husband worked with. I never met the maker, but the quilt exercised such a soporific effect on our youngest that we called it The Magic Blanket.
Here’s the thing, I really like making quilts, whatever my other motivations may be. I like picking the fabrics and laying out the colors. I bought fabrics at the big fabric chains, in specialty fabric boutiques, at shows, and at School House Fabrics in Floyd, Virginia. I got souvenir “fat quarters” from stores in Alaska and New York. I fitted the colors together in rainbows and whenever I could, I tried to make sure that each quilt contained pieces of old fabric and patterns that that I was using for the first time. I developed particular favorites: a strange piece of flannel with embroidered horses, a piece with brightly colored planets that I think I picked up at Walmart in North Carolina, patterns of arrow poison frogs and tropical fish, and Asian-inspired motifs with metallic accents. By trial and error I figured out the best techniques for finishing and stitching. (I suck at binding. Batting is unnecessary. Surplus flannel sheets make the best backing if you can’t afford posh flannel. Yes, you do have to use an iron.)
Top: Niece in Oregon (2005); Friend in Michigan (2002 – a baby who would not be a nephew) – Bottom: Friend in Ohio (2003); Friend in New Mexico (2002)
Eventually I managed to have a baby of my own. Because I’m superstitious, I didn’t make a quilt until after the baby was out of my body and had a name. I think I made it while I was home on parental leave. I believe I managed the same with my second baby. With my third baby I did not even conceive of a quilt until my baby was nearly a year old. When that child was two, I took a brief leave from work. I made a desultory start to the quilt, laying it out, and sewing a few pieces of it, but like everything in that point of my life, I found it overwhelming. It was an experimental new design that required more patience than I had. So I folded it into a rolled sheet and left it in one of my closets for over two years. When I thought of my quilts at all, it was with a feeling of resentment, blaming others for my miscalculations. I read on the news of a public official in the Midwest who was indicted for corruption. A vendor had deposited money in the account of “her twin grandsons in Cleveland”. I had once made quilts for those twin grandsons. I wondered what happened to them. Were they, or any others I had made, sitting in a drawer, or given to a Goodwill? Could I call them back?
When my last child was turning five, I took her with me to a fabric store because her grandparents were in town and my mother-in-law expressed an interest in getting a length of oil cloth. My kid did the chaotic and exhausting routine of a child in a store of that sort: touching everything and trying to clamber on stuff. Then she found the Minkie. Minkie™ was invented, or at least came into fashion, since my oldest kid was born. It’s this bizarrely soft fabric frequently used for baby blankets. Sometimes it has a contoured nap to give it a special nubby texture. My kid wanted some minkie. I decided the time had come to finish the quilt, and I got minkie for the backing.
I hadn’t made a quilt, except for my kids’ school auction, in perhaps seven years. I unrolled it and looked at the pieces, got out my iron and my sewing machine and began to put it together. It was easy again. The burden I remember from staring at it two years before and thinking I could not possibly manage it, was gone. The pieces came together in a few afternoons. The calculus of creation — the joy I had in putting black next to purple, or deciding which flowers blended best — was balanced again. It was still hard work. The finishing, after the fun of layout, is still annoying. And I know I’ll eventually need validation for my creation again, and I will probably look for it in the wrong places. But this time I got it right.
I finished almost exactly two years after my job ended and five years after my youngest was born. The weird mint green minkie made a nice backing, along with some fancy flannel. I had a small extra length of minkie that I fashioned into a pillow. The kid demanded button eyes for the pillow. Because everyone wants their pillow to stare at them, you know, in the dark…