Wednesday, September 21, 2011

On Quilting (And Other Things I Don't Do)

Bird tells a story about one of her cousins, the one everyone knows makes the best pie crust in the world.*  Before the female relative's mother died, her mother made the best pie crust in the world.  Everybody knew it.  She had the ribbons from the fair to prove it.  The cousin never made pie, because everyone knew her mother's was best.  Until her mother died, then she started making pie, and now she has her own ribbons (and a grandson whose first word was "Pie").

I only mention this because I come from a family of accomplished seamstresses and needle women. My aunt makes quilts that are like beebop jazz played on a French horn -- inventive, exuberant, and elegant all at once.  My Mom makes quilts that are more like Bach-- precise, meticulous, classic, and still playful.  Both of them make amazing clothing.

Mom tried repeatedly to interest me in sewing as a girl.  She failed miserably.  I would begin with good intentions, and get frustrated half way through and go run around in the woods instead.  It didn't help that Mom's sewing machine was on its last legs, and jammed whenever anyone looked sideways at it, and in my case whenever I looked directly at it as well.  Mom eventually gave up. My younger brother took to sewing more readily than I did.  (He also knits, and makes a mean chocolate chip cookie, while discoursing learnedly on political philosophy.  As brothers go, I think he's pretty cool.) I decided that I did NOT sew.  I was accursed in the mechanical department, and too impatient for anything beyond rudimentary mending.  And that was that.  For years.

At the end of my high school career, a friend of mine invited me to her house for a couple of weeks to make a quilt.  She had owned a quilt store at one time, and her stash filled rooms.  So together we pulled the fabrics for a log cabin quilt, in shades of red, turquoise, and blue (balanced by shades of cream and grey).  I didn't do most of the sewing. For reasons neither of us could explain, her ordinarily reliable machine jammed crazily whenever I went near it. So I pressed the blocks, and marveled at the evolving relationships between color and pattern.

Fast forward another four years.  Mom had taken up quilting, bought a new sewing machine, and I had a pregnant friend.  So I decided to make a baby quilt. My one experience with quilting was by this time, a few years old, and I didn't actually know how to use Mom's machine, but I went ahead and bought fabric anyway.  I made a split rail fence quilt (which was ridiculously easy to piece, even though I didn't know what I was doing).  However, just as I was putting the borders on the quilt top, my friend lost the baby, and the quilt went on the shelf. 

Fast forward again, another seven years, Mom found the quilt top on the shelf, and said, "Hey, Sarah, what do you think of finishing this?" And I looked at it, and I could see that it had some problems, but was withall a functional quilt on which to set a baby.  And lo! in the meantime many of my friends and relations were in their early thirties, which meant that there were babies and pregnancies all over the place, and the real problem was deciding who got the finished quilt.  So Mom and I went and bought some fabric for the back and I quilted the sucker while watching the evening news (and an extremely laudatory documentary about James Baker saving the Reagan administration, which I found peculiarly amusing in its bias -- I am sure that James Baker was a fine person and an able diplomat, but the way the documentary went on, one might have thought he invented glasnost and the internet as well as being Secretary of State). Mom helped me with the binding (which is another way of saying that she was the one who put the binding on).

I presented the finished product to a friend of mine, to general acclaim, and thought, "that's it, I'm done.  Never doing that again. I do NOT sew, and this is a fluke."

I came home for Christmas break, and I had still more pregnant friends and relations, and I wanted to do something creative that was nothing like a design class.  So I looked through Mom's quilt books, and came up with the idea that Mom and I would make a quilt for one of the imminent cousinlings in two weeks. My idea was that I would pick out the colors and the design, and maybe occasionally approach the sewing machine tentatively, but Mom would do the real work.

My taste in colors can run up against the bounds of good taste, and go reeling off in directions that are even more unsuitable. So Mom had a job convincing me that Purple, Blue, Turquoise, Red, Orange, and Yellow, might not be the most graceful combination of colors ever conceived. In fact, she failed.  The quilt is so...vibrant, that it took me until recently to realize that the block I'd used, was ordinarily called Buckeye Beauty and one I'd admired greatly in more traditional settings.  Despite this, the quilt was not dire despite the fact that I did all of the piecing and most of the quilting, although possibly a bit more stimulating to the visual centers of the brain than one might expect. It all went together in a fashion almost devoid of sturm und drang.  But I was clear, I do NOT sew, and I don't quilt.  I just really love my cousins. 

So this summer, again home in Alaska, I found myself poking through Mom's stash, and thinking that a quilt might be a fun project to take on.  Once again, I had an excess of pregnant people, but they all knew each other, and I worried about hurt feelings if I only made a quilt for one of them.  But I really wanted to make a quilt. (A clear sign that my anti-sewing resolve was crumbling.) As I was flipping through Mom's quilt books for the millionth time, admiring things that are clearly not for someone as scatterbrained and imprecise as I am, I found something I liked in one of Marsha McClosky's books, a nine patch. Nine patches are unintimidating. The sort of thing that I could do with minimal supervision, even if I wanted to do something kind of scrappy, which would not allow for strip piecing.  And those colors in that pile over there were Bird's sort of colors.

I'm certain Bird needs another throw for her couch.

Next thing Mom knew, her sewing room was awash in hundreds of 2.5" squares (approximately -- among my quilting handicaps is a failure to fully grok the zen of a rotary cutter, with the result that at least thirty percent of the time, I fail to cut straight lines, despite the assiduous deployment of a really large ruler) of blue, teal, cream, and the occasional burst of red.

I discovered that coming home and sewing was a nice break from the general public at work, and suddenly hundreds of squares became a slightly more reasonable number of blocks, then rows of blocks, and then slightly inexplicably a nearly twin size quilt top (since a nearly twin size quilt is pretty perfect as a throw on a couch).  Not long after that it became a full blown quilt, in which many of the seams matched more or less.  I did in fact operate a sewing machine in the process, but it still seems astonishing and improbable to me that I must use the passive voice. 

There are problems with making a surprise quilt for a really close friend.  One of them is that people like that are prone to asking dangerous questions like, "what have you been up to this week?"

I am terrible at dissimulation.  "Um, I've been quilting. (OfcourseasyouknowIdon'tsew.)"

Bird, knowing about the bumper crop of babies in my social circle, asked,"Do you have a recipient in mind?"

"Er, yeah, but I might decide to keep it." (Which is always theoretically true, but not very.)

"I see."

After I get off the phone, "Mom, I blew it, Bird knows what I'm up to."

So now Bird has a quilt, and I seem to be planning a quilt to tackle when I go home for Christmas.  I'm thinking of combining log cabin blocks with little tiny variable star blocks (the aunt that does wild and elegant jazz quilting is going through a phase that involves sending Mom books by Gwen Marston, who has interesting ideas, even if her taste in colors is even more over the top than mine).  Which means that I will have to figure out how to make variable star blocks, and well, it should be interesting.  And if I get bored, I can call it a baby quilt and hand it to someone who's pregnant. Or if I really decide I'm in over my head, it will be a wall hanging and I'll give it to someone who has a wall.  I guess I might sew after all, or at least I quilt.  Even if I make quilts like punk rock -- sloppy**, loud***, and finished quickly.****

*Everyone is wrong about this.  Mom makes the best pie crust in the world.  Everyone is invited to practice, especially if I get to try the results, but Mom's crust is best.
**Although I'm getting better at sewing straight seams with practice.
***Although actually, Bird's quilt is closer to the quietly elegant end of the spectrum than one seeing my more normal output might expect.  Anything that is mostly cream, is probably elegant.
****Inarguable.  I will probably never hand quilt anything bigger than a pot holder.


  1. Have you got any pictures of your quilts? If I can keep it in my tiny little head long enough, I will take one of My New Quilt and send it so that you may post it. Because really there ought to be pictures.

  2. No, my grandmother made the best pie crust in the world (she doesn't cook anymore).

    You give me hope. Perhaps someday I will learn to operate a sewing machine. Not for quilting (honestly, it's something I have no interest in), but for fixing things. Or making juggling bags--that was a project I started back when I was about 12. Still not done. But Mom got a new sewing machine that works (not that she's used it--she sews as much as I do, which is to say not at all), so perhaps I can have another go.

  3. I was so excited to give you your quilt, that I ran off with it before Mom and I had really processed the necessity of pictures. But if you send pictures I will post them. (There is a picture of me sewing and looking INTENSE that Mom took, but that is not the same as a picture of the quilt.)

  4. Katie, given the strain of awesome cooking in your family, I will allow that your grandmother might be tied with my mom on matters of pie crust. But that is as far as I will go. Family pride and all.

  5. Very reasonable. I accept. It may also be a moot point, if they make different types of pie crust. I prefer what my grandmother did, which is to not glaze it or do any of that nonsense that browns it all up. Her crusts were always white, even when finished--there might be a hint of golden around the edges, but that's it. They were also insanely flakey and tender.

    Of course, mine are tasty too (finally). Nowhere near the maternal line (mine or yours), but since I do all-butter crusts, I've got a jump on the crisco crusts in flavour.

  6. Mom is a Crisco crust partisan herself. Although the last crust she made was a whole wheat/butter crust -- it was containing her lemon meringue pie, which may be the best lemon meringue pie ever. My brother and I were initially skeptical but her results won us over. It made me start thinking about doing crusts that are part crisco and part butter in the hopes that one could have perfection of both texture and flavor.