You didn’t just go out and buy all the fabric even if you had the money, which most of the members did not. You made quilts out of what was on hand, like flowered feed sacks or pieces remaining when you cut out a blouse, or from trading scraps with one another. You got pleasure knowing this piece was left over from your high school graduation dress or that one was passed down from your grandmother.
—Sandra Dallas, The Persian Pickle Club
A gray and glowery afternoon. The house is fairly clean, my grading is pretty well caught up, and my head is pounding. I take my book and sit in the reading chair.
I am asleep before I get through the first paragraph.
I wake up, abruptly, a scant twenty minutes later. There’s a command clearly lodged in my mind: Work on your quilt.
So I stand up, quickly, to comply. Time, at last, to make a start.
Bookshelf quilt image from Pinterest.com
I think my friend Theresa first sent me a picture of a bookshelf quilt; since then, I’ve seen them on line many times. The squares look like books—neatly standing, straight up; leaning; stacked flat; toppling. The background is black. The borders are brown, like shelves.
So cute, I thought, and then I studied the pictures, enlarging them, looking at the detail. I could DO that, I realized, and I thought about a quilt as big as a bedspread, –a queen-sized quilt with fabric images of all the books we love.
What would be better than that to snuggle under with a book on a raw and windy winter night?
I began gathering and collecting material.
I have made one other hand-pieced quilt, long ago, back in the 1990’s. My boss’s wife, a skilled seamstress named Jannie, invited my colleague Lisa and me to make simple quilts with her. We would cut fabric into triangles, match the triangles to make squares, and put the squares together in strips. We’d sew the strips together and decide on backing and borders. And, in the doing, we’d have crafting time together—time to talk and savor the feeling of creation.
Jannie and Lisa went out and shopped carefully for material; they were making quilts for their daughters, ten years apart in age: an off-to-college quilt; a now-you’re-a-big-girl quilt. I went home and went through drawers. I found old curtains I’d made in college, blue jeans gentled by time into suede-y softness, leftover material from projects long completed or abandoned. I got out my sewing shears and cut away seams and hems and created squares just the size I needed.
It was Mark’s first year of law school, and money was stretched so thin I could see right through it. I didn’t have the cash to go out and buy fabric, so I’d make myself a vintage quilt, a snuggle-while-watching-television quilt.
I cut away worn spots, and carefully saved the buttons I picked off, sliding them into the button tin—buttons from generations of thrifty women,—my mother had given me. I saved pockets; surely there was something fun one could do with old pockets.
I sat and sewed with Jannie and Lisa and created a crazy quilt top. I quilted it onto a soft old blue blanket. I bordered it with brown calico scraps. We hung that quilt over the back of the lounge chair in the living room, and, for years, and in four different homes, one or the other of us grabbed that soft, warm covering on chilly nights—snuggled up under it and watched us some TV. Last year, the fabric scraps finally wore thin; the blue blanket, pilled and sad from one too many washings, poked through.
There were holes in places. The dog tried to nestle the quilt into a cozy bundle and got her claw caught in one. The claw bent backward; the dog howled piteously; and I realized it was time, at last, to throw that threadbare blankie OUT.
But I didn’t feel bad; the blanket had been a new life for old cloth, old garments. Quilted, they lasted about 15 years longer than their original purposes would have let them live.
Toward the end of her life, my mother made quilts. I have the first one she made, with Sunbonnet Sue embroidered on it, and solid, brightly colored patches alternating with pretty, country patterns. Some of the patches are worn to gauze; the quilt has been used and used and washed and used again. I save it, now, afraid of its frailty, not wanting to let it go.
Mom decided she would make quilts for all the grandchildren, from the oldest on down, and so Brian and Jason got their quilts. Then her health started to slip, and hospitalizations began to happen. Mom would take her graph paper and colored pencils to the hospitals; when she was well enough to concentrate, she would sketch out quilts.
She made one for Shayne, and one for Meg, one for Matthew, and one for Ben. She had Jessica’s all planned out when she died. I have that soft and flannel-y piece of graph paper somewhere; when I come upon it again, I will send it to Jess, who did receive one of her Grandma’s other quilts. It was a flying geese pattern, made, maybe, when my mother knew that her own flight was imminent and unavoidable.
I decided that, for the bookcase quilt, too, I don’t want to buy fabric. I want my fabric books, like my real ones, to have been touched, to be a little worn, and to have a history. I’m going to sort through old clothes, cut them carefully apart, make neat and even squares. I have some old black patterned bed clothes (what phase was I traversing when I decided black sheets would be chic? Sheesh. But I’m glad I have them now.) The pattern is soft and faded, and those will be perfect for the dark background the books will rest against.
I have a pair of brown slacks that just never fit right, and I have some brown pillow cases whose feel I just never liked against my cheek. They will become the shelves that frame the books.
I iron out and cut apart an old Hawaiian short of Jim’s. It is blue with beige flowers picked out in black. I cut away the collar, turn my scissors up the side seams. I take the sleeves off.
The hems of the shirt are fraying. I snip away the tattered edges, and I clip off the buttons to save. I salvage a pocket, which I think I’ll use in wrapping a gift for a child— the three-year-old son of a young colleague of Mark’s. I’ll glue the pocket onto the wrapping, which will hold a book; I’ll slide a bookmark, and perhaps a lollipop, into it.
And then I have flat pieces of Hawaiian print material. I take out my template and cut as many 8.5 by 8.5-inch squares as I can get. I stack them in a box, and I trim up the smaller pieces and put them in a basket. The edges and scraps, I put into a plastic shopping bag. I wonder, briefly, if I could use them as stuffing, tie them into a rug, or create a scrap fabric wreath. But I wrench my attention sternly back to the job at hand.
I envision the fabric books, and I realize I need fabric with tiny stripes to look like pages. We have purged all of Mark’s striped shirts, taking the ones that don’t fit, the ones he wouldn’t wear, to thrift shops or donating them to a clothes closet. But I see exactly the kind of stripes I need in my mind’s eye.
I slip on my shoes, and I drive to Goodwill and buy five striped shirts for eight dollars. They are perfectly page-patterned. I search out and throw away all their labels and price tags, and I throw the shirts into the washer.
The bookshelf quilt is growing real in my mind.
I pull out my beautiful quilted bag to carry my books to class. Terry made this bag, a masterpiece in its autumn colors. The quilting is more detailed and expert than any I will ever accomplish; I have to let that go and know that my funny, homespun attempts will be a different kind of special.
Terry gave several of us, all of us leaving the same place of work at the same time, quilted bags. When we get together once a month, old colleagues now retired or working at different jobs, one of us usually has her Terry bag with her. The bags are sturdy, creatively made, practical and lovely at the same time. They bring to mind, now I think about it, their creator.
There’s another work connection quilt, one that rests, neatly folded, on the end of my bed. Just before three of us retired, our younger colleague Barbara invited us out to lunch. She wrestled us for the check, insistent she would pay, and when we walked out to climb into our cars, she stopped us. From her back seat, she pulled three beautiful quilts she’d made, in colors that made her think of the receivers. She placed them in our arms and shushed away our thanks and drove off with a smile and a wave. We stood there, we three women of a certain age, jaws open, arms full, light-headed with shock and delight. The quilts were incredibly lovely.
I couldn’t resist playing with a quilt metaphor, silently, for the three of us so gifted were retiring from positions that would no longer exist. Our work was being spread out and carefully cut apart. Certain patches would be sent to different offices. Some pieces—although we’d thought that fabric was sturdy and strong—would be tossed away.
It was part of the process of leaving, to see what was become something new, but for each of us, it was hard in a different way.
So it is good to meet each month, now, and to spread out the new pieces we’ve acquired, to see a new, upbeat, resilient pattern emerging.
One of my favorite books, The Persian Pickle Club, centers on a group of women who quilt together during the Depression in dust-bowl Kansas. They are old and young and in-between, married, single, and no longer wed. Some would face starvation if not for her friends, and some have the wherewithal to be generous. All have their sorrows, and all have a fierce loyalty to the other members of the club.
And then comes Rita, who has married Tom, the son of one of the quilters. Rita is a city girl. She can type and she can do the latest dances; she can write newspaper articles and she can walk into a room of strangers without a qualm. But her country skills—cooking from scratch and scrubbing a floor, keeping a fire hot and piecing a quilt—those are sorely lacking.
And she doesn’t understand; Rita doesn’t see the pattern or understand what weaves things together. The first time she meets with the Pickles, the women, although Rita’s stitches are looped and sloppy, encourage her to take up quilting. And Rita, to be polite, says, sure. Sure she will. Maybe, she says, she can get Tom to take her to the department store, where she’ll buy enough fabric to make a quilt.
There is a shocked silence. How can the women tell her that one doesn’t BUY fabric to make a quilt; that one uses what one has? One rejuvenates the worn-out sheets and tablecloths; one spreads out her dearly loved ‘best’ dress, worn now beyond all patching, and cuts away the finest parts to savor in a quilt.
Every quilt they craft is a kind of living history. The women don’t try to explain this to Rita. But they each reach into their quilting bags, and they pull out pieces of fabric, squares and scraps and shiny silks, and they pass them down to their new friend. They tell her the stories behind each swatch she receives. When she leaves that day, she has enough quilting material to make a baby blanket for a friend.
And she begins, just faintly, to get a glimmer of the pattern the other women had grown up seeing.
The weather turns; the 90-degree days slide off, backward. Clouds tumble together, thunder rumbles, and the temperature plummets. The AC clicks off and stays off. We open the doors to the screened-in porch. Rain-sweetened air rushes in, and the house is lightened.
I spend my free time wrestling with material. I wash it and iron it; I clip it and I smooth it out onto the dining room table. I trace squares and I save buttons; I pick out seams, and I notice that, even when the seams have been cut away, the buttons and collars removed, there is still a trace and a clue of what’s been before. I can look at squares from the old black pillowcases, smooth them out and know where the sweet spot was, the place our heads rested most of the time. I can see the vibrant, almost new colors of the fabric that waited, tucked away, folded inside the case.
I work at it for days, growing impatient, wanting to get to the creative, fun, pretty part, but wanting, too, to build a strong foundation for the blanket I see more and more clearly in my mind.
I’m just beginning the process, creating the pieces that I’ll put together; making sense of what no longer worked, revitalizing fabric I can’t bear to give away. There is something here, I want to say, about reducing things to their original parts in order to give them a whole new kind of life.
There is something here about making a new thing and honoring the past that made it possible.
I make my templates; I snip away the tatters, and I plan. This phase will be done—soon, I hope,–and then I can begin.
Piecing it together.
Trying to see the pattern.
Creating something new.