I have a lot more sympathy for medieval scribes than I once did. I always envisioned them sitting in a sunny room, enjoying the copying of a beautiful manuscript—pretty colors and interesting words.
Now I understand how difficult that is!
Those guys were probably the original copycats, reproducing books, in exacting detail, before the printing press was invented. Their job was not to create, not to express themselves, but to copy, exactly and precisely, what was in front of them.
When I started my reproduction of an antique redwork quilt last year, that was my intent—to try and copy it precisely. The quilt was made in the late 1800s, and bears the date 1889.
I am trying to use materials that are the same as the original—plain muslin fabric and a red thread that should eventually fade to the washed-out pink of the old quilt. I am using a light box to trace the old blocks onto paper and then from the paper to the blocks of fabric.
What I’ve found is this—it’s really impossible to make an exact replica of hand-done work. As with handwriting, our stitching skills produce a style all one’s own. My stitching is mine—and my 21st century aesthetic means I tend to produce smoother lines and rounder edges.
One of the decisions I am facing is whether to reproduce what are obvious mistakes in the original. I’ve read that medieval copyists were often illiterate and so, made mistakes in spelling and in reproducing words. If the scribe who came later, who was to copy that copy, realized the mistake, should he fix it or stay true to the artifact placed in front of him?
I’m working on a block now that has such a mistake—I’m sure of it. When the maker of the old quilt traced this block from whatever her source, she clearly missed a line that constituted the bottom edge of this leaf.
So, should I fix it? Should I sketch in that curved line and then stitch it and make it right?
Or should I leave it, knowingly reproduce it in its incorrectness, to acknowledge the human-ness of the creator?
I’ve gone back and forth, and so far, I’ve left it as it was stitched on the old quilt.
I know I always get a kick out of these little errors, this proof that the thing was made by a distracted flesh-and-blood woman, in between her chores. Maybe, as she traced the design, a baby was crying or she was rushing to finish before she had to milk the cows (cows don’t wait!) or start dinner.
But maybe that’s being condescending and unkind in a way, to see her mistake and not fix it for her . . .
I don’t know. I haven’t quite decided yet.
I realize that, in the scope of real world sturm und drang, this is an insignificant point. And yet, I find I need distractions from real life and from Twitter and from alternative facts . . .
So humor me—talk with me about insignificant details of an old quilt, made by loving, if imperfect, hands.
What do you think? Should I reproduce the mistake or fix it? What would you do?