Fix It or Let It Be?

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.

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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.

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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?

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84 thoughts on “Fix It or Let It Be?

    • There were a bunch of responses to this post, on both sides, and, with every one I read, I thought, “Yes! That’s a good point! That’s what I’ll do!” I still don’t know what I’ll do . . .

  1. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to copy out books by hand, what pain staking work! I think I would fix the stitching on the quilt. Even if yours is intended to be a copy, the nice thing about it being handmade is that it will be slightly different because you made it! I like the idea of a copy of a copy being gradually less like the original, imprinted with the individuality of each successive maker 🙂

  2. I think you have to decide what you want in the end: a copy mistakes and all or your version with corrections knowing you may leave mistakes of your own. If it was my decision I would correct the mistake because I see it but know I’ll probably make others that I won’t catch.

  3. I appreciate your intention to make an exact copy of the original redwork, but I would fix that mistake as a kindness to the original maker, like straightening out the bottom of a sweater that’s been rucked up without telling the wearer about it.

    • Another time we agree, even with similar thought/wording. A few years ago I was tasked with collecting a few quilts from a guild member’s family. The member had died, and the guild was honoring her with a display of her quilts at our show. The quilts needed labels so they were clearly identified as made by her, just to make sure there was no mistake in returning them to her family. As I prepared and stitched the labels on, I also found a few spots that needed repair. I found the act of repair to feel like a kindness to her, a small thing I could do for someone I didn’t even know, and who would never know I’d done so. All to say, I agree with Joanna. The small act of fixing it would be a kindness to the maker, and would leave you no worse for the act.

      • I’m still on the fence about this! I completely agree about fixing damage–there’s a ton of damage to this original quilt and I would never try to replicate that. But noticing this little mistake has made me more conscious of the human hands behind the quilt, led me to think about the person . . . not sure I want to take that away!

  4. Fix it, I think. If it were me that had made the error, I would be mortified to realise that others were perpetuating it, perhaps laughing at me or feeling superior – that would be my fear, even if nobody actually was. You might make a mistake in your turn, and the person after that who copied yours. If all these mistakes were incorporated, the end result could be ‘unreadable’. One way or another, you’re all putting your own stamp on things, making it personal to you. Meanwhile, be grateful you’re not a mediaeval monk at Fountains Abbey. They wrote in an unheated room, built in stone, and had permission, for a few minutes just a few times a day, to visit the only room in the entire place that had a fire, the Warming Room. Today, the termperature is zero degrees. I bet they made a mistake or two!

    • It’s easy to romanticize medieval life, until you walk round one of those abbeys or castles in cold weather! My thinking about this redwork quilt is changing slowly, it seems. I had intended an exact replica and, now that I’m seeing that it isn’t possible, I relaxing. So the idea of fixing the mistake, as a kindness to the original maker, is starting to make more sense.

    • It is a lovely project to work on–I’m getting a lot of pleasure from it! The basic look of the embroidery is so very different from the cutesy stuff we see today– I love it!

  5. What’s strange is how that unfinished line comes down and does a little curly que before joining up with the flower below. Just seems wrong. Is this one of several panels with the same design, or are the others all different? Personally, I would fix it.

    • I think that curly line is a little tendril that should’ve been behind the leaf, if the leaf was fully drawn in. This is one of 40 different panels in the quilt–very popular type of quilt in the late 1800s and there were hundreds of patterns to choose from.

    • Carol–is that you?! Thanks for being here and commenting! I still haven’t decided what to do about the quilt . . . but I have about 35 blocks still to stitch so I have time!

  6. If your intent is still to try and copy it precisely, then there is no reason to fix the work. If you are not sure, then maybe your original intent has changed?

    • I think my original intent is changing, in fact. Since I’ve found that, no matter how hard I try, my own style is coming through, it seems more and more like “my” quilt.

  7. So, after reading this, Kerry, here’s my take: leave it as is, because of the story. If you hang it on a wall, make sure this post is printed out and put on the back of the frame. what a great story an error tells!

      • I’ve made up a whole new story about this now, Kerry!
        She deliberately made this “mistake” to show her realization that nothing in life is perfect. She made this particular leaf after a heartbreak in her own life — a life that had seemed perfect until the loss occurred. Much later, when her pain had lessened and her wisdom had grown even greater, she realized that this malformation of leaf would cause more thought and more introspection on the part of the beholder.

        Cynthia slyly adds: “As does all great art.”

  8. I think I would fix it. Because, as some others have said in their own ways, it is an obvious mistake, it is visually noticeable and can become distracting (especially to one such as me). As in life, so in stitching – if mistakes are ignored and perpetuated, the thing becomes unrecognisable – a bit like Chinese Whispers. I’ve also had the thought the mistake may have been a deliberate one, based in the ‘Only God is perfect’ belief. When I look at it, I wonder about that curlicue and what that is meant to convey if the leaf is closed…… There’s a whole other conundrum! I guess in the end it comes down to what you are trying to achieve. Is this an exercise in exact replication, or an homage to the work of yesteryear? If you decide not to ‘fix’ it, Cynthia’s suggestion is a good one 🙂 I shall look forward to hearing and seeing what you decide.

    • I think the curlicue you mention is a tendril of the vine. Someone said this was bindweed and I thought it was morning glory, but both have little tendrils that wrap and help the vine climb. Your question about homage vs. exact replication is the crux of matter. I began the thing as an exact replication but I think the focus has shifted . . .

  9. I agree with Margaret and Snarky above – it is a kindness to the original quilter to correct mistakes. Wilful perpetration of errors is not a virtue. (I could point to a number of historical examples!)

  10. I’d say fix it, except that then I noticed that some of the leaves above it don’t have ribs and veins on them, and others do. So do you go back and fix that too? Where does it end? 😉 I’d leave it as it is at least for now. Maybe when you have finished the entire block, if it still stands out to you, then go back and fix it. I think you’ve honoured the original intent by copying it as it is for now.

    • And I have about 35 more blocks to do, for a total of 40! So I can wait a long time to finalize my decision. I haven’t changed any of the ribs and veins in leaves because I am not so sure those are mistakes–it could just be variety in the design. That leaf, though . . . I just KNOW she missed that bit when she was tracing!

  11. I would fix it because your eye will always look for it.
    I made a cross stitch sampler for Peter many years ago and just a few years ago I noticed a misspelling! Now it bothers me no end. And so many people saw it before it was framed – me, my mother, Peter, friends, the framer…and we never noticed.

  12. If it was me I would leave it. Partly because I like the original, I like the way it curls down. But also your intention was to reproduce the original. You made a conscious effort to use similar threads and material. That little “mistake” has encouraged you to muse about the life of the woman. And, just maybe she deliberately did this as a little spurt of creativity, a chance to add her own, almost hidden, curling line to the piece.
    Which ever way you go, your quilt will be stunning, and a tribute to the original artist.

    • I’ve been musing about the life of this woman a lot! There are, truly, hundreds of these redwork designs she could’ve picked–why did she choose these specific ones? How did she fit all of this work into her days? How was the quilt used? SO many avenues of thought!

  13. If you were working in multiple colors I might suggest fixing it by stitching it in a slightly different shade than the original. As the original stitcher might have noticed it in the future and fixed it. But I think that might be too obvious in this case.

    • That’s a very interesting suggestion! I might just do that–if I used a slightly lighter or darker version of the same red . . . Hmmmm–I need to ponder this. Thanks, Jennifer!

  14. At first I thought that if it were up to me I’d correct it. I would always try to correct my own work if I found I had made a mistake. But this is not my mistake or yours, Kerry. I then thought some more and studied the original sampler. The image is of bindweed and to make sense of it, I think there are maybe one or two other little lines missing as well. The line with the curl is a stem and might have joined the main stem somewhere. I now think that it might be better to leave it as it is. I can’t think why the woman left it as she did. I can’t imagine her picking it up and joining it to the other blocks in the quilt and not noticing her mistake. She may have been weary of the quilt and just wanted it finished and imagined no-one would notice. The perfectionist in me wants to correct it but I’m not sure that that is the right decision.

    • I was thinking the little curl might be a tendril–you know, the little “fingers” that wrap around fences or whatever, to let the vine climb? But, then, I was also thinking it was morning glory, but bindweed makes sense. As I stitch the other 40 blocks, I wonder if I’ll find other areas where I am sure she made a mistake. I have caught myself missing some small parts, when I’ve done my own tracing of the original, and I can certainly see how that happens and might go unnoticed.

  15. What an intriguing post, I guess I know what I would do, as I’ve been playing with my cursor, correcting the line in my imagination. I have such a keen desire for orderliness. I don’t know that it’s healthy, but it’s part of who I am. So…I would probably fix it, as it would drive me nuts. Along those same lines, when I go back to an older post and find a glaring typo or spelling error, I’m horrified that I missed it. I also think of all the gracious readers, though, that read and didn’t offer a correction. I’m going to muse on this, and look forward to seeing what you do.

    • I’m just like you with typos! Much more forgiving of others than in my own writing! And I’m feeling that way about this embroidery, too–if I saw a mistake that I had made, I’d be compelled to fix it. But the fact that a long-dead woman made it and it gives her humanity to this object . . . ? That sort of charms me.

  16. Here’s my logic, good or bad. That lady noticed her mistake at some point in her life, and I bet she wished she had seen it when it was easier to fix. Or maybe it was the error of her daughter or grand daughter and she kept it because of that…however I bet the maker was a bit chagrined. 😊 if it were my mistake, I would always wish I had caught it!

  17. Years ago, from 1996 to 2007, I sold antique quilts. Some had stains, some little some big. I would cringe as someone asked me how to get them out. I said they gave the quilt character. I’m not sure they got the point. But with anything OLD take the flaws and love them as they are. I wouldn’t change a thing on that block. It’s perfect.

  18. Hmmm, a tricky one. Of course it is your project and you must do what feels right. But I do have a little knowledge of domestic history, so I feel justified to give my opinion;o). People were less fuzzy about mistakes because time and materials were so precious in every sense of the word. An often embroideries (and the likes) were done by young boys and girls since their eye sight was some much better and it was normal to learn crafts from 4 years old onwards.Compare their attention span and comparatively little mistakes with the ‘youth of today!” Now having the doom of whip and belt in the background often improves work attitude, though I do not approve of such methods of course. It always endears me to see such skillfull made items with obvious mistakes. The choice between perfect and cost effectiveness And for me personally, when I let go of a lot perfectionism , I started to enjoy my crafts a lot more and the funny thing is nobody ever notices my mistakes in my knitting. Look at how long it took you to discover this mistake. The person who made your quilt clearly decided that time and materials were more important than that little leaf. Who knows, she might have had a farm, eight children, grandma etc to take care of. No luxury like dwelling over such things. Very sensible to me! Xo Johanna

    • That’s a really interesting point, about the possibility the stitching was done by a young person–that never occurred to me. I do think about the difference in practical attitudes about mistakes. Sometimes, when I’m trying to decide about fixing a mistake I’ve made in my work, I wonder what my grandmothers would’ve done and, almost always, I decide they would’ve left it and gotten on with their lives! As you say, they didn’t have the luxury in terms of money or free time, to hold themselves to unrealistic standards of perfection. Good points as always, Johanna!

  19. Apparently I am developing some OCD, because I would fix it. Whatever you do, though, you have been thoughtful in honoring the person who created the original and that is what matters.

    • I think I have whatever the opposite of OCD would be! The mistake doesn’t bother me so much as charm me . . . I think I’m leaning towards leaving it. Thanks for your point of view–the comments on this have been so interesting!

  20. I would change it – in part because my personality dictates that I must. As with spelling mistakes and typos, once I’ve seen them I have to change them. But more importantly because the original and your reproduction are each a work of love and a work of art – and that means both are dynamic, organic, creations and I think each should be unique to their creators. If you showed that ‘mistake’ to a number of people and asked them to correct it, you would get lots of different interpretations. Who’s to say which is right or wrong? You describe the scribes as replicating errors because they didn’t understand what they were copying; you do. 🙂

    • I have, indeed, gotten a number of interpretations on what I should do, just from the comments on the post! And everyone is making such good points–I still don’t know what I’ll do.

  21. I’m in the fix it group, Kerry. For a variety of reasons. The new quilt is yours, really, even though it’s a copy, so it’s going to have your touch, your stitches, your thread. It’s up to you, but like lays, I’ve got the orderly thing going on, and like some earlier commenters, I don’t think it’s bad to fix a mistake. Regardless, the stitching is lovely.

    • Thanks, Lisa. I’ve been swinging back and forth, as I read the comments, about what to do. I may leave it . . . partly because leaving it will always remind me about the discussion that’s taken place here, and I’ve loved that! And I think it might be a little inside joke between me and the woman who made the original quilt–we’re in this together . . .

  22. That is such an interesting point of view you make.. that stitching is like handwriting. I never thought of it like that Kerry. I love how you write:)
    Also, I would’ve done the same and gone ahead & reproduced the exact leaf! I’m far too sentimental about the past, mistakes or no mistakes:)

    • Thank you, Divya! And right now, I’m leaning toward leaving it just as it is, mistake and all. I’m feeling very sentimental about the unknown woman who made the quilt–and the mistake makes her more real to me.

  23. I would have a tendency to fix it. Like those medieval scribes, I believe that each artist (even when attempting to replicate something) adds their own unique skills to the work. So if an artist recognizes an error in an earlier version, it is their responsibility to correct it. (At the same time the replicator will inevitably introduce new errors into the work.)

  24. Hi Kerry, knowing myself, my gut instinct would probably urge me to correct the mistake. If I were to read something copied by a scribe and find a spelling mistake, I’d think “why has no one thought to create that”? I guess I wouldn’t leave it because it would feel like pointing a finger to the original creator telling everyone they’d made a mistake.

    On another note, I’m totally with you needing an escape from what’s going on in the world right now. I read something horrifying in the news yesterday and talked to a friend about it, saying I don’t know think I can bear much more of this stuff. Shortly afterwards I was enjoying a book and was suddenly thinking “how can you!? with everything that’s going on!”. But I guess we need our escape from reality for a bit, as long as we don’t close our eyes to it completely.

  25. This is one where you have to follow your own instinct. If I were doing it, I know my own style would be expressed in the art and I would have to fix it. It would haunt me every time someone looked at it. I can do a paint by number and end up changing it. 🙂 You still have to do what feels right to you. If you sit quietly with it, you will know.

  26. Sometimes mistakes where put in quits on purpose because the quilter was very religious. Only God was perfect. This was common in some mountain communities. It showed the maker had the virtue of humility. This quilt could have been a group project that met at church to work on it. The red work could have been printed penny squares and that square had a printing flaw. Penny squares were popular in the late 19th century into the early part of the 20th century.

    I just thought you would enjoy knowing this.

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