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?

Redwork–Mine, Old and New

I fell in love last year.

I was at my quilt guild’s show. Among the antique quilts being shown was a quilt made up of many small panels with simple scenes, done in red embroidery.

Then I noticed two similar quilts, modern ones made by fellow guild members. Redwork quilts, all of a sudden, seemed to be everywhere!

As I looked at these quilts, and coveted the old one, something niggled at my memory . . .

I’ve mentioned that I go to garage sales, estate sales, flea markets and, like everyone who spends enough time at such places, I’ve found treasures.

In 2012, I bought a pile of old linens and fabrics at an outdoor sale. I was busy and distracted at the time but vaguely aware that, in the pile, I had picked up a redwork quilt for a dollar.

I remember seeing that it was in rough condition but figured I could cut it up and sell some of the blocks. It got put away, with stacks of other old linens, and forgotten.

But now my interest was piqued about redwork quilts, so I went searching for the quilt I’d bought.

I found that old quilt and looked at it carefully for the first time.

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Just one section–it’s so faded I couldn’t get a good photo of the whole thing!

It’s faded, it’s ripped and patched, it’s stained. In one block, the design has disintegrated entirely.

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It was finished in April of 1889.

IMG_2753And, to my 21st-century eyes, it is peculiar and quirky and wonderful.

If you went looking for redwork quilt designs today, you’d find countless patterns that look like they were designed by Disney.

My quilt looks much more like Grimm Brothers had a hand in it. The difference between the aesthetics of the late 1800s and the early 2000s couldn’t be more striking. The old quilt is hard-edged, sort of harsh, not at all cute, really quite gritty.

I love it. And it’s clear that it’s been loved before, and loved nearly to death. It’s fragile and unstable.

So I have decided to remake it, to preserve a version of it for a couple centuries more.

I have been using an inexpensive child’s lightbox to trace the redwork panels on to paper, so I can keep them. Then I trace from the paper version on to off-white cotton fabric.

As I trace and then stitch, I enjoy the designs. There are flowers, lots and lots of flowers.

And there are animals; some are the ones the maker would know from the farm and some are exotic, known only from books or dreams.

My favorite blocks, though, are the ones with the people, and, especially, children. The children depicted are not the cute and pampered and romanticized children of modern America but are serious and, often, awkward-looking.

A girl jumps rope.

 

Two boys blow bubbles.

The children in my quilt are all focused and intent. Only one panel shows a child with any hint of a smile—a small person (not especially childlike), listening to a large person read. She stands at attention; no cuddles here.

Looking carefully at these old panels has given me a lot to think about. Do these older quilts reflect a fundamental difference in the perception of childhood, then and now? We can’t attribute the differences to design ability or sewing skills—this seems to be a difference in seeing the world.

It’s true that, by the turn of the 20th century, the shift to gentler and “cuter” designs had already begun. Even then, the Sunbonnet Sue girl was taking over and designs by illustrator Kate Greenaway seem to have dramatically changed, and romanticized, the image of childhood.

Some stitchers chose one depiction of the world and others chose another, even as we do now, I suppose.

So, I stitch and ponder. This is slow stitching, a project with no deadlines, only for me.

I am trying to copy the old blocks precisely but realize that, without wanting to or trying, I am smoothing rough edges, making things “prettier” than they were. I am influenced by a 21st-century way of seeing without wanting to be.

I am thinking that I will, eventually, add some personal and modern panels to my version of the quilt, to let it reflect both centuries in which it was made. I’m thinking about a panel depicting an iPhone (because I love mine so!), maybe one celebrating 100 years of women’s right to vote in the US, and, I hope, a panel celebrating the first woman president of the United States.

We’ll see. For right now, I have my plan and my focus. I have 40-some-odd blocks to do before I worry about moving back into the 21st century.

I’m curious about what you think of this old quilt. Do you like it or think it’s creepy? Find it interesting? Or is it ugly to your eyes? Do you prefer the cuter, softer images we see today? What kind of redwork can you imagine yourself doing?


As I’ve plunged, head first, into the rabbit hole of the Internet, I have found all kinds of redwork resources.

An amazing resource for old embroidery patterns, a catalog published in 1886 and including many of the designs in my quilt: New Sample Book of Our Artistic Perforated Parchment Stamping Patterns, from publisher J.F. Ingalls. Available as a free download.

Some of the Ingalls designs, reproduced on Flickr.

A blog featuring many great examples of redwork quilts and patterns.