Quilting and Gardening: It’s All the Same to Me

I’ve heard it said that quilters are often drawn to gardening, as gardeners are to quilting.

Since I’ve been doing a LOT of both lately, I’ve had time to ponder this proposition and can see a million reasons why these two activities would appeal to the same people!

In fact, I’m a more experienced quilter than gardener and I’ve begun to see that, when I reach a problem in thinking about my gardens, I can draw on my quilter’s knowledge to help give me insight. I bet it works the other way around, too!

Here are my top five ways (out of a million) that quilting and gardening are aligned. Perhaps you can add others!

Planning—While there are improvisational ways to make a quilt, I think most quilters like the planning process, which draws on both the right and left sides of the brain. There’s a fair amount of math involved in quilt making and it was only when I started making quilts that I saw any point in having taken high school geometry.

Math isn’t so important in gardening but there are certainly rules to follow, in order to achieve success. I used to ignore that silly business about plants wanting full sun or shade, until the plants threatened to report me for torture. Similarly, those rules about growing zones really do provide valuable information!

Level of commitment—Both quilting and gardening demand quite a high level of commitment. Even a small quilt involves multiple stages and I’ve learned it’s possible to get hung up at any stage. Quilts do not finish themselves.

Along the same lines, you simply cannot have a garden without a gardener. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve been known to plant things and then walk away from them, and it never ends well.

Both quilting and gardening are easy to start and more difficult to see through to fruition. While quilters talk about UFOs (unfinished objects), gardeners are more likely to simply look at their weedy, undistinguished patches of earth and shake their heads sadly.

Patience and vision—Related to needing a fairly high level of commitment, both quilting and gardening demand real patience and the ability to envision how pieces will come together to form a whole. I suspect that folks who are exceedingly product-oriented have trouble as quilters and as gardeners.

When I start a quilt, I need to be aware that it will be months before I can really see the beauty in what I’m doing. I need to find pleasure in the doing because the start is often messy and uninspiring. I need to be able to see the finished project in my mind’s eye, to give me the trust that all the tedious early work is worthwhile.

It’s exactly the same with gardening. Nothing we plant really looks good at the start. I’ve spent days lately with crud under my fingernails and my flowers look small and insignificant. I tend to over-fill my perennial beds because I have trouble envisioning how big the plants will get in time. As I get slightly more experienced with both quilting and gardening, I get better at anticipating and seeing into the future, which helps me practice patience.

Color and Shape—Perhaps the most obvious similarity between quilting and gardening is the use of color and shapes to create a pleasing whole. I tend to like solid fabrics (or small prints that “read” as solid) in quilts, and get results from shading and use of lights and darks. This translates well to the garden, even though I’m still trying to figure out how to do it.

I like the way bright, saturated colors show up against dark backgrounds in my quilts and am trying to use bright plantings in shady areas—chartreuse foliage and hot orange and yellow flowers. I have definite preferences for color in both venues—you’ll find no purple in my quilts and the only purple in my gardens comes from one happy, healthy rhododendron that was here when we moved in and I haven’t the heart to uproot.

For quilters and gardeners, colors and shapes become the building blocks of their vision.

Individuality—One of the activities popular with quilt guilds is the so-called mystery quilt challenge. Quilters are told to buy, say, four fabrics in a color range of their choice. Then they are periodically given instructions of how to cut and join the fabrics. Eventually, the patterns develop and all the quilters bring their finished products together.

The amazing thing about this challenge is how different and individual the quilts are, even though they are made with the same design! The different choices people make in the fabrics create limitless possibilities in the finished quilts. You would get the same individual interpretation if you asked quilters to use the exact same fabrics but to choose their own quilt patterns.

Makers have always expressed their individuality through quilt design, so much so that certain quilts can be recognized as being made by certain quilters or by having been done in a particular region.

Gardening, too, offers the same endless possibilities with the same basic ingredients. We all use the same relatively small number of plants and flowers that work in our growing zone but the results are as varied as we are. If you and I both start with petunias and geraniums and creeping Jenny, my end product will look entirely different than yours!

So, quilters and gardeners are always achieving their own distinctive look, even while they carefully eye the work of others to provide new ideas. Whether I’m at a quilt show or walking through a new garden, I’m wondering what I can use of the ideas in front of me.

It occurs to me that the points I’m making about quilting and gardening may very well apply to other endeavors as well. Do you garden? How does it relate to your other artistic undertakings? Are there similarities? Do you learn how to approach one from the other? Do tell!

 

As I wait to hear from you, I’m going back to my quilting. Or my gardening. Or maybe both!

You Complete Me

pot holder girl-2For me, a special feeling comes from picking up a project, begun with good intentions by a woman who now can never finish her own work, and seeing it through to completion. I always imagine that long-gone woman smiling, to know that her effort was not wasted and that her work lives on.

If you love to embroider or quilt AND you love vintage AND you love the sense of a connection across time and place and experience, you can find almost limitless opportunities to work on vintage linens that need attention from you to be completed. It’s the best of all worlds—you can add your touch to the work, feel great about it completing a project that never would’ve gotten done without you, and be further rewarded by a vintage design done with quality vintage fabric!

Just as so many of us buy patterns and fabric with big plans but end up, instead, with UFOs (un-finished-objects), our foremothers did, too. Etsy and eBay are crammed with these projects, either never started or only partially done, and all are just waiting for a pair of loving hands to complete them.

If this all sounds appealing, you have lots of options to choose among, including the three I’ll cover here.

Vintage embroidery, waiting to be finished

I did a quick search on Etsy just now that yielded over 100 vintage items, ready to be stitched and turned into something lovely. You could find many more on eBay. The projects range from pillowcases to napkins to aprons to towels and the fabrics range from Irish linen to cotton and easy-care-options. Some of these projects are completely unfinished and some are nearly complete. You can even find sets that include the original thread.

This is an example that I found recently and will list on Etsy if I ever get around to it.

pot holder girl-1The embroidery here is finished and accents the colored cotton. The pieces are designed to be assembled as potholders and I think the girl’s face and bonnet piece is meant to be a caddy for the round potholders. The long piece with the embroidered word “holders” may be meant to be folded in half and stitched to the girl, as a handle that could be put over a drawer pull.

A couple of other examples:

Vintage transfers

Iron-on transfers were very popular in days gone by and a favorite technique for women to spiff up plain towels or other household items. These pieces of tissue paper had a design that could be transferred to fabric with a hot iron and each woman could choose her own design and colors for embroidering. Vogart was a huge purveyor of these designs and there are literally hundreds of sets of Vogart designs available on Etsy and eBay at any given moment.

If you are lucky enough to have some vintage towels or pillowcases that belonged to your grandmother or mother, you can replicate the work they may have planned to do by using these transfers and doing the embroidery. And, if you are NOT lucky enough to have plain linens waiting for your loving hands, of course you can purchase those in lots of places, from garage sales to antique stores.

Monograms? Check.

Pin-Up Girls? You bet.

And how cute are these chefs?

You can even get transfers to create quilt blocks that can then be turned into a full-size quilt, just like one your grandma might’ve made.

Vintage quilt tops

And speaking of quilts, it nearly kills me to find a beautiful quilt top, pieced or appliquéd by hand, that was never completed and used. All that work! All that love! All that unfinished business  . . .

I understand how this happens. Most people view the creative aspect of quilting to be making the top—piecing the precious scraps or appliquéing the thrilling colors. It’s a lot more fun to make the tops than to do the necessary, but long and nit-picking, work of the actually quilting together of top, batting, and backing. So many more quilt tops were made than ever got turned into a finished product. But, still, an unquilted top never achieves the essence of “quiltness”—keeping a person warm while brightening a room. It’s like a caterpillar that never gets the chance to be a butterfly! You can change that!

I was lucky enough to learn to quilt by hand on an unfinished top made by the venerable Grandma Van. She finished many quilts but wasn’t able to get this one done. I was learning to piece my first quilt top and was a long way from being done but wanted to try my hand at quilting. My husband had brought this quilt top home when Grandma Van died and I knew what I needed to do.

It’s fun to look at this quilt now because my learning curve can be tracked from the middle of the quilt, where I started with ragged, long stitches, to the edges, where I was getting pretty good at regular, tiny stitches. It was almost like Grandma Van was there, guiding my hand! And I finished the quilt—I brought it from a pretty, but basically useless, piece of pieced fabric to the finished treasure Grandma Van meant it to be.

grandma van and meIf this sounds appealing but don’t have a Grandma Van in your past, there are thousands, and that is not an exaggeration, of quilt tops available on Etsy and eBay. Quilts in every style and pattern and color combination you could want, from the sophisticated to the folky:

All kinds of unfinished projects would benefit from your loving hands. The next time your fingers are itching for a new challenge, instead of starting from scratch with a new design and new materials, consider helping a “friend” finish her project. Trust me, she’ll want you to keep it when it’s done.

These projects need you. You complete them. And along the way, you may just find that they complete you.