My Old-Time Religion

I grew up in a family committed to missionary work. One aunt was a Christian missionary in Mexico, another aunt and uncle were Wycliffe Bible translators in Vietnam.

I spent last weekend witnessing as well, proselytizing and evangelizing, but not for Christianity.

Those who follow along here may have a vague memory of me announcing that I’m an atheist, but that doesn’t mean I’m not religious in my beliefs.

It’s just that my religion doesn’t have a god . . . but its heaven is most inviting, or at least it’s the place for me.

It’s a small sect, with few faithful adherents. Some are the equivalent of C&E (Christmas and Easter) Christians—they practice the faith but casually and only on their own terms.

My religion isn’t well-represented in this region; we few members seek each other out and rejoice when we find another believer.

It’s a fundamentally old-fashioned belief system, slow-paced and beholden to the olden days.

My religion, it seems, is hand quilting.

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Last weekend, I spent two days at the biennial show of the Champlain Valley Quilters’ Guild, sitting at a quilting frame–demonstrating, teaching, talking about quilting by hand–and looking for converts.

Like all missionaries, I got a variety of reactions. Some people walked by and laughed, and walked on. A couple of hand quilting atheists shook their heads and called me crazy.

But my slow work, with the serene smile on my face and the peace in my movements, drew others. They sat, they watched, they picked up a needle and joined me.

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Some people were curious—they seemed to come looking for a new kind of meaning, a place of belonging.

Others were already true believers. We spoke in almost spiritual tones and words of how we felt about the hand quilting. It has a soul; it carries the spirit of our ancestors; it allows us to transcend the mundane, to find a peace unavailable through a machine.

I asked them to look at the three or four quilts, in a show of 400, that were quilted by hand, by members of the faith. We could all see and sense the difference, even though we admitted that the quilts done by machine were often awe-inspiring in their own ways.

We agreed that, while we’d never go to war or start an Inquisition to defend our faith, we’d never foist our beliefs on others, we still agreed that our ways suit us best.

Everyone needs to believe in something, I guess. And I believe in taking it slow . . .

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One of only three or four hand-quilted quilts in our guild show. Maybe next time, there will be more!?

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We Have So Much . . .

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Oodles of creative energy and desire. A strong desire, the impulse to make, to create . . .

And no resources. No thread, no yarn, no fabric. Nothing to turn my hands to. I can’t imagine . . .

A lot of my recent pleasure in this complicated world comes from my poor power to make something. When I get too overwhelmed by the news, I can turn away, pick up a rainbow of pretty threads, and play. And heal.

I’m reading a book that helps me realize how very, very lucky I am to have that outlet.

The book is Homefront and Battlefield: Quilts and Context in the Civil War, Madelyn Shaw and Lynne Zacek Bassett. It was published as a companion to a 2012 show that was organized by the now-defunct American Textile History Museum. The show traveled to other museums, including Shelburne Museum of Vermont, where Don and I saw the collection a couple years ago.

The show was spectacular, using “quilts, textiles, clothing, and other artifacts to connect deeply moving and insightful personal stories about the war, its causes, and its aftermath with the broader national context and public history.”

I didn’t write a blog post about this experience, mostly because photography wasn’t allowed and the impact of the show was visual—items included the hemp rope said to have been used to hang abolitionist John Brown, quilts made for soldiers to carry with them to battle, and all manner of personal textile items—knapsacks, clothing, and “housewives”—small sewing kits made for soldiers to carry with them in order to do their own sewing repairs.

Seeing these items moved me greatly and brought the reality of the Civil War to life for me, and I bought the well-written and beautifully illustrated book so I could learn more and have the photographs of the wonderful artifacts. I would recommend it to anyone interested in textiles, domestic social history, and human resilience.

I’ve been re-reading the book lately, in another time of American upheaval and uncertainty. Sometimes, as I read, I almost envy the women left home during the Civil War—they were full of a sense of purpose and knew exactly what they could do to make a difference during difficult times. They sewed, they knit, they wove, they quilted, and they sent the product of their labor to the soldiers whose lives were made substantially more bearable as a result.

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from the website of the American Textile History Museum, athm.org 

In these times that try one’s soul, as I turn my hand to weaving, sewing, quilting, I have no such sense of broader purpose. I am doing what I do for myself and my own state of mind. Making is a balm.

Yet, reading Homefront and Battlefield also encourages me to think about how lucky I am, and not just in the obvious ways—we are not engaged in a war with ourselves, I am not sending sons to battle to fight and kill their brothers. I am not burying the silver in the yard to hide it from the enemy.

I am lucky, too, in that in my need to make and to turn my hand to a job of work, I have unlimited power to do so and unlimited resources to draw from.

One of the points made in the book, and something that had never occurred to me is that, often during years of the Civil War, women had nothing–nothing— to work with.

As a result of any number of realities of war, there were no raw materials to be had. No cotton because it was all diverted to the war effort. No wool because sheep were killed to feed troops, rather than kept for their wool. A Georgia woman described the plight in her diary, saying, “There is no cloth to be had and no thread, no yarn—nor anything to do with. Time passes heavily under such circumstances” (164).

Indeed, it would.

No cloth? No thread? No yarn?? Just worry, and a frustrated desire to turn hands to fruitful labor, to make something that could help.

I have worry. But I have yarn and thread and fabric. I can sublimate my worry, my agitation, into something positive.

I read examples all the time of women channeling grief or anger or worry into their craft, turning to the soothing rhythm of knitting needles clicking or the needle and thread purring through cloth . . .

Can you imagine not having that outlet?

Something for Everyone: A Quilt Show Tonight

Now, I know what some of you are thinking, “Oh, jeez—a quilt show. She’s going to show us pictures of quilts. I don’t quilt. I don’t sew. I don’t care about quilts.”

But I say, with apologies to Stephen Sondheim and the cast of “A Funny Thing Happened at the Way to the Forum,” that no matter who you are, there’s something for everyone at a quilt show, or at least that was the case last weekend at the Vermont Quilt Festival. Come, and hum, along and see if you agree.

Something familiar:

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Something peculiar:

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Something for everyone,
A quilt show tonight!

Something appealing,
Hung from the ceiling

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Something for everyone:
A quilt show tonight!

Something with houses, something with towns;

Bring on the fabric, notions, and gowns!

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Vendors for shopping,
Something eye-popping,

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Something old-fashioned,

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Something with flash and

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Something for everyone:
A quilt show tonight!

Something most modern,

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Something POSTmodern,

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Something with color,
Bright or much duller,

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Something most Op-ish,

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Something more Pop-ish,

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Something for everyone:
A quilt show tonight!

Impressive!

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Obsessive!

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Specific!

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Terrific!

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Something exotic,

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Something chaotic,

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Something Egyptian,

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One with inscriptions,

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Something so striking,

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Much to my liking!

Something so simple and so right!

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Real world tomorrow,
Quilt show tonight!


If those of you who love quilts have any questions, let me know!

The Crafter’s Conundrum: Get It Done or Get It Right?

There comes a time in every crafter’s life, when they need to make a choice: get it done or do it right.

What is your stance on imperfections in the things you make? How do feel about the mistakes you make?

Do you look for perfection? Does your eye zoom in on the tiny error? Do you lose sight of the beautiful forest because of one misshapen tree?

Is there a difference, in your thinking, between an imperfection and a mistake?

Everyone who makes things, who uses their hands to create, faces these questions regularly.

Normally I have a high threshold for imperfection. I adhere to the philosophy of American glassblower, Simon Pearce: “The human hand can’t do anything perfectly, and that’s the beauty of it.”

I seek out imperfections in handmade items. I get a big charge out of seeing the quirky evidence of loving hands in other people’s work.

In my own work, too, I’m pretty relaxed.

I don’t like waste, of materials or money or time. I try to take the attitude that seems to have been present, by necessity, in earlier generations of crafters—will it do the job, in spite of the flaw? Yes? Then leave it be.

Of course, if I am making something for a special gift and hope for it to be cherished, I apply a higher standard but, generally, I’m very practical.

But then this quilt happened.

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The top is finished now and it looks nice but only after I fixed a pretty big mistake.

I started the quilt to practice the new technique I had learned—paper, or foundation, piecing.* I also saw it as a way to address the challenge my quilt guild had posed this year. We were to make a red and white quilt and we had to incorporate two print fabrics.

So, I made the 8-inch pieced blocks and was sooooo careful to get all the small pieces aligned correctly.

After I got the blocks made, I had to sew them all together. I did half of the top before I realized that I had set two of the blocks wrong.

The whole point of the quilt design was the diagonal line of those print fabrics running across the quilt . . . and it wasn’t happening.

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See how the top left block has the print fabrics in the wrong corners?

In two blocks, the prints were in the wrong corners. If it had been only one block, maybe I could’ve justified leaving it alone. But two, evenly spaced, was too much.

And the head of quality control agreed.

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It forced me to think about my attitude toward mistakes and to consider the difference between an imperfection and an outright mistake. There are plenty of small imperfections in this quilt and no one will notice those except me.

But the setting of the blocks was a big ol’ mistake. I needed to acknowledge it and fix it.

So I spent parts of two days doing just that.

And while I worked, I pondered mistake making and thought of my patron saint and asked myself, “What would Pollyanna do?”

I looked for the good in the situation:

  • It could’ve been much worse. I still had half the quilt top to put together and I caught the mistake before I made it many more times
  • I am unlikely to make this particular mistake again, in any quilt I make.
  • I was using a fairly long stitch and it was easy enough to pull out.
  • I own a seam ripper, at which I am, now, quite the dab hand, and another tool that made the job manageable. I’ll tell you more about that someday.
  • The deadline for the quilt guild challenge is still a few weeks away. No need to panic.
  • Mistakes like these keep me humble. Getting humbler every day . . .
  • That which does not kill us makes us strong.

Making, and fixing, mistakes, in whatever arena, works our resilience muscles, I think. If we are to be good at picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off, and starting over again, we need to have practice doing just that.

Little mistakes, faced and fixed, give us practice for surviving the bigger mistakes, the slings, the arrows, we will inevitably face.

And knowing the difference between acceptable imperfection, which can be embraced as simply human, and larger mistakes, which must be set right, is equipment for living a better life.


* Sometimes auto correct gets it right!

As I drafted this post, I meant to type “paper piecing” and got “paper peeving” instead. And, indeed, this quilt has peeved me no end!

Projects . . .

Past: Yet another bunch of kitchen towels, hot off the loom.

Present: Paper pieced blocks, piling up. These are for my guild’s red and white challenge—the deadline is less than a month away!

Future: From this book:

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This pattern, in his and hers lengths:

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In these colors:

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What are you working on these days?

Quilting On A Firm Foundation

Have you been intrigued by quilting but you’re not sure where to start?

A little intimidated by yards of fabric and the idea of cutting it up, just to sew the pieces back together again?

Overwhelmed by the idea of sewing all those straight lines straight and getting all the corners and sections to match up?

I recently took a workshop that I wish I had taken years ago, as a beginning quilter. The workshop was in what’s called “foundation” or “paper” piecing and, while experienced quilters often use this technique to tackle very difficult piecing of very tiny quilt pieces, it seems to me a fine way for non-quilters to dip a toe in the water and find early success.

I think, if you are at all interested in learning to quilt, this might be the route for you!

I am not going to teach you how to do it—I hardly know myself! I only want to tell you about the approach so you can consider whether it might be something to explore, whether at a local workshop or through online videos on YouTube or Craftsy.

Basic idea behind paper piecing:

You start with some sort of foundation that has the design marked on it; the foundation can be as simple as plain white paper or as fancy as specially made and expensive transfer paper.

To this foundation, the quilter stitches pieces of fabric, in a particular order, by sewing on the marked lines. Along the way, pieces of the fabric are also being stitched together, not just to the paper. Because everything is done on a marked pattern, everything goes together in a specific and controlled way. The foundation adds body and substance to the fabric.

When the design is finished, the foundation can be removed or, in some cases, might just be left as a component of the finished project. The paper ends up on the back so it doesn’t show.

So, this sounds complicated—what’s the point?

For me, one of the most frustrating, daunting, and difficult aspects of making a pieced quilt is cutting all those pieces. Yards of fabric flop around and I need hundreds of inch-size pieces from it.

Even with the use of a rotary cutter and good rulers, my pieces seem to end up a little out of square, a little small, a little large. The mistakes might be tiny in each piece but, as I try to sew them all together, the mistakes are magnified and my blocks end up wacky.

I try so hard and still make mistakes (could it be my astigmatism?)—this just sucks the fun out of starting a new project.

Paper piecing solves that.

When prepping for paper piecing, you might cut your fabric into manageable pieces but those cuts are rough cuts and precision isn’t the issue. You cut more precisely after the stitching has been done and the cut edges of the fabric have nothing to do with the stitching. With paper piecing, you aren’t ever going to have to cut your fabric into tiny, fussy triangles that have to be exactly, precisely right in order for the finished product to work.

Let me say that again: With paper piecing, you aren’t ever going to have to cut your fabric into tiny, fussy triangles that have to be exactly, precisely right in order for the finished product to work.

YAY!

Another aspect of piecing that I have struggled with since day one of quilting is getting corners and points to match up. Look at a pattern like this one and consider all the corners and points and seam lines that need to be aligned.

This was the Santa sampler* we made in the workshop. This is the instructor’s finished piece:

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made by Jean Welch

And here are some of the happy Santas we made:

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SO many corners and points and tiny stitches!

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Unmatched corners and points were the bane of my quilting existence. Much of the reason I’ve done so much piecing by hand is that I couldn’t get corners and points even close on a sewing machine—pinning the fabric together made things shift and everything was just a mess. Sewing by hand let me handle the joins with more finesse but, needless to say, it slowed me down!

So discouraging. I began to just tell myself that imperfection was okay and that nobody noticed the mismatched points.

But with what I’ve seen so far, paper piecing means that precision is easy. You can use very few pins, if any. Since you are stitching on lines, if you follow the lines, you’ll get the predicted outcome. Very precise, very satisfying!

Paper piecing has made me pretty happy so far because it eliminates two of the big problems that took the fun out of quilting—cutting fabric precisely and stitching pieces together precisely.

Isn’t it ironic that, by looking for a technique that allows me to avoid precision, I actually end up with a much more precise product?!

This is not to say that paper piecing is all lollipops and rainbows and sweet songs of liberty—I think it has some drawbacks, too, and for me, it’ll be a question of whether the benefits outweigh the costs as I explore the technique more.

One of the drawbacks is that the technique really does take some time to get your head around. It is different from every sort of straightforward sewing you’ve ever done. I can’t imagine learning it from a book. It’s not that it’s difficult but it can be confusing.

In the workshop I took, the participants were valiant and focused, the teacher was well-prepared and patient, and . . . we struggled. It’s just a confusing technique to get a handle on so if you decide to try a) find a class (and there seem to be excellent ones available on the internet, if you can’t find one where you live) and b) don’t beat yourself up if this doesn’t come to you right away!

Two other issues to be considered: so far, paper piecing seems to waste fabric. I am told by my teacher that, in the long run, once a person gets more proficient, the opposite can be true, and you’re able to use up very small scraps of fabric. I hope so.

Also, in most cases the foundation, which was so helpful along the way, needs to be removed . . . I took the paper off the back of my Santas last week. The sewing stitches create a perforated line that makes removal pretty easy but it can still take a lot of time and you end up under a mountain of paper scraps.

For me, another issue that may play a role in whether I continue is that paper piecing is tied to a sewing machine. I like sewing by hand and am most likely to work on quilting in the evening, in an easy chair, with a cat on my lap . . . but I can’t really imagine sewing through paper by hand. Having said that, I CAN remove the scraps of paper in an easy chair and the cat in my lap thinks that’s great fun!

I am going to stick with paper piecing for a while. The red and white block I played with is done with this technique; my guild is having a challenge this year to make a red and white quilt so I’m thinking a lot of these stars would be pretty cool . . .

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Love the colors . . . but I still have one imperfect point!

As I look for more information on the technique, it is evident that paper piecing should never get boring—as the quilter grows in confidence and expertise, the paper piecing patterns get more intricate and the pieces of fabrics get tinier . . .

I’d love to hear about the experiences of other quilters on this topic. Are there benefits or drawbacks of the technique that I haven’t learned so far? And, if you aren’t a quilter yet, can you imagine trying this approach?


  • The Santa quilt pattern came from Favorite Foundation-Pieced Minis by the Editors of Miniature Quilt magazine

 

Quilting Hands at Home: An Adirondack Quilt Show

A huge space, filled with of handmade quilts, on a brisk autumn day! When the biennial show of the Champlain Valley Quilters’ Guild of New York opened a couple of weeks ago, the colors inside the building rivaled those on the sugar maples outside. But the colors on the quilts will last long after the leaves have fallen!

I’ve said elsewhere that I think quilting is, just maybe, the quintessential expression of “loving hands at home.” It conjures images of regular people, using what they have on hand, to create a practical item that transcends the maker and the purpose. The time commitment in making a quilt is not undertaken lightly and the finished quilt envelops and warms the recipient, and brings beauty to any space. To see nearly 300 quilts and other textile projects on display is to see thousands of hours of work and love made tangible.

The photos sort of speak for themselves. Like every quilt show, this one was pure eye candy.

Many of the quilters had participated in a “mystery quilt” challenge, in which they were instructed to choose fabrics along certain guidelines and then follow instructions that were communicated periodically, so the beauty of each woman’s quilt (and, yes, they were all women—no men in this guild at all!) would be revealed slowly. These quilts were displayed together and the range of colors choices was fascinating!

Probably every quilt show has a regional angle or flavor. This one was no different. These quilters are based in the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain region of upstate New York so many of the quilt reflected the colors and subject matter of the area.

I am pretty bummed to say that I did not win the raffle quilt but I did pick up a copy of the Quilters’ Guild cookbook, which they compiled a few years ago. I love these community-based cookbooks for their old-fashioned, and often downright quirky, recipes.

This recipe book reflects the region just as the quilts themselves did. It has far more recipes for desserts and sweets than anything else, with an emphasis on apples and maple syrup, of course!

I’ll leave you with their “Recipe for Happiness This Year” (slightly edited to match my writing rules!)

Ingredients:

Water, Meals, Plants, 3 Es, Books, Exercise, Family and Friends, Excess

Directions:

Drink plenty of water. Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a beggar. Large meals earlier in the day are healthier for you. Eat more foods that grow as plants and eat less food that is manufactured in plants. Live with the 3 Es: energy, enthusiasm, and empathy. Read more books this year than you did last year. Take a 10-30 minute walk daily and, while you walk, smile.  Realize no one is in charge of your happiness except you. Call your friends and family often. Each day, give something good to others and get rid of anything that isn’t useful, beautiful, or joyful.