I Get Obsessed: Quilting

I'm not obsessed with quilting just because I have loving memories of the old people in my family doing it.

Jun 22, 2014 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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This was hanging at the house Lesley and I stayed in for our writing retreat.

One of my very early, very clear memories is of sitting underneath the quilting frame my great-grandmother had in our basement. I remember the light that filtered through the quilt on the frame and the shoes of the women who sat around it. I remember their hands, working quickly while they talked.

At some point, Granny DePratter and the other women -- all called either called granny or aunt regardless of actual blood relation -- showed me how to quilt. It was less a matter of teaching, I think, and more a matter of setting me up with some materials and letting me go at it.

I learned how to piece blocks by hand and how to quilt in a way that was more practical than decorative. There was a lot of stitching in the ditch.

As a kid, I took the skills Gran taught me for granted. I didn't practice them enough because, hey, they were just normal skills that all of the old people around me knew how to do. If I'd gotten obsessed back then, maybe I'd have been some kind of hyperfocused quilting prodigy today -- but instead, as with many other things I learned how to do as a kid (like golfing), I failed to practice as much as I maybe should have.

I am not, let me be clear, harboring regrets for my long-lost opportunity to dominate the quilting world. 

What I do have, unfortunately, are so many questions I wish I could ask people who have already passed away.

In spite of that, I have to be honest -- I'm not obsessed with quilting just because I have loving memories of the old people in my family doing it. I don't even have, in my possession at least, any of the quilts that I know they must have completed.

As an adult, I didn't get back into quilting until a friend of mine started taking classes and turning out really gorgeous blocks in a way more modern style.

Modern quilting is a huge thing. Have you seen it, perhaps on one of the hundreds of modern quilt blogs that exist? I want to say my great-grandmother would love it, but I'm not entirely sure about that.

Like so much of the other home skills experiencing a renaissance in mainstream culture, quilting has become big business. There are amazing levels of artistry going on, even as the never-ending debate about what differentiates art from craft continues. 

I know which side I back in that fight (craft can totally be art), but I remain conflicted about the commercialization of what has been a traditional poor skill. 

People talk about these activites -- knitting and quilting and canning and chicken keeping and all of that -- like they were all restored directly from the preserved brain of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Meanwhile poor people have been quietly trucking along, practicing this stuff to survive.

Then there's the whole Missouri Star Quilt Company situation -- where a family fronted by a woman with a strong personality has literally revitalized an entire town via their quilt shop. I mean, that's just rad.

Even with my ambivalence about the way quilting often gets marketed these days -- or perhaps because of that -- I'm glad to have that memory of sitting under the quilt frame and all of the others that come after it.

I'm also glad to have those long-neglected foundation skills. I've been leaning on them pretty heavily now that I'm obsessing over quilts. I AM obsessing -- because I'm bad at doing anything casually.

Lately I am getting caught up in how my intellectual understanding of certain techniques is transitioning to physical practice: I am closer to being able to make my hands do what my mind sees. 

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I'm super into this fantastically cute quilt I saw in a shop in the middle of Western Massachusetts.

In the meantime, I find examples of quilting everywhere. Lesley wrote a little bit about our strange adventure of a writing retreat -- we were nervous of the furniture but every time I went upstairs I was drawn to the old crazy quilt hanging on the wall. It was threadbare enough in places that you could see all of the quilt layers. Then we found a quilt shop!

You buy quilting fabric when you're on a writing retreat, right? (I also bought yarn. And books. So many books.)

My first attempt this go-round with quilting was a very simple strip quilt. I found a jelly roll (a rolled up bundle of fabric strips, cut to be 2 1/2 inches wide and about 40 inches long, all in coordinating fabrics) of pink and orange fabric that I totally loved. And then I sewed all of the strips together to make staggered rows.

(Just a note -- precuts are super hot right now and there's been some quilt world drama over them. It's fascinating! Also, most of the precuts seem to be named after food: jelly rolls, honey buns, that sort of thing.)

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Freya has tried to claim this blankie as her own.

A quilt is comprised of three layers -- the backing, the batting, and the quilt top. In order to successfully quilt, you usually have to baste these layers together. I did this with pins. And with Ed. Because he's the best third hand in the world, and also he's the most patient.

I machine quilted straight lines in one long session with my mother. 

Let me tell you -- as I had to tell her: I'm not a patient or a precise machine quilter. I used a walking foot -- and I made it run.

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I totally cheated by doing decorative machine stitching on the binding.

The end result is a blanket that I have been steadily using since I sat down with a local friend and sewed on the binding. It's nothing fancy -- just premade double-fold bias tape. I didn't even PROPERLY bind the edges, just sandwiched it all in the tape and used a decorative stitch to make it pretty.

Next, I started piecing blocks -- I had this whole CONCEPT, y'all, of blocks that progressed from high contrast to low contrast. 

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Laying these blocks out is an exercise in gradients.

In hindsight, my concept outpaced my skill level. But, as I think I've mentioned before, I'm a deep end of the pool person. So I kept making blocks and making blocks, in one marathon session.

Last weekend, while visiting family, I got to start working on sewing the blocks together using sashing to frame and connect them. My mom ironed and once again demonstrated one of the biggest differences in our personalities when she was super precise on the tiny details and I, well, I was not.

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Freya seems far less impressed by this quilt top.

Coming back to quilting as an adult is interesting -- I'm enjoying it while the obsession lasts. But I'm also trying to remain conscious of the long history of quilting, not just the current hype for it in the world of crafting.

Mostly, I think about how useful a quilt is. Whether that means the one that keeps me warm while I watch Netflix or the Quilts of Valor that go to wounded war veterans, a quilt has a purpose.

And with that in mind, I figure there are worse things I could obsess over.

Do you obsess over craft skills? Are you a quilter? What do you think about modern quilting anyway? Let me know in the comments!