Finding My Quilting Voice

Finding My Quilting Voice

 Zoe holds up a small quilt I  just finished for our good friends' brand new baby boy.

Zoe holds up a small quilt I  just finished for our good friends' brand new baby boy.

“Save your opinions for your quilt. Put your heart and voice into it. Cast your ballot; express your feelings regarding industrialization, emancipation, women’t suffrage, your love of family. . . You want to keep these things in mind: history and family. How they are often inseparable. In the twentieth century you may feel that all those things that went before have little to do with you, that you are made immune to the past by the present day: All those dead people and conflicts and ideas—why, they are only stories we tell one another.”
— Whitney Otto, from How to Make an American Quilt

When Michael and I bought our first house, my mom bought me a sewing machine as a housewarming gift. I was seven months pregnant with Zoe, unemployed, and antsy. I was desperate for stuff  to fill my days as I waited for motherhood to begin. My mom started coming up a few times a week to help me run errands, unpack moving boxes, and sort bin after bin of hand-me-down baby clothes from my cousins. After we finished all of that, she would give me patient lessons in how to operate my sewing machine. Once I had the basics more or less down, she would supervise me as I very slowly sewed a series of very crooked receiving blankets.

And thus began my journey into the world of sewing. At first, everything was super painful. My mom and I do not, I discovered, see or think in the same way. While she was heroically patient with me, I could not always make sense of her explanations and instructions. I also found it impossible to sew a straight seam, and I spent more time picking out mistakes and swearing than actually sewing.

Even though the going was was hard and slow, I stuck with it. Something seemed to click inside me as I delved deeper and wider into the world of sewing and textiles. From receiving blankets I moved on to simple baby quilts, and then onto children's clothing and small items for around the house. I am still very much a novice, but you wouldn't know it by looking at my fabric stash, which is a little bit, well, insane. My scrap bins are also heaped precariously high; I hate throwing out even the tiniest scraps, because I hate the thought of wasting something as beautiful and useful as fabric. 

Lately I have started to think about why I have connected with this art form so strongly. There are, I think, a bunch of reasons. Some of them are abstract and political; I like the idea of investing time and resources into art forms that have traditionally been devalued, written off as mere 'handicraft' because of their association with women. I like, also, the gesture towards sustainability inherent in the practice of making things out of scraps, finding new life in bits and pieces that others would throw away. Other reasons are very simple--I love any pursuit that allows me to amass and display specialised tools. 

 As a stay-at-home mom, I crave quiet and solitude. This is a cliche, but it is a cliche because it is true. I can not overstate how much I love sitting by myself, listening to a podcast, or music, or birds outside the window, focused on nothing but what is in front of me. I love cutting the lawn, doing the dishes, shovelling snow, checking the mail, and going to the bathroom for the same reason. For a blissful few minutes, no one pesters me with their many needs. Until you are a parent, you have no idea just how many needs tiny human beings have. It. Never. Stops.  

What's more, in my work as a parent almost everything I produce is invisible, intangible, and temporary. I produce baskets of clean clothes and wash sinks full of dishes that are immediately re-dirtied; I lovingly plan and prepare meals that are devoured without a trace; I make beds that are re-crumpled; tend to scraped knees that heal. I hug and I talk and I teach and there is really no record of any of it, outside of the memories of my children and my husband. I find myself actually longing for the days of university essays, for the satisfaction of stapling together all of those pages of text that you had produced and then handing them to someone who had to acknowledge them. It was a tangible achievement. Sewing sings to my soul in part because I find it so comforting to again produce a thing that I can hold in my hands. And while no one really actually really wants my old English papers, I can give my little fabric gifts to people and it makes them happy, which in turn makes me happy. I love the idea that something I create can bring a new baby comfort, or make a friend feel cared for.

More than anything else, though, I sew because my mom sews, and I want to be like my mom, because she is the best human I know. I sew because my Grandmum and my Nana sewed.  They both died long before I thought to ask them anything important about the extraordinary lives lead. There are so many things I will never know about them, but sewing lets me feel connected to them. Many of my aunts also sew and quilt, and my husband's mom and grandmothers and great aunts. If you were to ask me what I objects I would save if my house were on fire, I would say all of the quilts and blankets made by the amazing women in my life. No question, no hesitation. That collection is the thing I most hope to pass on one day.

Each of these women had their own particular sewing gifts, and their own style. My paternal grandmother had five children and a degree in chemistry. An extremely practical woman, it is my understanding that she never quilted, but instead sewed sensible clothing for herself and her daughters. My mother's mother, my Nana, hand pieced and hand quilted everything she made. That blows my mind. There is a blue quilt that sometimes lives on Mae's bed that Nana made for the cottage my grandparents owned near Perry Sound. The cottage was sold when I was a teenager, which broke my heart, but at least I still have the quilt. Sometimes I'll go in to tidy up Mae's room and I'll end up just standing there, running my hands over that quilt, in awe of how neat and perfectly spaced her stitches are, how long it must have taken her to finish.

 Quilt by my Nana, whose name was Aleen.

Quilt by my Nana, whose name was Aleen.

My mom is a very skilled and extremely patient quilter. She almost always works by finding a pattern she thinks would be fun to try and then selecting the fabric she needs to complete it. When I was pregnant with Mae, my mom made her the most beautiful navy quilt with a flock of colourful abstract birds flying across it. It involved cutting and piecing of dozens of squares and triangles of all different sizes; for months, she had all of these labelled Ziploc bags around her as she worked her way painstakingly through the pattern.

 Mae's Flock of Birds quilt.

Mae's Flock of Birds quilt.

When Zoe was born, my mom sewed her a gorgeous quilt using fabric by one of my all-time favourite textile designers, Lotta Jansdotter. Though the pattern was fairly straightforward, it involved creating a column of random, improvised blocks of different sizes and shapes, a process she hated and swore she would never attempt again.

 The Lotta Jansdotter quilt my mom made for Zoe just before she was born.

The Lotta Jansdotter quilt my mom made for Zoe just before she was born.

I am the total opposite of my mom. While I do use patterns to sew clothes, when I quilt, I prefer to improvise. My skill is far outstripped by my imagination and ambition, and I have so little patience it is almost comical. I buy random fabrics in random amounts simply because I fall in love with them. I will be struck by an idea for a project or a pattern in the middle of the night and I will get up and go digging through my stash, looking for a piece of fabric that feels right for the job. Rather than buying a pattern, I will usually just dive right in, figuring out what I am doing as I go. When I hit roadblocks, I will troll YouTube, searching for techniques or instructions that will help me climb over it.

 A wedding quilt in progress for our friends Anne and Andrew. This piece was made using the Disappearing Modern Nine Patch method. I love how it plays with negative space, balancing some truly bold patterns and saturated colours with lots of stark white.

A wedding quilt in progress for our friends Anne and Andrew. This piece was made using the Disappearing Modern Nine Patch method. I love how it plays with negative space, balancing some truly bold patterns and saturated colours with lots of stark white.

My process involves a lot of mistakes. I am forever cutting fabric wrong and having to start over. I often struggle and suffer when I could just ask my mom how to do this or that. There is a lot of trying to reinvent the wheel, and the results are often imperfect. I am sometimes embarrassed about this, but on the whole I have come to see it as an asset, a central component of my style, my voice. My pieces are like little reminders that in life it is important to know when to rip out a mistake and start again, and when to simply except it and get on with things. Perfection is often the enemy of good enough, and I would usually rather give someone a flawed thing I have made, full of love and good intentions, than a perfect thing I have bought. I would rather make something than make nothing because I am too afraid of failure. Besides, babies don't give a shit if your stitches are straight. A blanket is a blanket; they are warm either way.

 Zoe and I collaborated on this baby quilt for my nephew Cooper. Zoe found the orange triangle in a scrap bucket and thought it looked like a roof. She laid it out on the floor of the sewing room while I was working on something else, and started to make a rectangle beneath it out of other scraps. She found the big blue rectangle and thought it looked like water.  She called it The Lake House Quilt.

Zoe and I collaborated on this baby quilt for my nephew Cooper. Zoe found the orange triangle in a scrap bucket and thought it looked like a roof. She laid it out on the floor of the sewing room while I was working on something else, and started to make a rectangle beneath it out of other scraps. She found the big blue rectangle and thought it looked like water.  She called it The Lake House Quilt.

None of this comes as a surprise. When I was a child, I loved to cook but hated following recipes. I would simply throw together ingredients that spoke to me until the consistency looked okay, bake it for a random amount of time and then force my parents and neighbours to eat the (often horrific) results. It was a terribly inefficient but deeply effective way to learn to cook. I eventually came to understand which ingredients sweetened and which ones leavened and which ones bound it all together. Painting, writing, decorating, teaching, parenting--this is how I have learned everything that is important to me. This ass-backwards way of working--idea first, followed by an intuitive selection of materials, and only then, almost as an afterthought, investigating how to actually do the thing--this has always been my method. I am rarely efficient or tidy in my learning, but I am creative and curious and intuitive. I hope that, whatever my daughters' learning styles reveal themselves to be, I will be as patient with Zoe and Mae as my mom has always been with me. 

 

 

Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce

Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce

Rhubarb and Rye Streusel Muffins

Rhubarb and Rye Streusel Muffins