Mending Old Quilts: Everyday Magic, Day 918

A growing pile of old quilts has been staring at me for months, and in the last week, I finally succumbed to the call of the fabric. You see, these quilts held us and our history for so many years, and to see them tattering away without a fight was just wrong. Yet for a long time, I couldn’t figure out what to do to mend the torn squares or disintegrating borders of color and texture.

Some might say to toss quilts with dozens of tears in them, but each quilt, just like each life, has its own story.  Woody and Janet, our cousins, made one of them for me when I was undergoing chemo. Then they sent the quilt to people in our Jewish community so that they could knot the ties in the center of each square while adding their wishes for my recovery. I made several the other quilts over long stretches, the oldest one when Forest, now 22, was a newborn, and I was teaching at Haskell Indian Nations University. I carried cut pieces of fabric with me to long meetings where I listened and sewed, the voices of people from many native nations piercing my heart and the heart of the quilt too.

So how to mend a broken quilt? After a little research, I considered the options of cutting the quilts up to make pillows or even a lampshade or two, but I never wanted to violate the quilts I had spent hours making and dreaming under, washing after an animal or kid threw up on them, or unfurling from the linen closet for the first truly cold night each November. Yet the directions I read for repairing them seemed unduly complicated and beyond my patience and ability.

Then it occurred to me: I could mend the quilts the same way I make quilts (and do most things), with my usual sewing repertoire of trial and error (and a seam ripper nearby).  At the same time, I suddenly got hungry to re-organize my years of fabric, which gave me lots of good ideas on what to put aside for which quilt. Lucky for me, I tend toward batik fabric which tends to look okay next to itself in many variations.

My technique was simple: cut out a square or rectangle of fabric that somewhat matches (or at least doesn’t clash), iron down the edges with a quarter inch turned under, pin it to where it goes in the quilt, and sew like crazy. Then wonderful sewing maven I know mentioned Frankenstein-stitching back and forth over little tears, and I doubled my repertoire.

The results may not be pretty, especially since I’m not all that skilled at sewing straight lines or prone to map out things too carefully. Basically, I sew like I write: fast and sloppy first drafts with lots of revisions. Yet in the end, the repaired quilt (as well as the revised text) blankets me into new dreams. It also feels really good to take something ripped and worn, and give it some new life, reminding me that even in what’s far from perfect or somewhat-falling-apart, when it comes to eeking out a Wabi-Sabi solution, I have all I need right on hand.

If this writing speaks to you, get a copy of Caryn’s new book, Everyday Magic: Fieldnotes on the Mundane and Miraculousbased on over 10 years of this blog. Details here.

IMG_0869Quilting is like climbing into a time machine and disembarking in the future with a magic treasure. You start the quilt in one season, end it in another, each step holding its stories, terally for me since I listened to a lot of podcasts of The Moth, This American Life and Radio Lab while sewing these babies together.

I started the bright blue quilt with the crazy quilt squares — controlled chaos is how I see this design glimpsed and phone-photoed from a quilting book — at the end of the summer, thinking this would be a good transition project. I had just finished organizingIMG_0940 the Power of Word conference for two years, and with the last of my sons moving out, it was empty-nest heaven, trembling and confusing heaven at times, but nevertheless a time of extra time. I felt like I suddenly gained an extra hour each day. So off to the fabric store I went.

I cut the squares for hours one night while listening to “A Night on the Town” on public radio, then whatever came on after that, and after that. Thanks for my sister-in-law, Karen, who is a superb quilter, I learned how to use that great see-through plastic ruler and fabric cutter (just like a pizza cutter, but smaller with no crusts left behind).IMG_0976

We laid out the squares — Ken helped since I needed his eyes for the best color arrangement — on the floor of the playroom. This was the room where once babies tried to eat Legos, and bringing in piles of sharp pins would have been unthinkable. It was hot out and in, and it took a long time to figure out how to place fabric together in ways that didn’t clash or repeat too much. Then I started sewing, and here’s where the mistakes came in.

A helpful woman in the sewing store enthusiastically handed me a flyer featuring IMG_0127upcoming quilting classes when I told her how inexperienced I was. Sure, I’ve made about five other quilts, but far more simple ones and always without knowing what I was doing. Yet when it comes to learning new crafts, you’ll find me in the corner with a seam ripper, undoing a six-foot-long body of tiny machine stitches, rather than actually going to classes or reading instructions. Some of us learn best by mucking around in the mud, and I got to learn about the muck generated by terrible mathematics errors that meant re-cutting and re-sewing big sections, and lots of time rushing back to the store to get more fabric.

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Cat above investigating cat below the quilt

In the end, I delivered the whole enchilada to professional quilter Kris Barlow, who did a gorgeous job turning this big hunk of fabric into a nuanced and three-dimensional piece of beauty.

But while the quilt was with the quilter, I started getting itchy to make another quilt, especially after I spied some stained-glass window quilt designs.

Off to the fabric store again, then IMG_0438out with the ruler and fabric cutter. The problem was that this quilt was, to a person to could only do basic multiplication, more like advanced geometry. I spent far more time than you would expect drawing squares and rectangles and counting out inches for what I would need to cut. Then I realized I forgot to figure in the fabric between all the colorful windows, and since some pieces would be long rectangles alongside shorter squares (each with fabric between them), the addition quickly got beyond me.IMG_0437

In the end, though, I found that quilting seems to be 90% adding and subtracting numbers, and cutting fabric. The sewing part, aside from the bothersome refilling of the bobbins just when I’m on a roll, was a lot like, once the car is packed after weeks of planning, hitting the open road for the much-awaited IMG_0363vacation.

The end of any great sewing project is just a pause in between one kind of weather and another. A trip to see the sandhill cranes in Nebraska landed me in front of a pile of golden and gorgeous crane material, and now there’s a whole pile of fabric to measure and cut. That lure of what different things will look like wedded together by many stitches is irresistible. So I’m climbing inside this springtime-leaving, autumn-bound time machine to see where I land. No doubt I’ll be wearing a new quilt like a super-hero cape, pretending I can fly.

 

My son Forest lives for fleece. He sleeps between fleece sheets, weighted down with five fleece blankets, while wearing (of course) fleece pajama bottoms. He was born loving fleece, and it makes me wonder if, unbeknown to me, my womb was lined with fleece. In any case, when I determined it was time to make him quilt now that he’s the last man standing, aka last child at home (as in “where did the intense sibs go?“), I knew it needed to have a fleece underside.

And so it does! Op top, I used batik-designed greens and blues to match his name and his eyes, and lined various squares with a great musical note print to match his passions (at least one of them). As I sewed, I tried to relax into not worrying about his jolting, rocky and crash-and-burn at times adjustment to high school and being the only kid at home, but to sew into the quilt wishes for him. To believe in himself. To know how much he’s loved. To see all the changing blues and greens of the world all the time. To sleep well. To be fully awake in the world.

Last night, he modeled his new quilt and then, although I begged him to put it on top of the pile of fleece and other blankets, insisted on layering it between the fleece blanket closest to him and the many blankets above. He slept beautifully, and for the first time, maybe even, even made his bed today.