Pieces of you

A panel of my unfinished quilt
A detail (!) from a quilt in the 2010 Tokyo International Great Quilt Festival
Patterns found in thrift shop

At some point during the girls’ small child years, I started to make a quilt of their baby clothes. I made a very simple one from some flannel sandwiched around a bolt of fleece from John Lewis, a satisfying project made possible by the purchase of a sewing machine off the expat appliance market from someone moving back to the low-voltage US.

The sound of it brought back memories of childhood, when my mother sewed all the time, back when you could browse dress patterns and fabric at all the department stores. You could buy a pattern for a shift, add sleeves for a tunic, turn that into a jacket.

My parents had an ancient quilt at the foot of their bed, a log cabin pattern that my mother’s grandmother or great-grandmother from North Carolina had made. A few years ago, my father gave me the bedspread his grandmother had given his parents as a wedding gift. She had given each of her children a quilt but my grandfather was the second youngest of 10 and so by the time she sewed for him it was a plain white spread with crocheted panels.

My mother had saved some of my baby clothes and brought them to me in London. They were relics from another era: a dress from Best & Co., a venerable, departed NYC department store; handknit sweaters with intricate snowflake patterns and matching knit trousers; a smocked dress and a tiny and delicate white shirt that my father had worn.

I am old enough to have had a pair of white gloves for church and I remember running my hand along the iron fence and getting soot on them. I can still see the floral print of the dress I was wearing and realize now that the purple and green print on white was what I liked about a particular item of clothing I bought 25 years later at Baby Gap and then saved for the quilt. That’s also why I own a skirt with bunnies on it, the sartorial equivalent of Little Golden Books, which I found in the quilting bag this morning and have returned to my closet.

I liked the idea of making something I could pass on, and that would contain the girls’ memories, and my memories of them, even though I knew this job was in untrained, less skilled hands.

Whereas: My mother is like a spider given knitting needles or a crochet hook. She can knit fast, as she types, by touch. And she can bridge when she shuffles. Her mother, too, a pianist, made beautiful sweaters in solid, perfect colors.

I heard on the radio that UK budget cuts mean that knitting will no longer be taught in school in the Shetland Isles and a woman talked about her friend’s child who had been looking forward to starting school and learning to knit so that she too could enter this magic circle of girls and women. I know how she must feel. Knitting, any craft, is a language, and they are endangering it.

My friends in London formed a knitting group and advanced to socks while I struggled to remember how to finish off a simple row of knit or pearl. My notable project was my 46 Bus scarf, an endless, Dr. Who-style stripy scarf knitted by frozen fingers as I waited for the notorious Clerkenwell to Kensal Rise bus that was for a time my only mode of transport between home and work. It gave me an excuse to shop for yarn, something to do with my hands.

By the time I had passed along the more utilitarian denim and fleece clothes, I had a few bags of potential material. I bought a book which explained some of the mechanics of quilting and recommended X-ray film for making the template. Oddly enough, I found myself in an X-ray department shortly thereafter and thought to ask for a sheet. It is blue and transparent and combines thickness with flexibility.

Over the years I cut triangles and squares of the favorite outgrown items and laid them out to form my own simple design, sketching out different arrangements of light and dark. The quilt grew and traveled from one flat to the next, coming at last to rest in a duffel bag.

Last weekend, we made an impromptu trip to Atlanta to see a good friend, a fellow New Yorker who has been there for years. A mutual friend, also a New Yorker and another long time Southern transplant, was doing a reading there of his book, Mr. Peanut, that week. Hey, guess who’s coming to town, I said.

If it were not for the shackles of middle school homework and it being the night of obedience school, the volleyball tournament and the older daughter’s community service, a night of the week in which two parents must be three and we feel acutely American as we rush around in our cars and eat dinner in shifts, I might have gone for the reading, but this exchange led to our weekend plans whereupon, dog and all, we descended.

In the course of the evening, the conversation turned to quilts. My friend and her family go to a small town in North Carolina for holidays and there she has taken a quilting workshop. Her quilt is finished and hangs on the wall. She showed me pictures of the other projects and explained one of the basic principles of design she was taught, which would have improved my own quilt, basic rules which must have been known to my North Carolina great-grandmothers. Then she showed me a flickr slideshow of the Tokyo quilt festival, from which the above image is a screengrab, which was stunning array of visual intelligence, executive function and beauty, taking the geometry of the American quilts and transforming it into something else entirely.

I have a quilt, I sighed. Poor unfinished quilt, languishing in its duffel bag, pushed under the guest room bed. The panels are finished and I have the material to back it but what eludes me is the border.

Send me a picture, she said, and maybe I can give you some ideas.

Pulling it out to photograph this morning of course those small child years come back, the juice box, sippy cup, pasta and broccoli years, the bags slung over the back of the stroller years, the Babybel, raisin box in your purse at the playground years. There is the favorite dress the younger daughter wore before her boyish, monochrome, Spider-Man phase began, the lovely playsuit from Java Cotton, the batik things we bought from a little shop in Uz├Ęs, my shirt from 4th grade which I cut up to patch jeans in college, the corduroy overalls my mother had saved from my babyhood, and some Kaffe Fassett quilting squares from Liberty because they were pretty.

Quilts are formulaic and pattern-based, but highly individual. They require a broad look to see the pattern and then a closer examination where you notice the tonal shifts, the variations, and finally a subplot of stitching that tells another story, the actual quilting. If you know about the fabric involved there is that storyline as well. I doubt my quilt is that verbal, but, if ever it is finished, it will be something to pass on and the girls will have their own stories to tell.

You have false starts, ripping out seams, unused material. Like this post, which at one point included grits, chicken fried steak, eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day, a friend’s trip to London where she will shop for fabric, and my own fears about going back, and my mother offering me her sewing machine, there were pieces that didn’t fit together properly and I had to stuff them back into the scrapbag and save them for another time.

The quilting bee is now online, another layer of my life refashioned, a panel shared. The reunion of us northern expatriates never happened in full: the writer, the quilter and me, but we were rearranged, he seeing her, she seeing me, my writing this, and as we cross in and out of each others’ lives we continue to form patterns, discernible or not, combining and recombining like partners in a square dance, with or without a caller.

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