Quilting Reflections


Making a Virtual Quilt

Did you know that the majority of quilts that you see pictured in the fabric ads in magazines are not real quilts at all but computer design images? In fact the quilts that you see pictured in some magazine ads may never have been ‘made up’ at all by the fabric manufacturer!

Virtual Olympic Quilt Design

If you are thinking that the fabric companies are simply too busy to make up a proper quilt and get a good picture of it for their ad you’d be wrong. The reason that there are so many virtual quilts lies in production timing.

Let’s look at the production of the fabric for my quilt Winter 2010. The fabric designer Laurie Godin came up with the original sketches for her line which were submitted to Northcott Inc. The artwork for the fabric was sent to the fabric mills. Most of the mills used by fabric companies are in Korea, or China or some other far away country. While Northcott was waiting for the fabric to be produced and shipped back to Canada and the USA it began sending out CD copies of the fabric to quilt pattern designers.

Actual Olympic Quilt Design

Brenda Miller, who designed Winter 2010, received a CD from Northcott which contained pictorial swatches of the fabric. She began the quilt design process on her computer. If you look carefully at the pattern cover for the Winter 2010 quilt you will notice that the picture shows a virtual image, not a picture of a quilt at all. Notice that the top block in the virtual quilt features a hockey player while the real fabric quilt in the picture has a cross country skier in the same position.

The computer design process for the image takes a couple of weeks to complete. No black lines can show between the blocks and patches from the original computer sketch. All the fabrics must appear to scale in the image. Compare the scale of the virtual picture to the true quilt to see how well things worked out!

About a month after the pattern was computer designed the fabric arrived from the orient and Brenda made the quilt you see here. Northcott used this lag time to do its ad work and pre-sell the fabric to shops. That’s how it works nowadays!

In Search of Lost Time

I am seldom between quilts, as I am seldom between books; I often begin to cast about for new projects or things to read before the last one is complete. But once in awhile, before a particularly large quilting project, as before an epic read, I do tend to pause and try to collect my strength. It is like a great inspiration of breath, prior to a dive. It is a delicious feeling, wondering what pearls one might find 'down there.'

Recently I experienced this pause before setting out to read a translation of Marcel Proust's great work, "A la recherche du temps perdu." During my indwelling of breath, prior to the plunge, I began to wonder why the work was first translated into English as 'In Search of Lost Time,' and only recently as 'Remembrances of Things Past.' Still trying to imagine what world might appear when I read it, the titles alone cast their spell over me.

Of course the time we spend on quilts gets woven into the fabric!

The same pause occurred when I put the finishing touches on the design of a scrappy quilt sampler that has been our guild's project over the past year while I have been its program director. The quilt is an arrangement of sample quilt blocks, each with its own unique character. Anyone who has quilted knows what I mean when I say that this finished quilt has become a record of time spent, in the last year. Those who haven't quilted have no doubt experienced the same thing with music -- a song, many years later, will bring to mind moods, thoughts and scents of the time in which that song was first heard, or first danced to. Of course the time we spend on quilts gets woven into the fabric! The early natives of North America knew that, and their wampum told the story by touch -- the touch of one who remembered.

the time we spend on quilts gets woven into the fabric

We have a duty to the past, to treasure it, and to keep it alive in our memories, and quilting to me -- as wampum was to the natives -- is a way to remember. My scrappy sampler was designed and created during a particularly difficult time in my family's life. As I pause, prior to diving into the next big quilting project, I take a moment to hold that quilt, and remember the final year in my father's life. The stitches I put into the layers of fabric here, and here -- the time my thoughts were with him, as his illness drew him ever closer to the grave -- all of that is present in this quilt. As I run my fingers over the seams and the patterns, I am recalling lost time -- time that never may come again, but time that was well spent with him.

My father was a poor immigrant farmer when he arrived in Canada with nothing, in the aftermath of a war in which his home country was considered the enemy. He came, not speaking the language, he pioneered a business of his own, and he built a life for his family here in what he believed was the Land of the Future in the North. In his home, I felt loved enough to express myself, in endless creative ways. As I grew, I would show him some of the things I had created, be they paintings, sculptures, knotted cords, drawings, and ultimately quilts. He was always interested. He had a creative streak himself, as he loved to work with wood, making furniture or sculpture; but with him, work always took precedence. One day, long after he retired, he mused about his own ancestors -- his mother and father, and their parents -- and what they might have created with their hands, had they not had to work their entire lives, so hard, in a nation torn apart by war. I look at my quilt now, and touch it with hands that have only known peace. For that, I give thanks to God -- and to my Vati for his vision in coming here.

At the turn of the millenium, my father was diagnosed with a rare form of dementia, Lewy Body Disease. His memory remained sharp regarding the early details of his life, and we asked as many questions as we could think of, over the years, to compile a family history. In the last year, though, some of the things he told us no longer made enough sense to save; his ability to communicate was also impaired. As he descended into Silence, I quilted scraps of fabric together. I sewed together the quilted blocks in the same way we drew together the anecdotes he told us of his childhood; and as it all came together, a pattern was revealed. A thing of beauty appeared that I never before imagined. His memories have taken us on unexpected pathways, and in them are clues to the origins of far older ancestors. In the conversations, we discovered a great grandmother, who had once been a dressmaker. Perhaps she quilted as well. In search of lost time, we find the remembrances of things past; in the remembrances of things past, we search for lost time.

A quilt is the perfect metaphor to what remains behind us as we move through our life by minutes, by days. A quilt harnesses the moments of time that would otherwise be lost, gathers them up, and orders them. At the same time, quilting enables conversation and reflection and enobles us, making the scraps of our mysterious existence honorable. Because it is such a perfect match, quilts have often been used to fund research into the cure for Alzheimers.

As the stay stitch of our days unravel, all that remains of the time we spend on this earth is our character, and it is formed one stitch at a time, one moment at a time.

The Value of Instruction

I was having a bit of lunch in the back room at my favourite quilting store between teaching some classes. Nellie, the store's mascot, was in her regular spot watching my every bite. I could hear Shirley, owner of the Marsh Store, out in the front shop with a mother and her daughter. They were deciding upon the fabrics with which the young girl might like to make her quilt.

Suddenly, the girl bounded into the classroom looking for the dog. She was about nine years old, and looked quite stylish in her party clothes as she tossed the ball to Nellie. I was happy to have the dog's attention diverted from my sandwich, so as she played catch, I chatted with her a bit about dogs, her grandmother who lived nearby, and her sewing. She had already made some quilting projects for her bedroom but she wanted to make something special to earn her Brownie badge. Her Mom had made sure that she and her two sisters had their own sewing machines. After this brief encounter she bounded off again to continue to look at fabric.

I finished eating and went out to the store to sew a label to one of my new quilts that I had recently finished and was now on display. The pattern is simple, but non-intuitive; the blocks go together quickly but then are pieced with rotations that require a bit of care and attention. The little girl's Mom had already seen the pattern when we were out back; it includes instructions for several sizes, and she realized that the smallest size would make the perfect Brownie project. Her daughter could do it, I felt certain. I do my best to write clear instructions, and I include as many pictures as I think are helpful to aid in understanding. I could see she had the right attitude: a bit of moxy, a glint in her eye of determination and confidence. Fearlessly, the little girl chose bright orange and lime green fabric. I watched my new aquaintence leave with her purchases, and as I waved goodbye, feelings surfaced in me that I find difficult to describe.

What you are doing is beautiful, trust it. Go Wild.

I was thrilled to have met her. I thought back to when I was nine years old, and sewing on my own, with no instruction. My mother had an old Singer sewing machine that came in a wooden carry-box. She also had a box of old cloth, little more than rags really, mostly scrap material from old work shirts. I decided I would make a quilt with this scrap, with no one to tell me how. The only pattern I had was an abbreviated pattern in a woman's magazine. The brightly coloured squares sewn tightly together had attracted my eye.

My mother knew how to sew but she never quilted; and she was often too busy with the family business to monitor every move of her five active children. She was not around to tell me what to do, but neither was she hovering over me telling me what not to do: and that turned out to be a wonderful gift on its own. Left to my own devices, I began to experiment.

I began by cutting the scrap material into four-inch squares. I knew nothing about seam allowances. I didn't have a rotary cutter, they didn't exist back then. I didn't even have any knowledge of geometry at that age to make sure that the 'squares' I was cutting with scissors were actually square. I just cut and cut until I had something that 'looked' square. Then I used that as a template.

The pattern took about 1200 squares. I didn't cut quite that many, but when I had what I felt was enough to start, I moved to the sewing machine. I would grab one coloured piece and sew it to the next. With a little experimentation I discovered how best to make a single long row in one direction. I sewed a length until it felt about right. When I had sewed three of these rows, I tried sewing them together, and that's where I began running into problems. Nothing was lining up! My reconstituted cloth looked nothing like the pretty picture in the magazine!

What happened next can only be described as defeat. With no one to show me how to get beyond this tiny hurdle, my vast project's finish seemed to recede from me. There was no end in sight. I lost faith: I believed it couldn't be done.

I let that thought stop me. The piles of coloured squares sat there for a few weeks, then were tossed back into the scrap bag, eventually to be thrown away. I went back to sewing doll clothes.

How would the intervening years have been different for me, if there had been someone there at that moment to gently guide me? This little girl has no idea how very fortunate she is.

There are moments when experimentation and self-exploration are best; but there are also times when an encouraging word, or having someone show you how can make all the difference. When I teach others how to quilt, I want to get people to the stage where they are comfortable enough with their unique sense of colour, texture and design -- and ability -- to experiment and have fun. Sometimes it takes the completion of a single project for them to catch the spark. Sometimes it takes many more projects, and continued reminding: you can do it, you have done it, here is how it is best accomplished, what you are doing is beautiful, trust it. Go wild.

The path is tricky. Mothers, don't hover. But be ready with that well-timed word of instruction that will make all the difference. They are not just building quilts, they are building character.

Quilting: The Human Experiment

My son came home from university for the holidays and I did a load of wash. Among the items was a pair of Superman cartoon boxer shorts that he's had since public school, wearing them to bed to sleep in. They were faded, the elastic waistband was shot, and there were rips that had occured in all the wrong places. But I washed them and folded them with the rest of the clean clothes, thinking to myself, "well lets see what he does with them next."

My husband is a nurse, and he tells me that before experiments of any kind are done on humans -- medical, social or pharmacological -- the object of the test and the methods must pass a stringent review by independent ethicists. I suppose that's all to the good: but I continually conduct experiments on people. I find people endlessly fascinating. Well, except my husband: we've been married long enough that I find he's fairly predictable to me now.

What will you do next?

My human experiments are all small-scale and, I hope, harmless. The people to whom I teach quilting are often put through tiny little tests that they know nothing about. I like to observe the choices they make regarding colour and pattern and texture. Everyone is so different! The quilts that I design and teach never turn out the same twice when others make them. How do different personalities emerge in the choice of fabric and thread and care of assembly? I find it endlessly fascinating to set up my little experiments and sit back and watch.

This has helped my ability to teach. I know, in any given quilt which I have designed, where I myself had a tendency to go wrong: trust me, we all make wrong turns along the way, or do things that need correction. I watch others at those junctions, but I'm also watching at all other times too. And no one ever disappoints me -- anyone can come up with a new place to go wrong.

"Watch your seam allowances!" I tell them. But with some people telling them is not going to be the end of it. You have to watch people too, and you have to let them do it on their own -- and be ready if they are about to make a giant misstep.

Some people can't get the idea of squaring up their ruler on the fold when trimming and cutting strips. They use the selvage instead. I tell them, and show them and I let them do it on their own. But I continue to watch. I think sometimes the best teacher is not a teacher but your own mistake. If you make a mistake and someone can remind you that its not the end of the world, you move on: you learn.

Another thing I watch for: at first everyone forgets to close the cover on their rotary cutter. I'm continually after people to remind them to do that. But I'm watchful too, for safety reasons.

Some people prewash their fabric, which is a great idea, as long as they fold it the way it came off the bolt before they cut: " Fold your fabric on the length and keep your selvage ends together!" But I make sure I watch them as well as tell them. We try to keep our mistakes inexpensive.

A finished quilt is the result of countless tiny decisions, each of which requires care and attention. The final product is the visible reminder of the care taken, and the human personality that discriminated every step of the way. My quilting classes are human laboratories, and I am the evil scientist! Well, not so very evil, I hope.

You may be wondering: what did my son do with that old pair of Superman boxer shorts? The next time he came home, I noticed there was a brand new pair of Superman cartoon boxers in the wash.

Only the experiment backfired on me, somewhat. Why didn't he just throw them out? He doesn't even like Superman comics. Now I don't know if it was him that broke down and bought the new pair, or his girlfriend! I'll have to devise a new experiment...

Quilters Never Quit

Have you ever written an email to a quilting friend and used the word “quilter” in your message? If your computer is like mine it mercifully checks your spelling before you send your message into cyberspace to your buddies. Have you noticed that the word quilter is always underlined with a red wiggly line indicating you have made a BIG spelling error? Spell Check suggests that you need to replace the word quilter with the word quitter. Over the years it has become very apparent to me the quilters are not quitters. In fact I am indignant that spell check could even suggest such a thing!

Don't Quit or you wont be a quilter!

Think about it. Quilters believe. They are visionaries. Quilters have faith. They start with a wish and a dream and know they will be able to create an heirloom gift for that new baby or just-married couple. Perhaps they have a need to make a quilt for a friend with cancer, or just as a charity offering. Many quilters are quilters before they even start their first project. That quilt in your minds eye is every bit as real as the finished project.

Quilters of the past were not quitters. Quilts were made of cast off fabric and clothing that no one else saw any useful purpose for. Our foremothers not only created a formidable collection of useful quilts but in the process created an art form. No money for batting? No problem. They used the side sections of their old flannel sheets that still had some wear. Even newspaper was used when times were really bad. No quitters these ladies!

I don’t believe I have ever met a quilter that was a quitter. Even the quilting term UFO - unfinished object - shows the belief that every project will eventually be finished. The new acronym WIP (Work In Progress) reinforces that thought. The quilter hasn’t given up on anything; they have only been temporarily distracted with another exciting project.

I visited an antique shop recently with a busload of quilting friends. The most ogled-over items at the store were the unfinished tops and blocks offered for sale. These modern girls were strongly compelled to buy the unfinished projects. It is intuitive for modern quilters to finish the work of their deceased sisters. It’s the passing of the quilter’s torch. We must finish these projects. That’s simply all there is to it. Remember, there are no quitters in our sisterhood only wonderful insightful quilters.