Repairing a Quilt

As for mending, I think it’s good to take the time to fix something rather than throw it away. It’s an antidote to wastefulness and to the need for immediate gratification. You get to see a whole process through, beginning to end, nothing abstract about it. You’ll always notice the fabric scar, of course, but there’s an art to mending. If you’re careful, the repair can actually add to the beauty of the thing because it is a testimony to its worth.
Elizabeth Berg, The Art of Mending.

I’ve always wanted to own quilts – old quilts that someone made by hand a long, long time ago. When my mother-in-law passed away years ago my husband brought home nearly an entire apartment full of antiques from the family home in Kansas. There were the sideboards, an upright grand piano, the fabulous grandmother clock, a rocking chair my husband’s grandfather sat in as a baby back around 1910, and more. Some of these treasures we kept, some we simply couldn’t as space wouldn’t allow for so many large pieces. But among the furniture and other objects there were some colorful, intricately pieced quilts.

One I remember vividly was in the Victorian crazy quilt style. It was all black velvet and blue or grey striped wool – probably from a discarded men’s suit. It was sewn crudely with bright-colored yarn and I loved it so much it finally wore out completely. Of the ones that remain, my favorite is a sweet old thing. It’s the perfect weight for a nap or to throw over my legs when lost in a novel. The pieces are arranged in widely spaced fan shapes with a mix of calico fabrics in warm colors – probably from feed sack cotton. Sometimes when I’m arranging it on the bed or folding it up or gently cleaning it and putting it out in the sun, I find myself wondering what circumstances brought this lovely old thing into being. My husband was uncertain as to its exact origin. Maybe his grandma Doris had made it, maybe even his great-grandma Hazel. Privately I adore the idea of marrying into a family with both a Doris and a Hazel in their history – not to mention my husband’s mother, Lois. Makes me proud to think of them somewhere in the great beyond having tea with my own mother, Winnie.

A quilt is the story of a family – the births, the fights, the tenderness, the confidences, the illnesses, the deaths. The story is entrusted to the sweet old objects, the fine tangibles left behind. Over time the events and details of a story begin to fall away, to become forgotten or conflated. (“Did Aunt Peggy say that, or was it Aunt Mae?”) It takes time to repair a story, and some effort. Over time the fabric pieces that make up a quilt become frayed or torn, the stitches may loosen their grip on the whole.

I’m sure there is an argument for keeping an antique quilt intact in its original form – of leaving history alone – that it’s somehow a breach of family honor to interfere with the process of eventual decay. I’ve been told to frame these quilts and put them on the wall. But to me, this betrays the original intention of the makers. Someone made these by hand to serve a purpose, in the same way that flour was ground for bread and herbs were dried by a sunny window, these small triangles of calico were carefully chosen, matched, cut, and then painstakingly sewn – one piece at a time – one stitch at a time by a woman (or two or more) to keep the family warm and safe. When we take possession of the objects left behind in a family, we become responsible for them. I can’t imagine these ladies would want their work standing around in a frame on someone’s wall as artifacts. I picture them smiling as we smooth out the fans across the bed in the morning after a sound sleep. So I have to mend them.

I started choosing fabric out of my own stash of scraps – paisley, gingham, even a Japanese floral. It seemed fitting to add a new chapter to the story. But it wouldn’t do. Somehow it felt a little like sacrilege. Besides, a paisley here, a Japanese floral there didn’t work with the original design. On close inspection the story becomes more clear, the details begin to emerge piece by piece out of the whole. I decided to step back. I decided to do some reading, some research about how quilts were conceived and how they were made.

Back in the day, as the saying goes, a homemaker would buy grain and flour in large sacks and use the sacking material. During the depression, this grain sack fabric was often used to sew essential items of clothing. In 1939, word got around to a grain vendor in Kansas, that women were using sacking cloth to make clothing – dresses – out of necessity when they couldn’t afford to buy new fabric. One company hit on the idea of making the grain sacks from colorful, patterned cloth so that more attractive material would be available at no cost. Evidently, other vendors did the same. Dresses were made using pretty, printed grain sack fabrics and any scrap – every scrap – was used in quilts. Obviously I couldn’t use any odd bits of fabric I happened to have – even though this is exactly what was done in the original crafting of these quilts. I decided I had to search for whatever intact pieces of original sacking cloth I could find that were preserved well enough to cut into sections and piece into the quilt. I searched around in antique stores but only found bits and pieces. Finally, I decided to search online and was actually able to find some “fat quarters” in colors and patterns that would harmonize with the existing designs. I ordered three different pieces.

Choosing the right material was one chore easily accomplished. Next I made a little pattern out of graph paper and cut several long, scalloped wedges for each section of fan that needed to be replaced. These I pressed so their edges would tuck in nicely. Once the pieces were pinned into place I’d unwind a generous length of thread and – remembering my mother-in-law’s advice – I waxed the thread three times on a chunk of paraffin to keep it from knotting.

Just as in any good story, as soon as one issue is dealt with, another surfaces. The stitching. Let me enter the quilting room in utter humility. My hand stitching leaves much to be desired. Now I can break out the trusty Singer and whip out a dress or a tunic whenever the mood strikes me. But my hand stitches? Even though my mom sat me down and patiently taught me how to make a blind stitch on the hem of a dress or blouse that anyone might envy, still, let’s just say that hand sewing appears on the long list of things I aspire to, practice a little, fail to master, and then add to the other long list – things I’m not actually that good at.

I have made one quilt on my own, an accomplishment of which I am moderately proud. The pieces are durable cottons from Japan – mostly stripes and plaids along with a few florals left over from dresses I’ve made over the years. I cheated a lot on this first quilt – sewing the big rectangles together on the machine and then tying the whole business together over soft cotton batting with a sateen bed sheet for the backing, and finally adding a wide black binding around the sides. It’s primitive and the rectangles aren’t exactly uniform, but it’s a perfectly fine thing and warm.

But this dear little quilt, this wonderful gift left behind for us by a grand or great-grandmother, this one must be mended by hand. And so the stitching starts. And yes, despite my attempts to duplicate the preparations Lois showed me all those years ago, my thread still tangles – every time. The funny thing is, as I pick up a tiny nib of fabric on my needle and work the thread from the accepting, existing piece and then stab it into the new fabric, I can’t help but notice the surrounding stitches – those that went before mine – and hope my own efforts will somehow pass muster. Sewing for me has always been a brazen, inexact leap of faith – estimating, eye-balling, sometimes cutting out a dress or blouse of my own crazy design without even pinning down a pattern. I tend to rush into projects like a fool in love with color, texture, form – scoffing at the math I should take the time to acknowledge and use. And yet, whenever I sit down to work on this quilt I feel their eyes on me – I see the soft and weathered fingers of those now long gone – those I never met but who, in many ways, formed the man I married. They are the ones who first sat down with these small and perfectly cut bits of cloth and lovingly, competently stitched them into place. I imagine they must have talked together while they worked. Now they are silent as they watch me trying to match my stitches with theirs. I hope they regard my work with tolerance, probably with humor, but most certainly with love. I respectfully hold in my hands a story they’ve left to me to mend. The needle is threaded. The pieces are pinned. Time to get to work.

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