Quilters and Their Quilts

There are lots of jokes out there about quilters.  Most of these we come up with ourselves:

It started out as one trip to the fabric shop, and look what it turned into…

It’s all fun and games until the bobbin runs out.

Think of it as a house party with power tools.

You haven’t seen trouble until you use my fabric scissors to cut paper.

I laugh along with everyone else when anyone jokes around about us quilters.  Truthfully – for me it started out as an intellectual exercise.  My great-grandmother’s quilt, neatly folded on the bench at the foot of my bed.  How did she make it?  Why was it backed with a heavy blanket?  Could I make something like that? 

At first glance, quilting seems like an unreasonable hobby.  You buy yards of perfectly good fabric, proceed to cut it up into tiny pieces, and then sew them back together.  I questioned my own sanity the time I constructed 10-inch finished blocks with 60 pieces in them.  And we’re not mentioning Dear Jane at this point.  It wasn’t enough I made one quilt with 4 ½-inch blocks, now I’m working on my second one. Normally, my blogs are kind of “teachy.” I try to leave you with something you can carry into your next quilting adventure. This blog is a little different. With this blog, I want you to think about why you quilt and what made you start.

It’s a hobby, which like a lot of hobbies, was born out of necessity.  There’s opposing thoughts about exactly when quilting as we know it was conceived as an idea.  Some textile historians point to ancient Egyptians.  Others to the former Turkish empire.  At some juncture it hitched a ride to England (probably through the Crusaders, who may have thought it was just the perfect thing to wear under that cold armor), and it parked there for a while.  It was used in bed hangings, floor coverings, and petticoats. It also began its life in what traditionally comes to mind when someone mentions “quilts” – bedcoverings.  Eventually it followed the English settlers to America – not immediately, because the first settlers were too busy clearing land and building forts – but it came soon after. 

And we made it ours.  We took the English patterns, redesigned them (sometimes out of necessity and sometimes out of creativity), and renamed them.  We’re still doing that.  Quilters of all races and nationalities do this all the time.  One of the best things about quilting is its fluidity.  It really is a hobby born of necessity (to keep folks warm), clothed in creativity, and (with many of us), bloomed into an obsession.  I am not joking when I say I would rather quilt than eat.  It marries utility with beauty – you’re making something useful and you can combine colors and patterns to make it pretty.

However, ask a dozen quilters why they quilt, and you’ll get a dozen answers.  I began to examine my own reasons after reading an article in Quiltfolk  magazine (which, if you’re not acquainted with this publication, do yourself a big favor and look through at an edition or two).  The article was titled Exquiste Objects, and reflects the thoughts of Eleanor Bingham Miller, a quilt historian and preservation advocate.  Her essay embraces why quilt preservation and recorded past are important.  We learn as much about the quilt maker as we do the quilt.  For a good deal of the time, we quilt makers are so involved in our art that we don’t pause to find out why quilts are and were made.  For sure, a lot of quilts are made for special occasions and to fulfill needs, but there’s more to them than that.  A lot more. 

A political statement.

A block from a Civil War Quilt. Quilters in the Union States made many of these quilts and “sold” spaces for people to add their signatures as a way to raise money for the Union troops.

 A sharing of pain or joy over an event or person. 

9/11 Tribute Wall Quilt

A silent, tangible means of support and solidarity in a soul-wrenching situation.

AIDS Quilt. Over 49,000 panels make up this quilt. I have one in this quilt, made in memory of a good friend I attended Elon University with.

And of course, a creative outlet.  While the pragmatics of quilting will always be there (something to keep you warm or make a room pretty), the concepts behind the quilt are often lost to time.  You recognize this when you attend a quilt show which has a display of antique quilts as part of the exhibit.  What’s the first thoughts that run through your mind?  How did they make this?  Why did they make this?  Why did they pick those fabrics?

And unfortunately, we may never know the answers to all of these questions about all of the quilts.  I do have a sneaky suspicion our foremothers quilted much for the same reasons we do.  I can’t prove it, but if the reasons I quilt are similar to theirs, then the art is more than a creative outlet or a means to an end of a need.

Quilting helps me piece my life back together just as much as it pieces patches into a uniform whole.  Piecing is different from mending.  When you mend something, you’ve only altered the original.  When you piece something, you create something new out of parts and pieces of something else.  Suddenly five collective yards of fabric become one united new item.  It takes time and patience, but the outcome is stunning.  This has become my mantra during troubled times.  Life has thrown me more than a few curveballs.  The process of quilting slows me down and helps me think and pray through the changing times and shifting landscapes of my life.  It has become as much of a constant as  prayer and the love of my family.  It’s a touchstone, a link to my past (strong women who made it through much tougher times than I’ll ever have), and an outlet  I can pour my frustrations into. 

I’ve seldom had anything in my life that completely restores my soul and mind like quilting does.  It centers me.  It’s magic gets me through the day until I can return to my studio in the evening and quilt until bedtime.  It’s beauty and math and complexity and simplicity combined into one artistic form.  It’s order and peace in the middle of what may look like (and sometimes is) chaos.  It’s the quilters themselves who have proven to be a surer sisterhood than blood and DNA.  It’s wisdom passed back and forth over beeswax, hand piecing, and applique. It’s raw materials made into something beautiful – much the same way our Creator does to us.

The majority of my blogs teach different quilting techniques or show case quilts or quilters.  But I think it’s important to know why you do something, especially if it’s an activity you repeat.  Quilting is no different.  

And sometimes those reflections serve to make you a more aware quilter – which can only be a good thing.

Next week’s blog will be more of a “how-to” that deals with Square-in-a-Square blocks.

Until next week, Level Up That Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

4 replies on “Quilters and Their Quilts”

I’ve been quilting for 40+ years. It was never a passion until I discovered rescuing old quilts. I deconstruct them, put them back together and reuse or rehire them. My blog

I began quilting because I couldn’t afford the quilts I saw in the Amish stores. I still quilt because it’s now just who I am, and what I do. It just is.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: