Perhaps it stems from the pretty pink, green and yellow patchwork- patterned comforter that covered my girlhood bed for so many years. Or maybe it is that my favorite little-girl dress was made from a fabric with miniature quilt patterns printed on a lovely little swirly skirt.
The truth is that whatever the source of my inspiration, I cannot remember a time when I was not fascinated with the art of quilting. In fact, when I was only nine years old, I asked for and received only one gift for Christmas that year: my very first Singer sewing machine. That machine was the first step in an odyssey of self-education in sewing and quilting that has continued for more than twenty years.
I have, of course, made many quilts in my time. Not terribly complicated ones, but simple quilts that please me and even now are scattered throughout my home.
It is only recently, however, that the quilter in me has been seized by a new passion that I frankly admit has filled my nearly every waking moment for the past several months. It began with an old quilt top I found in an antique dealer's booth at a local outdoor crafts show earlier this year. It was somewhat musty, fraying at the edges and has some of the seams popping loose. It also had a few stains. But for a $20 investment, I couldn't resist taking home this old quilt top and seeing what I could possibly do with it. Little did I imagine that my quest to repair, complete and preserve this half-forgotten piece of history would lead many months later, to the swiftly growing collection of vintage quilts you may see in my living room today.
The way I see it, there are as many excuses to love quilts as there are to love any kind of art. Every handmade quilt is necessarily unique, and each one once gave its maker great pride. Something about quilts simply speaks to my heart: sometimes it is the pattern; at other times it is the workmanship or what someone is able to tell me about it. And like art, not all quilts are my personal cup of tea. I far prefer the traditional geometric patterns, for example, to other kinds of quilts such as "crazy" quilts or the vibrant rainbows of the Texas Star pattern.
Basically, a quilt is uniquely suited to giving us a sense of the time and place in which it was created, as well as providing us many hints about the quilter herself - for while not always the case, most quilts originated by female hand, making quilts not only perhaps one of the oldest forms of American folk art, but perhaps one of the few antique collectibles created predominantly by women.
Each quilt stood for the quilter's painstaking endeavor to create something beautiful out of something practical. I have personally created quilts from my sons' outgrown clothing; my late grandmother's yellow apron; even fom fabric cut from the hospital gowns I wore when delivering my children! As effectively as photographs, they permit me to look back, lovingly, on episodes in my own life. watch as the trays of gritty food were somehow transformed into the finest, tiniest feathers. Within 24 hours, on the rounded stubby wingtips, there began a noticable elongation. The filaments were as fine and delicate as a spider's web, and the central shaft no heavier than a hair from my head.
Today, I know enough to date and sign my own quilts. But in the past, this practice was not common, and most quilters did not either date or sign their quilts. Left with design, use of color, fabric selection and workmanship as my only clues, I cannot help but wonder sometimes, as I gently use my own needle and thread to repair an old quilt's loose seam, am I looking at pieces of a dress worn working around the house? A husband's favorite shirt? A child's worn baby clothing?
The quilts that survive today are precious because they were made to be handed down from family to family, as heirlooms to be treasured with painstaking care. In many cases, however, they simply ended up in trunks in attics, sometimes even boxed up in garages. In the worst case scenario, Grandma's worn, old quilt may have even been used as a dropcloth, or to protect furniture from damage in the family moving van. I have had some of these come my way, some which I purchased for as little as five dollars each. And while I have managed to save the vast majority of these vintage pieces, I have reluctantly had to let some pieces go, with apologies to the ghost that accompanies every quilt.
But when I do succeed at restoring a quilt that certainly would have foundered into scraps otherwise, I feel triumphant, as if I've actually connected with that woman who lived long before me, confirmed that her work did not go to waste, that it is not and will not be forgotten. There is really no substitute for that feeling.
On occasion, I have had people ask me if I would consider opening up a shop to sell these restored quilts, and not a few have asked me if they may buy my new ones. In fact, I wouldn't consider it at all. Each quilt that I make, whether it is new and from scratch; or a restored damaged vintage piece; or a completion of an old quilt top that has never seen a bed, I pour my heart and many dozens of attentive hours into each one. Some may even take me months to finish or restore to my own satisfaction. I would no more consider selling these products of my heart than I would consider charging for my friendship.
On the contrary, when I do part with a quilt, it is as a gift, bound together with my love and goodwill, and the hope that someday when I am long gone, that someone else will happen upon my work with the same compassion and wonder at what I, a quilter from the past, might have been like.
Skip Blaeser is a former attorney who, in addition to being a wife and mother of two small boys, is currently pursuing her longtime passion for writing historical fiction. She received her A.B. from Princeton University, and her J.D. from the Boston University School of Law. Skip and her family live in New England.
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