And on the first day …

 While others cleaned or shopped or partied over New Year’s weekend, I drifted around my house and picked up books, DVDs, newspapers and then set them down again. Nothing stuck. I felt unfocused, fragmented. It has been an exhausting autumn; I needed an elixir stronger than any cocktail or resolution could offer. 

So I started sewing a quilt. 

Quilting alleviates my particular twist of psychic spiral. If performed in compulsive sequence and with exact precision, the process of creating a quilt channels and comforts restless energy. The steps are firm; I have made many over the years and savor the routine. First, I decide who will receive the quilt. I rarely keep them. I imagine how I want the gifted to react when they see it, how the quilt will look wrapped around their baby or shoulders. I remember their favorite colors. I wonder what meaning I want the finished product to convey.

The quilt I began on Saturday is for a couple who just had their second baby in two years and recently moved to our neighborhood. They are fresh from the city, open, flowing with culture and ideas, afraid of suburban calcification. A worthy fear; my quilt must give them hope that they will not inevitably transform into dull pod people. My quilt must remind them of the sensation and diversity of urban experience.

The next step is choosing the fabric. For this quilt I decided on bright batiks, intense marbled dyes that swirl and roil with invisible steam rising from the surface. I picked a silly novelty print for the border, little zoo animals cast in an odd color scheme, as if the typical blues, yellows, pinks and green are being filtered through a broken television and now project grey, canary, magenta and teal. The border fabric suggests cute and expected social mores, but the center motif will explode the pretense. It will seem as if the colors spread and altered the animal design, as if the batiks were too wild to be contained.

I have learned many quilting techniques to accomplish many different effects.  Sometimes the blocks are very complex and the fabric plays a supporting role. In this new quilt, I wanted the fabric, so primitive that it feels modern, to sing the aria. This meant that the arrangement had to be secondary. I decided on a very traditional Amish pattern called “trip around the world,” squares radiating from a focal point with repeating ripples of color. The shapes are so simple that the person experiencing the quilt will be quickly immersed in the story, the pattern merely a path to the center.

Then, as always, I set up my work space of tables, lamps, equipment, and gadgets. I washed all the fabric, made lots of coffee and put my hair in a clip. I started planning with graph paper, swatches lined up and labeled, books referenced, closed, read, reread. I measured with three acrylic rulers of varying sizes. I cut with beautiful German-made scissors taken from their velvet box like shining swords. I also used a rolling blade that is ugly yellow plastic but efficient and accurate. I sewed and pressed and cut. I rowed up sections, picked seams, sewed, pressed and cut again. An endless cycle of repetition, tedious, yet as the result begins to take shape, increasingly satisfying.

Next weekend I will make a sandwich consisting of a pieced top, soft cotton stuffing, and a back panel. I will sew long diagonal lines to hold it together and bind it by hand, with a needle so thin it will seem that the thread is hovering and dissolving into the cloth like water drops on a hot sidewalk. Then I will tack on a label with a title of obscure intent, a date and my name, the maker. This imprint, part of the ritual, reminds me that my quilting is less than altruistic.

As long as I can remember, I have made things: paper dolls, troll houses, cardboard playing cards, gathered skirts, crocheted hangers. This craftiness was sidetracked into a job as an adult. After my first baby, I played house for a while, supposedly only working part-time. In reality, I worked harder than I ever had, tending a needy creature and a home on the verge of squalor. I would set things right only to have it all unravel, forcing me in an endless loop of Sisyphean tasks. I was visiting a friend one day, admiring a baby quilt draped on the crib, when she must have perceived a telltale hint of desperation. Reaching in a drawer she pulled out a cigar box and handed me a plastic triangle template and a wire-like needle she kept inside. “I think you need these,” she said, giving me brief instructions and a quarter yard of fabric.

I learned to quilt by piecing hundreds of triangles without a machine, each stitch carefully inserted along a penciled template line, matching seams and corners. This woman was my guide, my sponsor in a secret initiation. She knew that some quilters are like Amish women who sew utilitarian coverlets for warmth. If they make a mistake, they leave it, or in some cases, add a deliberate flaw to mar the beauty of the quilt. If too polished, it would not be plain enough and such an attempt would mock God. But others, like me, quilt precisely because we can control and eliminate the errors. We mock failure and shout back at God: I can finish and fold the chaos; all points can be sharp, all ends can meet.

I do love the movement of color and shape, the sensuality of cloth tightly bound by tiny gathers of thread, the single meaning in a block and the mosaic rhythm of pattern when replicated side by side. But really, it is about order. It is the lure of perfection. If I measure correctly, the pieces fit, every time. I can take a whole, chop it, mix it and reassemble a completely new object. Managing the constant disarray of daily life pales compared to this sense of power. It is the hubris of my childhood religion, the lingering belief that I can create worlds without end. I stand like Hera: handfuls of fabric in my raised fists, daring lesser beings to mess with me. 

Lost in this reverie, on the first day of the year, I crouched behind my machine on a determined journey, dropping ribbons of thread like breadcrumbs on the carpet.

8 responses to “And on the first day …”

  1. ssw says:

    Hi Pandy. Great post. You were sorely missed at TGW extravaganza. It wasn’t the same without you. I just wanted to respond to your post by expressing some good old-fashioned envy about your quilting pleasure. Perhaps we needed to do this more often together, because I still haven’t found my own rhythm/voice in this area. For me, embarking on a sewing project it completely about surrendering perfection, in the hopes of getting something done, and letting goodness come through what feels like evil in the moment. i am a perfectionist at heart, but can’t bring myself to pull it off in real life. A couple examples: Anna wanted to do these sock monkeys over the break, which in theory sounded fun, and provided a nice detour from holiday over-consumption. Ehem, what this really meant is that I was agreeing to also make sock monkeys. Even though for the most part, they turned out really cute, the whole time I thought–I don’t know how to sew buttons on very well; I’m not sure those arms are straight; that tail isn’t stuffed at all–you get my drift. BUT, it was in the carrying on, and trudging through that mattered. What did come out was the overall effect of the ‘homemade’ animal, and i have to admit, that it was nice to have my work hidden behind Anna’s project, so that expectations were lowered about what a 12-year old produced versus a 35 year old. my inspiration though is Sacha, a friend of ours, who never lets perfection get the best of creation. Anyway–long rant. xoxo

  2. ssw says:

    I never gave my second example, which was also on my mind. Anna also needed to sew up this sample skirt (with darts!) for her fashion class, and she wanted me to be there, to offer confidence, guidance, support. So, she had done one of the darts wrong, and instead of pulling it all out, I just helped her ‘around’ the problem, suggesting that even though the skirt should have had a curvy hip area, that it could be a bit straighter, and that this was all practice anyway for the real outfit. Then we had to re-pin several areas because I wasn’t thinking (in the moment) that the way we pinned first didn’t match up with the sewing side. Sewing is so metaphorical about the need for testing, the value of experience and directions, getting through goof-ups, starting over, learning to prioritize, etc. With the skirt sample, i wanted her to feel the pleasure more than any mistakes of having the skirt on, and completing the test run. if i had let perfectionism win, and I spent the entire time fixing every mistake, it would have been really late, we might have been yelling, in tears, or give up entirely, and the trade-off of not being perfect is that it was done. any reaction?

  3. J-man says:

    pandora, this is a really beautiful post. I love that you go far beyond thinking about how the finished quilt is going to look, and that you actually envision the receiver’s reaction. I can really relate to this as I go through the same process when I write songs – I think about how it’s going to make the listener feel almost more than what the songs sound like – I suppose it’s like transcending the material at hand. But I think that’s where the comparison diverges. I’m so impressed that you’re able to not only begin, but follow through the process of making the quilt to a finished product – especially a process that involves so much prep work. Prep work is always the most daunting for me, as I get really impatient. But your patience and vision is inspiring.

  4. Dave says:

    I loved this post.

  5. PB says:

    ssw–I just got home after giving a night meeting in Indiana, what a treat to read the comments! I missed seeing everyone at the party as well, I hope you felt my disembodied best wishes. In requards to Anna’s skirt–It has been so interesting for me to translate my obvious control issues into working with others, children or coworkers. I have this internal battle between the process–which should be about relationships and collaboration–and the result–which I envision a certain way (the best way of course;-). I have learned through mistake what you seem to know by instinct, the person is always more important than the product. I play nice, then console myself later in my own lair with my own project. You are nice. Big difference, best mom ever.

    J-man and Dave–thank you xox

  6. MB says:

    I love this post–and the responses.

    I too, completely understand the solace and sense of control that comes from making things, particularly by hand. I have made two queen-sized quilts during my time in residency. My approach is a little different, though: these are whole, or almost whole-cloth quilts that I quilt by hand. Very little piecing and lots of hand quilting–hundreds and hundreds of hours before the quilts are done. The fabrics are all neutral colors, and I frequently carry them with me to work, quilting in the call room between patients when I should be reading medical textbooks.

    For me, quilting is a wee bit about perfection, but a whole lot more about control. In my llife as an ER resident, there is very little that is in my control: every time I go to work, things come my way which terrify and overwhelm me. Color, sights, sounds and human drama are thrown at me in dizzying amounts. My head spins, and it is clear that I am only a player and not at all in charge. Then I go home to the pale colors of my quilt and the rhythmic up and down of the needle, and I am in control. The chaos of the ER melts away and in the little world that the 5×7 space of my quilt takes up, I am 100%, completely, in charge.

    Love you, PB.

  7. ann says:

    i am the recipient of the quilt, and i must say it is BEAUTIFUL – as was this post. amazing neighbors i have… amazing. we consider ourselves beyond lucky.


  8. bryan says:

    i know that feeling, ann. we have a quilt PB made for our second daughter just over 10 years ago. it somehow seems prophetically suited to her temperament. it will remain a prized possession throughout her life, i’m sure.