My life-long love of super scrappy bed quilts began as a tiny child. As a fifth generation quilter I grew up studying any number of hand sewn quilts on the beds at my grandmother's house where I was raised - and also in the upstairs bedrooms at her older sister Grace's place. All these quilts bore the generational mark of frugal DIY ladies born at the starting line of the 20th century. They'd been raised to make good practical use of every scrap of cloth they had to hand. Not all at once, certainly, but eked-out slowly over time so that the various fabric patterns recurred like a narrative theme covering time, space, and an ongoing roll call of the past's play suits and pajamas and special birthday party dresses/boy's dress shirts for Good/church.
Upon immediate reflection - what I just described is what I grasp(ed) of Aunt Grace's methodology. Her quilts were to my eye joyous and freewheeling - impeccably sewn but otherwise completely off the How It's Done rails - brought to heel only by the implicit structure and rhythm of one patch/bold graphic classic quilt patterns.
For scrap work my grandmother favored impeccably aligned log cabin/dresden plate variations that were by and large unobtrusive or painterly in their color range and its distribution. Her choices often suggest she pre-sorted her scraps as she accrued them in order to work efficiently in a far more color coordinated/visually restrained style.
(Oh come on Pearl, the Grace of my memory would sometimes goad. Live a little why dontcha)
As with so many other things about how she presented herself and her home I feel pretty clear that my grandmother's self-expressive style consciously hewed to the specific and implicit dictates of the fairly dour Lutheran sect in which she and I were both raised as the backbone and mental/psychic wardrobe of not just our lives but Life itself. She was not a showy woman in any way. But she understood some people were colorful without being prideful. Quite early on she saw the way I was breaking, so to speak, in the aesthetic sense and had no trouble asking her friends to supply more colorful scraps for me to learn - and practice until perfect - a variety of piecing techniques.
Her sister was a lot more layered in how she lived and created. She had an ongoing willingness - from which I actively inferred enjoyment - to use all the scrap happy colors and patterns all at once. She mixed decades worth of fabric to create ingrained family myths of origin. The kids in our family who were her grandchildren slept in her upstairs rooms full of handsewn quilts all the time. They knew at least some of the stories connected to each of the fabrics. Stories about things that happened while their parents and uncles were wearing clothes made from specific scraps in yardage form. In the timeframe of my memories the quilts were growing worn at the edges. They held the aura of fading scrolls documenting family life when our own parents were young or mere babies. The upstairs rooms in our time weren't needed save for sleep overs and dedicated kidspace while the adults talked downstairs. We could crawl around and sprawl together laughing helplessly much as we later would on living room floor based Twister game mats.
Every once in awhile one of Grace's masterpieces would require seam mending and patching. This would be a big deal for the sisters. In addition to brown paper bags overflowing with scraps at both their feet they were also inundated by young enthusiastic children. We flocked around them in a minimum of 4 and an average of 6 in number It was a sunlit offhandedly nurturing environment suddenly awash in Pearl's far from muted alarm concerning all that could go wrong - particularly with so many children and the sisters' combined collection(s) of the very most necessary sharp Things that outnumbered the kids three to one.
I loved being able to watch close at hand. Adults in my life often granted me a front row seat to their activities because they knew I'd be quiet and more or less motionless. I fully realized this as well as the fact that my freeze frame hyper-focus on what they were doing formed a kind of hedge/buffer zone between their workspace and more overtly excitable kids inclined to shout, grab suddenly for things they shouldn't touch let alone run with, or jump around and around and around the adult who was trying to Get Something Done despite the ongoing distraction.
When the sisters' stitching time turned surgical I was outright called to Assist by simply being there between them and the other grandchildren. Immobilized with fascination and Need To See. I loved the moment when split (homemade and much patched, naturally...) bias binding was pulled free and I could see within Aunt Grace's generous seam allowances the true scope of how colorific the unfaded fabrics were. My eyes gravitated to the excessively excessive somebody-stop-this-woman factor like a very happy bee in a mile-wide clover field. In such visual mayhem I instinctively found permission to rest and quiet my ever-spinning child's mind. And isn't rest what a handmade scrap quilt is most meant to Hold?
At the beginning of last Friday the super scrappy hand pieced bow and arrow quilt top featured in this post existed in a state of un-joined but individually pieced/hand sewn 24-inch squares. Near the middle of the afternoon it looked like the lede image. I just ... had to do this. I needed to put together this quilt top - to spend a few day's worth of Workday time sitting quietly in the sun and stitching while I thought things through as much as one can in today's hall of mirrors. A later point in life ambition became quite tangible in the impulsive form of last Friday morning. I simply picked up the rolled bundle of blocks and brought them to the studio with me. It was mid-afternoon before I zeroed in on the nice detail that I finally got my act together* in this specific way - featuring a Bow and Arrow pattern - on Valentine's Day.
What I stitched is primarily a valentine to the woman I grew up calling Aunt Grace even though she was my grandmother's sister. Her grandchildren in turn called my grandmother Aunt Pearl. The sisters were very close. They shared weekend phone calls of fair length during a time when long distance charges usually kept my grandmother's sharp eyes fixed on the clock and her phone call/egg timer.
Although they did exchange fabric scraps these were kept as a kind of sisterly contemplation - the scraps wrapped small to large within themselves. They were, at least on my grandmother's end, kept in her nightstand's drawer in a charmingly warped wooden box their younger brother had made. Grace's scraps were kept there solely to be arranged in various ways on the plain white sheet of Pearl's unmade bed. Carefully put away for the sheer pleasure of bringing them out again at a later time. That was in a whole other category from how they worked and with what. Their quilt and clothes making aesthetics differed enough that unless they were in clear agreement over specific pattern and color choices they worked primarily from stashes as separate (and impressively huge...) as passing ocean liners.
[*It should be said that I first began cutting out the individual scrap pieces on July 4th, 1992. The occasion marked my first authentically crippling migraine headache. Had I had an inkling of how many I'd have over the course of the next 20 years I would have curled up on the bed and wept. But I did not and thus I tried to make some constructive use of young mother alone time while J. and T. watched the fireworks from the old Lechmere parking lot in Cambridge. I began making my lateral longview way towards a hazy future when I'd have time and inclination to begin putting together a whole new generation of hand sewn bed quilts.]
Each fabric used comprises a single six inch block's worth of pieces: two quarter circles and the curved bow-tie looking piece in the center. A number of fabrics I used weren't large enough for the center portion so I cut extra pairs of quarter circles for a wider choice range. Once I got to the point of beginning to stitch (roughly 15 years ago ...) I used the same fabric on each block's opposing quarter circle because - in a quilt this loud and random the ongoing repetitive duets of the same fabric provides points of discernible focus if not outright resting space. The fact that the twin pieces appear in different circles keeps your eye moving. After a few stumbles as to where or why it's moving your brain registers the repetitive code and starts seeking it out. It's the pattern within the distortion of "pattern" that my - and Aunt Grace's - seemingly off-the-wall pairing choices create.
Aunt Grace did this all the time and quite deliberately. I'd watch her stitching while my grandmother also worked amidst gentle chiding (oh Grace!) that showed deference to their birth order. It's my inner child's sweet spot/intuitive design point I learned from my loving perusal of the childhood era quilts that most drew my eye and gladdened my heart. By the end of Saturday I'd stitched together the above. And my ongoing studio companion was extremely quick to lay claim to my accomplishment.
Mama takes her studio kitty duties very seriously. Haven't stitched anything big like this since her arrival but she seemed to have an instinctive grasp of how to most effectively participate. meanwhile on my end - due to my extended hiatus from working big and strictly by hand I'd forgotten how freely the mind wanders through reflection, problem solving, and just plain wiping a grimy media saturated brain's slate as close to clean and blank as it gets these days.
I forgot about the way I connect to the spirited history of stitchers fairly immediately once I've found my personal needle rocking rhythm and smooth pull of the thread. And the ongoing almost simian grooming of stray threads that proliferate the more you handle and shift the fabrics. My grandmother - who could be super impatient and exacting - had quite tenderly and slowly taught me how to stitch well. Our religion didn't encourage pridefulness and yet she made it clear that she expected to be able to be proud of me in terms of both my stitching manner and rhythm and also the ongoing quality of my workwomanship.
This is how the quilt looked once I got it away from the cat and took it up to the bedroom. Had to spread it out on my bed in order to gauge how many of the remaining blocks would need to be added.
By mid-afternoon on Sunday I had finished sewing together this loving tribute to my Aunt Grace It's something that's still making me shake my head in surprise since the accomplishment was not on the books. It was more a case of "this is what I'm doing now. I won't ask why I'll just do it with single-minded creative focus until it's done."