the beauty of patchwork quilts


For as long as I can remember, and probably before that too, I have loved patchwork quilts.

As the years have passed, I have found all sorts of reasons for loving them, but the older, deeper attraction still endures.

Describing how patchwork quilts make me feel is difficult. It would be wrong to call it a passion or obsession: it's something altogether more simple and gentle. Perhaps something like the love one has for a grandmother? Patchwork is beautiful, yet solid, worn, reliable, comforting. It's soft and fragile, and also warm, nurturing, and full of memories.

It's probably no surprise, then, that the first patchwork quilt I knowingly encountered lay on the spare bed at my Granny's house. She was a prolific and patient patchworker, and it was with her that I discovered the magic of the fabric scrap bag: a wonderful, jumbled treasure trove of printed cottons, many left over from the handmade dresses she created for herself and her daughters from the 1930s to 60s, and carefully saved to reuse.

I used to spend hours sitting on the floor, ransacking the scrap bag and trying to identify the pattern of an old apron, a cushion, a faded dress or just an imagined memory. It seemed there was a story to every one. Here with my Granny I learnt to cut out and sew together hexagons into tiny doll's quilts for the bunkbeds my mother had cleverly created from two tiers of a plastic vegetable rack. I watched as her nimble brown fingers embroidered stem stitch around every single hexagon as she added them to the backing fabric. When we got home I begged my mother to teach me more.

From a very early age, then, I was captivated. I began to accumulate my own bag of scraps and to beg snippets from family and friends. The summer before I went away to start my embroidery degree, I stitched into the night to create a duvet cover and curtains which would speak to me of home when I traced my fingers over the faded, familiar patterns: dressmaking remnants, old frocks, the patches on my fashionably ripped jeans, ancient Laura Ashley prints from my sewing friends.


Only three years later, I stitched all summer again to make a wedding quilt for my too-soon marriage. For months I'd begged supplies from my relatives and friends, and my elderly aunts turned out their cupboards and sent me scraps of beautiful tea dresses along with their memories. Every day I sat and embroidered suns, moons, poetry and birds onto our magical quilt. Sadly, that marriage is over now, and the quilt does not survive in its entirety.


There were many other quilts and cushions over the years, but the one thing that bothered me was that they were all made on the sewing machine. I really, really wanted to create a hand-sewn, hexagon quilt like my Granny used to make: brightly coloured, full of memories, happiness and sunshiney days.

And so, about fifteen years ago now, I began collecting. The scrap bag was raided, charity shops scoured, beautiful new fat quarters washed and ironed. Hundreds of hexagons carefully cut from birthday cards, magazines, old drawing paper, the scripts of my ex-husband's novel and my Mum's book of prayers. Every piece of fabric tacked onto its backing piece and sorted into colour families. Finally, when enough pieces had been amassed, the mammoth job of hand-sewing each piece into the double quilt.

It began when my youngest son was just a baby, as a replacement for that wedding quilt: two babies and a bad back had ensured that our bed had increased in size beyond the scope of the original. But over the years, life happened, my marriage broke up, and it changed from a loving quilt for two into a fierce, independent quilt for one. Still I stitched. Sometimes, weeks, months, years went by without that quilt receiving any attention. I met my new husband and we moved into our new house, and, sporadically, I continued to stitch. I stitched for love, for fun, for consolation, for comfort, creativity, companionship and solace. The last fifteen years of my life are bound up in the making of that quilt, and the history of my family is in the fabric.


And now, it's almost finished! For various reasons, it felt like the right time to complete it, and last week I added the final piece. When I look at it now, I feel differently about it. I'd no longer choose all those eye-popping colours, they are too bright for my tastes now. But I'm determined to finish it. I've stitched a memory to my Granny on one of the pieces, and this autumn I plan to start hand-stitching it to a soft cotton backing. It's going to be given pride of place in the back bedroom, which has recently acquired the elevated status of spare room since my eldest son left home.


You can see more photos of the gorgeous fabrics in my Granny's quilt and some other things besides on my Flickr page.

8 comments:

Stella said...

Hi Sue, what a lovely post. I have looked at the flickr pics too, Granny's quilt is so evocative of a time past and just beautiful but it must mean so much more to you. I like your 'eye popping' coloured one too:) I am inspired and amazed that you have spent 15 years on this stunning project! Sx

Sue said...

Thank you Stella, it's good to hear from you! I have promised myself never to spend fifteen years doing anything again! Short projects for me from now on.

Jo said...

I love patchwork quilts. I used to collect scraps, too and was well on the way to making a nice quilt, but it got left behind in one of many moves and I've never taken it up again. Yours are lovely!

Sue said...

Thanks Jo. It's such a calming thing to do - but since I know you are concentrating on your writing I won't encourage you to take it up again!

tess said...

i am so moved by your honesty and commitment. thank you for the story. i very much loved reading this...

Mal* said...

I'm an art therapist who is just as interested in the emotional process of our projects as in the finished product (or moreso). I LOVED reading this entry and really identified with it. Thank you for sharing your deep thoughts.

Alicia P. said...

Wow -- what an incredible accomplishment. It's amazing.

日月神教-向左使 said...

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