Why I Make Quilts: An Essay 9


 

I.

When I read the biographies of the women whose quilts are featured in the documentation projects that were popular across the country in the 1980s and 1990s, I like to fill in the spaces between the facts. Maybe all I know for sure about Mary Bednar Vosoba, whose blue and white Double Irish Chain quilt is featured in Nebraska Quilts and Quiltmakers, is this—

Mary (known as Marie) Bednar was born in Nebraska in 1873. Her Bohemian-born parents came to Nebraska from Wisconsin. Marie grew up in a sod house on a farm, probably learning domestic arts from her mother. She never went to school, being kept home to herd cows. When there was nothing else to do, she sewed quilt blocks, crocheted lace edgings for white dress-up aprons, and embroidered. In 1890, when she was about sixteen, she married Thomas Vosoba, a neighboring farmer. They had two children.

Marie’s quilt is a blue and white Double Irish Chain, started in 1920 and finished in 1924. She made it for her niece, Georgia. Originally it was going to be a wedding present, but it wasn’t finished in time. The quilt became a gift for Georgia’s second child.

—but what I can imagine about Marie’s life from this brief litany of facts is endless. Was Thomas Vosoba older than Marie? I think he was. I think he’d been reluctant to marry, having taken over his family’s farm after his father died, and there was so much work to be done, his mother and his three sisters to provide for. But when the last sister was married off, he’d looked to the farm next door and seen a young woman who knew about the hardships of farming. What he didn’t see: the quilts, the embroidery, the dainty white aprons with their scalloped lace borders. She’ll do fine, he’d told Marie’s father while Marie listened from the next room, her ear pressed to the wall. You’ve always been too romantic, her mother told her later, when she found Marie sobbing into her pillow. You’ve always wanted a life you couldn’t have.

I imagine Marie, a young wife, a new mother, busy on the farm, never quite finished with all she had to do. And still, she made time at night, sometimes staying up later than she should, to work on her quilts. Oh, Marie’s quilts, Thomas would say, not without affection. She loves them more than she loves me.

And so on. I could go on forever about Marie Bednar Vosoba. I can look at her Double Irish Chain quilt and see that it mattered to her to be precise with her stitches. I can imagine her frustration that it took so long to finish the quilt, how everything kept getting in the way—sick children, a church social to plan, that year Thomas fell ill and Marie had to take his place in the fields.

Sometimes all you know about a quilt is who made it and when it was made. Sometimes not even that. But stories seep out of quilts all the same. Why did she choose that particular fabric? you wonder, and your imagination is off and running.

 

2.

The idea that stories are embedded in their stitches is just one of the reasons I love quilts. Another, obvious reason is that I like how they look. A well-designed quilt is deeply pleasurable in a number of ways. It offers a palette of complementary and contrasting colors and a pleasing repetition of shapes and motifs. Quilts make a kind of visual sense that speaks to our need for order, our longing to sort things out. A well-designed quilt scratches a visceral itch. Yet quilts don’t only affect us visually and viscerally, they also signify in ways that touch us emotionally. They signify comfort most of all, but also warmth, security, love. To paraphrase Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum, a good quilt can make you homesick for the home you never had.

Think of it this way: Maybe you grew up mostly lonely in a poorly-constructed, thin-walled apartment over near the Wal-Mart and Interstate 40, one with paintbrush hairs embedded in the grayish beige walls, and wall-to-wall carpet with disturbing stains. Maybe your dad was out of the picture, and your mom worked second shift, so when you got home from school, it was just you and the TV and the books you read over and over again: Harry Potter, The Secret Garden, Because of Winn-Dixie.

But maybe you had a quilt, one that your mom picked up at a flea market or the Rescue Mission Store, and you could fold yourself into its warmth whenever the couple in the apartment next door started yelling, or when you just wished your mom didn’t have to work so much. The quilt became your own little planet, peaceful and filled with friendly animals. Falling asleep at night, you imagined the other children who had wrapped themselves up in this quilt over the years, what their rooms looked like, what they named their dogs and had for dinner. In the morning, you got up and drew pictures of all the things you imagined.

And if that wasn’t you? It doesn’t matter. When you see a quilt you, too, find yourself comforted and oddly compelled to make up stories about who the quilt might have once belonged to. A quilt reaches out to you, and you reach back.

 

3.

But just because I love quilts, does it follow that I have to make quilts myself? Well, yes, if I actually want quilts in my house, quilts I can happily spread across the beds that my teenage sons and scruffy dog flop upon, quilts I can drape over the backs of couches, quilts that are ready at a moment’s notice to be pulled onto a lap or a napping body. Which is to say, quilts that can be used by my family without me standing at the ready to dab away any spills or crumbs. I might be able to afford an antique quilt (they can be bought for surprisingly little on eBay), but I would never subject one to the people and pets of my household.

The problem is, I can’t afford a quilt made by another quilter, and probably neither can you, not if the quilt is fairly priced (I won’t go into the quilts you can buy at Target or find on Etsy for ridiculously low prices in which the maker is compensated neither for her time or her materials). A fair price for a queen-sized quilt, if you only count the cost of the materials and the hours of labor, is in the neighborhood of $1,000, maybe more.

There are two ways to afford a handmade quilt. The first is to befriend a quilter. Most quilters function in a gift economy; they make quilts to give away. If you’re friends with a quilter, you can expect a quilt when you get married, have a baby, or reach any other important milestone. If you or someone you love becomes seriously ill, some friends will make you lasagnas and others will do your laundry. Your quilter friend will make you a quilt.

The other way to afford a homemade quilt, of course, is to learn how to make a quilt yourself. Constructing a basic quilt top is surprisingly easy, though rest assured you will look back at your first quilt years later and laugh through your tears, remembering all the pictures you took or how you made everyone who entered your house admire it. You were so proud of that quilt, in spite of its questionable seams and the way the triangles’ points all disappeared so that every star was blunted, none quite as radiant as it should have been.

Still: you love that quilt. Until the moment you finished it, you’d been afraid that the task was impossible. How on earth could someone like you, with your many deficits—a baked-in fear of fractions, a dearth of sewing experience, the inability to visually break down a quilt block into its basic components—ever make a quilt? That first quilt, for all of its flaws, is a document of your willingness to fail, to make a multitude of stupid mistakes, to approach a task with near total incomprehension and yet somehow (barely, badly, laughably) succeed.

How could you not love that quilt?

After that first quilt, it’s hard to stop. This is a truth I hold to be self-evident, since every quilter I know has said it. I made that first quilt and then I just had to make another one right away. Why is this? Well, for one thing, success is heady stuff. It’s like riding the roller coaster you were scared to death of. You come out alive and get right back on. Who knew you were a rider of roller coasters? Who knew you were a maker of quilts? It wasn’t even that scary!

The hard part starts when you try to make better quilts, quilts with seams that hold together through at least two washes, for instance, or that call for the construction of tiny chains of diamonds. But the difficulty is what keeps you going. Human beings are built to make things and then to make them better. This is how the species survives. You are simply getting with the program when you attempt your first Y-seam or Dresden Plate. You are moving the species along.

 

4.

I said I wouldn’t go into quilters underselling their quilts on Etsy, but I will say that while it bothers me, I think I understand why you might sell a quilt easily worth $1,000 for $250. For most quiltmakers, the point of making a quilt is not having a quilt, at least not after you’ve been quilting long enough to have more quilts than you know what to do with. The point of making a quilt is making a quilt. In this way, making a quilt is similar to taking a trip to Paris. You purchase fabric and thread just as you would an airline ticket. Working on the quilt is akin to spending a series of gauzy fall afternoons walking along the Seine or through the Tuileries Garden. You wouldn’t count that time as billable hours. You are passionate about being there—in fact, being there is part of what gives your life meaning. When you return home, you don’t expect someone to reimburse you for your travel expenses. The cost of the travel (the fabric, the thread) is the price you were willing to pay for the experience.

While you can’t sell your Paris trip after you’ve taken it, you can sell the product of your quiltmaking adventure. You don’t ask for much, because you’re not asking to be compensated for costs. You just have an extra quilt on your hands, and if no one buys it, you’ll find a charity to donate to.

As someone who makes quilts for the love of making quilts, I understand the thinking here. But as someone who values quilts as quilts, I hate to see them undervalued in this way. My son the budding capitalist would say that how I value quilts is meaningless. What matters is that the quilter selling her queen-sized quilt for $250 values that quilt at $250. If someone is happy to pay $250 for her quilt, what business is it of mine?

I guess I take his point, and yet and yet and yet. I have talked about quilts spilling out stories, but it needs to be said that every quilt is part of a larger story as well. Remember Marie, the sixteen-year-old Nebraska farm girl married off to Thomas Vosoba? Remember her embroidery and quilt blocks, her lace-trimmed aprons? Do you think she was making those to be frugal? Because she was a mend-and-make-do kind of gal? The mythmakers would have us believe so, but I would argue Marie was an artist, and fabric and thread were her paint, her clay, her mixed media. Nobody needs a lace-trimmed apron or an embroidered hanky. Hell, Mabel, just cut up a dishcloth if you need something to blow your nose with.

Nobody needs or needed a quilt, either. It has almost always been cheaper to buy a blanket. To view quilt-making, particularly in the 19th century, as a cost-cutting measure is one way to deny that women making quilts were asserting themselves as creative beings with a need to document and interpret and imagine—i.e. to make meaning out of their daily lives through artistic expression.

Each quilt I make is a link in a chain of quilts that stretches back through time. Patchwork quilting as we know it became popular in the 19th century, when cotton prices came down and fabric became more widely available. I often think of those women making quilts in their soddies and dugouts, how every moment they stole to sew for themselves must have been dear to them, how every block they constructed was a kind of a semaphore. I am here, they signaled. I am thinking about the curve of my baby’s cheek. I am thinking about the color of the sky right before the sun comes up.

Every quilt ever made is a part of this story, which is why to sell a quilt for less than it’s worth is a sin.

 

5.

I won’t lie to you. I have seen ugly quilts. I have seen quilts made over the course of a weekend from cheaply dyed fabrics, quilts that are indifferently designed and poorly constructed. Typically these sorts of quilts are given to charities and are probably appreciated by their recipients. Often the women who make them call quilting their hobby, and I don’t see anything wrong with this for the most part (or, more to the point, I don’t want to get into what I see wrong with this). These quilters might just as happily build bird feeders out of craft sticks, especially if they could find a group of like-minded folk to gather with on Saturday mornings to do exactly that.

I mention this so you won’t think I’m romanticizing quilts or quiltmakers. There’s as much mindless consumerism going on in the quilt world as anywhere else, and as much competition and Facebook trolling. There are quilt celebrities, believe it or not, and some of them are as cutthroat as you might expect. And to be totally honest with you, I don’t really think every quilt is part of a larger story. Some quilts don’t add up to much.

So yes, I have seen ugly quilts, quilts that show of lack of care or real interest in the making. But let me also say that I have seen ugly quilts that I initially dismissed and then found myself turning back to, the way you might return to a kitten missing an ear, because as you walked past the other cats in the shelter, the one-eared kitten was the one you couldn’t stop thinking about. There was something about how scrawny it was, how seemingly indifferent it was to your concern, that turned out to be strangely attractive.

So it is with some quilts. You’re initially taken aback by the quilter’s fabric choices, the old kitchen curtains intermingled with the polyester bedspread and its yellow floribunda roses. The quilter seemed to be after a particular pattern that she never quite achieved, so that the quilt strikes you as a series of failures, rows of mismatched fans or oddly-configured pinwheels.

But look again, look longer this time, and the quilt slowly takes on a life of its own, until at some point you forget that pinwheels are supposed to be made up of half-square triangles, or that you ever rejected the notion that red gingham curtains and rose-strewn polyester bedspreads should be co-joined in a quilt top. You forget that you once thought kittens should have two ears.

When you look at a quilt and can feel its maker’s pleasure—when you suddenly feel light-headed and like you might possibly hug the stranger standing next to you? We call that joy. We call that being overwhelmed by beauty in spite of everything.

 

6.

Before I made my first quilt, I made one apron and three roman blinds. I had a $99 sewing machine purchased at Target. I didn’t know how to use it, not really. My first act of sewing was to piece random lengths of fabric together in hopes of making a straight line of stitches (it took many, many tries). Next came the apron for my mother, which, bless her heart, she still has hanging from a hook in her laundry room. When I finally moved onto quilts, which I did slowly, with great trepidation, I had no pretensions that I was making art, although even then I would have never dismissed what I was doing by saying I was just making a blanket. Even then I understood that a quilt was more than that.

As I look around my house now, more than ten years later, the sight of so many quilts is satisfying and rather wonderful. At one time I could have pointed out the flaws in each one, but over the years, I’ve stopped noticing, may have even forgotten where to look. There is a subculture of quilters that keeps an eye out for mistakes, is serious about  seams sewn a consistent quarter-inch, no more, no less, and insistent that every star point, whether it be an Ohio Star, a LeMoyne, or a Star of Bethlehem, end in a perfectly visible vertex. I admire these quilters enormously; they are our Michael Phelpses, the great Olympians of the quilting world. I’ll never be one of them, of course. I hold with the adage that if you can’t see a mistake while riding past your quilt on a galloping horse, it doesn’t actually exist.

Aside from a few wall-hangings, the quilts in my house are functional, which is another way of saying they are used to keep bodies warm. I like functionality in a quilt, in part because I’m enamored of the notion that things made for everyday use should be beautiful. But I have no problem with decorative quilts. The idea that a quilt should be functional springs from the same mythos that would have us believe that back in the day women made quilts because they didn’t want to waste a scrap of fabric. There are at least a dozen good reasons to make a quilt, and one of them is because you want to hang it on the wall and look at it.

The fact is, even functional quilts are more than just pretty blankets to wrap ourselves in while streaming The Detectorists on rainy Sunday afternoons. In the same way that the men and dog of my house leave things around to mark their territory (shoes and bones mostly), the quilts I make mark my territory. They are pockets of time, graffitti tags, small billboards insisting I am here. I imagine Marie Vosoba of Wilber, Nebraska, doing the same, making her quilts for everyday use, but also to send messages to the people around her and the ones who came next, to her children and grandchildren and the first cousin once removed who carried Marie’s Irish Chain quilt to the library on a chilly Saturday morning in 1987. I am here, Marie whispered through the stitches as someone measured the quilt, wrote down the date it was made and the name of its maker, noted the applique border, the blue and pink print used for the center chain. Remember me.

 

–frances o’roark dowell


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9 thoughts on “Why I Make Quilts: An Essay

  • Kelly The Fifth

    I believe I love your quilts so much because they do connect to quilters that came before and to newer quilting traditions too. And because you let your family use some of them!

  • Dinna

    Such a great essay and timely for me. I am at a place in my quilting journey ( of over 20 years) that I am struggling a bit. Life has recently got messy and busie than the last few years and it has affected my joy of quilt making. I look around my space and see the things I want to finish, try, and start. I still putter at mindless piecing because I feel like it wld be like starving myself if I didn’t. But reading what you wrote helped me realize that this is all part of it. Like life. Joy sorrow, enthusiasm and struggles. So I will keep piecing because I now remember why I do it. Other than it is like breathing. But the “more” reasons. Thank you for sharing!

  • Sandra Engstrand

    Frances, reading your words makes me wish I was an author. Then I could find words to describe how your tales delight me!! So glad you write, so we can enjoy!❤️

  • Pam Landolt

    What a wonderful essay! I want to sit down and write the stories behind each of my quilts, because there are stories. I mad my first quilt after my mom died to give a special gift to my sister that first Christmas without her. I was in my late 50s and used my grandmother’s Singer Slant o magic which I had learned to sew on. I found making that quilt so peaceful, bring a flood of
    Memories of my grandma and my mom. It wasn’t long before I started making more.
    Didn’t mean to write so much here but I really loved your essay.

  • Bettina Kesteloot

    Incredible. You have eloquently said much of what I and many others have been thinking for a very long time. And, I am envious of your remarkable writing skills. Thank you for this. I’ll keep it for future reference for a long long time.

  • Kim Dublin

    This! Just this! I agree with all that you have written here. It meshes with so many of my own quilty ideals and thoughts. You have stated them all so clearly and I just understood you exactly. This essay makes me want to sit down and chat with you about everything you have written. Thank you so much for sharing this with us all.