I studied quilts in college.
Yes, you read that right.
As an American Studies major at Oklahoma State University, I spent more than a year traveling the state, interviewing any quilter who was willing to talk and share his or her quilt collection with me. When I wasn't driving or fiddling with my recording equipment while a patient quilter looked on, I was compiling the interviews and writing an ethnography of Oklahoma quilters that I ultimately submitted as part of my thesis.
On my travels, I saw hundreds of quilts, maybe more. They came in every color, style, and age, and they were made with every technique you can imagine, many of which were learned from cherished family members or from the quilter community.
Some of the quilts were hanging from the walls, in full use as works of art. More were displayed proudly on ladders, quilt racks, and beds. Some were obviously working hard as bed coverings or picnic blankets or crib warmers. Their stitches were strained and the fabrics had grown threadbare and faded.
My heart ached when I saw these pieces. There is such bittersweetness in a well-loved quilt showing its age. Fabrics saved from clothes-making and care-taking, stitched together with energy and creativity somehow left over after countless long days, will eventually give up the ghost. The hand stitching, which echos the quilter's inhales and exhales as he or she worked, will break and unravel. This is a record of a life. It is a part of the patchwork of a family and a community that has perhaps already faded away, inevitably returning to the earth.
The grace with which they do so, though, is one of the most truly beautiful things we can behold in this life.
More heartbreaking to me than an aging quilt, though, were the countless quilts I saw packed into dark drawers for safekeeping. These quilts were not seen or enjoyed (and certainly not used) by anyone for years at a time.
I get it. The more we handle a piece of textile work, the faster it degrades. It's natural to want to save these pieces forever. This goes double for when the quilts were created by a special someone, or if it was made with keepsake clothing scraps.
It's a cruel fact that quilts are subject to age, just like the rest of us. But for every quilt packed away and carefully preserved, I hope there's a time when they will hang proudly on a wall, or adorn the bedroom of newlyweds or a children's playroom, or cover the laps of friends once the sun sets and the movie starts at the drive-in—even if it's just once.
I met an aging quilt recently. The store where I found her didn't want her (I could tell by the price tag they were ready for her to be gone), and her stuffing was showing through several frayed places in the fabric. I didn't know what I was going to do with her, but I knew I couldn't just leave her there. I brought her home, sat with her for a few days, and we came up with a plan.
I knew she could never function as a quilt again. I also knew she still had some good work left in her.
I did what I thought the quilter would probably do, judging by his or her work on the quilt itself. I used the best of what I had and made it into something new.
Cutting into the quilt felt all kinds of wrong.
But being stuck in a dark drawer—in tatters, why?—would have been worse.
Parts of the quilt couldn't be saved. I'm not sure what to do with those pieces just yet.
I evaluated what I could save. I decided to make a set of oversized throw pillows, with one mini quilt fixed to hang. I think this puts the quilt to use as originally intended—adding softness and warmth to the places in our homes where we rest our minds and bodies—while also sharing it with those who value these objects as both art and craft, proclamation and secret.
There are a dozen pillows in all. (The mini quilt is for me.) Each pillow features a 20-inch square of the intact quilt, including top, backing, and cotton batting. I'm backing each pillow with yarn-dyed Essex linen.
Have a quilt you'd like to save in a similar way? You can do it.
These pillows will be available for purchase as part of a series of new offerings I'll have ready for the fall.
That is, if I can let them go.