Quilt it Like You Own It

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More than once I have been lectured by Mrs. Buttinski as I seam ripped into a vintage quilt top. Someone, somewhere, was probably dying a slow death, or rolling in their grave as I dismantle their magnum opus, and Mrs. B is not shy about letting me know the true depth of my stupidity, or my apparent hatred and selfishness for all things historically textile.

While I appreciate that there are at least a few quilt police still patrolling the perimeters of our quilt world, I want them and everyone else to be comforted by the fact that I actually know what the heck I am doing.  I am not so young anymore that I am constantly being ‘educated’ by other quilters that seem to think me unseasoned; and yet I am not so old that I have become close minded to new ideas or understanding the positions of newer quilters.  I am pleasantly stuck in between the two like a happy Libra on a perfectly balanced scale.

I not only studied textiles while attending college, I continue to educate myself through research and reading books on anything textile and quilt related. I was a student of Kathleen McCrady’s, before she retired her classes on quilt and textile history and preservation. Much of the newer books regarding feed sacks could not have been as easily printed, had it not been for her extensive work in preserving the history of quilting and these textiles. I studied all of the quilt books that are the main foundation for our understanding of quilting today. Barbara Brackman, Elly Sienkiewicz, Carrie Hall, Kansas City Star, Maggie Malone, Jinny Beyer, Patricia Cox, Gerald Roy, Roderick Kiracofe, the Gee’s Bend Quilters, Sharon Newman, Doris Bowman, Patsy and Myron Orlofsky…these and many, many others I have studied. I don’t stop at simply reading about quilts; going to museums to see these antique quilts is another way to appreciate the art. So, really what I am trying to say here is that I fully comprehend and admire quilters and their work.

I don’t buy quilts. This is because I am not a quilt collector. I don’t want other people’s quilts to be eventually passed to my family, as they will mistakenly believe that I made them. I don’t hand quilt other people’s quilts or tops for similar reasons; that and hand-quilting is (usually) by far more laborious than making the quilt top in the first place. I reserve my hand-quilting for only my personal favorite quilt tops. Even my own quilts are sent to a long arm if they are not in the top 10 percent. I love buying vintage quilt tops, but I don’t like to buy quilt tops that are perfect and ready to be quilted, because if I have it quilted, I’m back to owning another person’s quilt or work. I like to buy quilts that need to be reworked in one fashion or another.  Once a top is taken apart, changed up some, certain fabrics changed out, the quilt is changed. It is now a different quilt. It is now veritably my quilt, and can now be passed to family with zero worries of passing another quilter’s work off as my own. (There is also the added benefit that it doesn’t need to go into a two person quilt category in a quilt show.)

Let me tell you about a typical vintage quilt top that I work with. The picture seen at the top of this post is of a pile of 16-patch quilt blocks that were previously sewn together into a quilt top. I seam ripped all of the blocks apart and this is why:

  • The parts that were hand stitched were done with a thick thread, like a button thread, which puckered the fabric. Also, the stitches were on the large side making them structurally unsound. there weren’t any occasional back tacking within the running stitches.
  • The parts that were machine pieced, were stitched with black thread and white thread at the same time. The black stitches show up very well on all of those lighter prints of fabric. The machine used to make these stitches had thread tension issues, and probably the presser foot as well, as the stitches were not consistent in length, most being tiny, tiny, loopy things on the back.
  • The seam allowance varied, but in most places, the width of the seam allowance was much less than the preferred scant quarter inch, making the seams fray and pop open in many parts of the top.
  • The seams flipped all over the place. They did not like to lay flat at all. Not one bit.
  • Seam intersections did not match up, so the top was stretched and misshapen. See for yourself:20190712_131048
  • There were many fabrics that needed to be omitted because of the fiber content (rayon, silk, flannel), degradation of the piece (fraying, bleeding, shattering, etc.), or the weave was not optimal, such as the brown and white striped plisse pictured here. When I omit fabric, I try to replace with a similar print of fabric that may or may not necessarily be vintage.
  • The overall view of the top was visually confusing to the eye. There were no resting areas. the pieces blended too much in some areas, and were hyper contrasting in other areas. Usually, I am open-minded about such things, but there are simple tweaks that can be used to calm the appearance of an otherwise jumbled quilt top.

This was not a quilt top destined for the Smithsonian. I did not rob future historians of a priceless artifact by taking the blocks apart. I promise that the world will continue to spin on its axis if I take this thing apart and sew it back together.

There is a second part of this that I would like to address as well, and that is the original quilter. When I acquire a top in this condition, I did so because I found it to be absolutely charming. I may have liked the quilter’s choice of fabrics, of colors, of pattern, or technique.  I would not put my money down on a quilt top that I didn’t love. That quilter is always with me when I work on that piece, and every quilt top shows a different personality.  I can tell which steps the maker disliked, and which ones he/she enjoyed. I can sometimes even tell if the pieces were scraps from making clothing. I might learn if the quilter is seasoned by their use of value, working with directionals, plaids, contrast, color, construction, etc.  I might learn that the quilter was a child, or at least a very new sewist. I might learn that the quilter had vision problems.  Maybe it was one of the last pieces this person made.  It can all be so very bittersweet.

but also let me tell you that some of these are given/sold to me by the actual people who started them, or they remember them being made. In the 30’s and 40’s, quilting was less of a hobby than it is today, so there were many quilts made, because they had to be utilized. They didn’t have rotary cutters or quarter inch presser foot. They used a wooden ruler, for dang sakes.  This was not as enjoyable for most quilters as it is for the current day quilters. Many of these tops were not as sentimentally created as you might have been led to believe.

“Here, my Aunt Ruby made these.  She cussed the whole time through, so go ahead and do your thing with ’em, sweetie.” ”My mother decided to start quilting in the 40’s, learned she hated it, and took up golf.” ”I inherited these from my mother in law…I disliked my mother in law.” ”You really want these? I was going to use them for drop cloths for painting.” ”This is not a finished quilt, so it is headed to the trash bin. Ain’t nobody got time for that.” “Please don’t tell anyone I made this.” These were all things that I really have heard when getting some of these tops. Those are my favorites, because they kind of make me giggle when I see them.

The quilt top is mine now.  It really does belong to me, every stitch and every scrap. Some divine power decided that this top was destined to land in my lap, even if the wallet helped with the process.  Therefore, I get to decide how I am going to work with it, if at all. I might add my own fabric, whether it is vintage pieces from my collection, cut up clothing cotton, or something new and trendy. I might change the block. I might change the setting. I get to do this because the critics tend to forget something important: I am a quilter too. My personality deserves to be a part of this, just as much as the quilter who first touched this project. I consider it to be a collaboration of great friends, unknown to each other. Some of these projects were made by people who may have dearly loved to see them finished, but got stuck, or life got busy, or health declined. For whatever reason, many simply were not finished. I know he or she would be tickled that I loved something about their work, and now it’s up to me to take my turn with it and make them proud. That is the kind of quilt that I want to pass down. That is the kind of quilt I want my kids to sleep under. I really do want them to know that I was a part of something bigger than just myself.