Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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I make patchwork quilts for a living. I like setting my own hours and taking an afternoon nap if I want to. The work itself is satisfying. I like the requirements of precision, order, and efficiency. I like working with color — seeing how different color combinations affect my mood and make my stomach feel. I like working with fabric, the softness and the strength. It is satisfying to have simple tools in good order — sharp sewing shears, a well-oiled sewing machine. I like working with very large pieces of fabric, needing to use the strength of my back and arms. I like making something beautiful, and being able to let it go out into the world, knowing that I could make that beautiful thing again, or some other beautiful thing. It also feels good that my handiwork is useful, that it will be keeping people warm, greeting them in the morning sunlight, welcoming them to bed at night, and giving them something to look at when they’re sick in bed, too sick to do anything but stare feebly at the quilt!
Patchwork is an American art born of necessity. Political and economic factors in colonial America were such that cloth was expensive. Money was scarce, even to buy things that could be made at home. Through sewing together whatever odd or old pieces of fabric you had to form a bigger, useful piece was necessary, what was not essential was to make a creative endeavor out of it. Whenever someone sewed her (or his) scraps together, not randomly but paying attention to their color relations, or perhaps trimmed the scraps to shapes a bit more pleasing to the eye, that was an extra energy expenditure not strictly necessary. Not practically rationally logically necessary except that the human animal has “illogical” creative urges, and a need to create beauty and comfort in its surroundings if it can. Patchwork — that extra effort — is one expression of the higher parts of the human spirit, which manage to come out under all but the most adverse circumstances.
I don’t know what to say when people ask me if I make traditional quilts. On a certain level this is easy to answer — either yes, I do make some, or no, I sometimes use my own designs. But my designs, my whole way of thinking about patchwork, is influenced by the thousands of quilts I’ve looked at in the last ten years so that whatever I do is inevitably influenced by the design tradition. The tradition, in the sense of lineage, is alive and still growing. Or, to look at it from the other side, all traditional patterns were brand new once. Each succeeding copy of that pattern had some little or big difference, perhaps something as seemingly unimportant as a different color for one of the fabrics. That difference, however, has significance as a design decision, and makes the reproduction something entirely different.
I feel that quilt making is a living tradition which in these days is receiving recognition as an artistic medium. It always was a forum for individual expression, though the artists, mainly women, may not have written about that process. As far as I can see, it’s only “writing about” or intellectualizing in some way which distinguishes what is called folk art from what is called high art. I’m not against intellectualizing; I love the exercise of doing it about quilts, but I do resent people who think that creativity is blind or unintelligent in some way if the people who were creating didn’t leave written records of the process.
When most people think of patchwork quilts they think immediately of enormous amounts of time, to the exclusion of considering the design element. It is useful sometimes to look at a quilt in terms of design decisions: at how many steps along the way did the quiltmaker make a choice of what color or what construction or how to make effective use of a certain piece? Some very fancy, well-made quilts, with thousands of hours of work in them may have very few design decisions because the quiltmaker repeated a design unit over and over again. It is possible to make an interesting and intelligent and beautiful quilt in a relatively short period of time; that is the faith on which I base my work.
The challenge for me in making a quilt comes from translating a six inch drawing on paper with colored pencils into an 80” by 90” banner of fabric composed of many little pieces of fabric, usually all of them with some sort of print. Color and quantity of fabric, size of print, amount of direction in print, texture and weight of fabric are all factors. That banner, the quilt top, gets made into a sandwich with padding in the middle and another piece of fabric on the bottom, which then gets sewn together all over (the quilting), which adds the third dimension to the piece. The process is alternately boring and rewarding. There are lots of steps, each taking a while with lots of repetitions, but each completed step a definite achievement. Judgment is required each step of the way, especially with my own designs; I have to be flexible and change a design if it’s not working. The challenge is to be able to recognize when that something is not happening — that’s the gamble and the gambol.
Judith Goldstein lives in Chapel Hill. She does custom-made work.
This is the first of what we hope will be a monthly feature in which readers write about their work — anything from a job to a hobby, the common denominator being a belief in its value, to yourself or others. Let your own thoughts and feeling guide you as to what’s important to say. Limit submissions to 700 words and (if possible) include a photograph of yourself, preferably working. Manuscripts should be typed and include a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Write The Sun, 412 W. Rosemary Street, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514.