It started with a dream. I was taking a train to get somewhere. It was a building, in the middle of nowhere. Inside the building were tables and on the tables were many beautiful hand-made things. Hand-painted plates. Coloured glass beads. Swirled stitching on pillows. Wonderful things for the home. Then I saw quilts stacked on tables. I walked over and unfolded them and had a look. There were scenes of jungles with exotic plants, leaves, vines and flowers. There were snakes and tigers, bright coloured fruit and golden suns. There were all kinds of things I’d never seen on quilts before. My eyes blinked. They opened and closed. Opened and closed, as if I was drinking in these quilts. I couldn’t get enough of them. Each one was a revelation to me. Each one was singing to me.
When I woke up, I still carried the dream with me in my body. The feelings were there coursing through my bloodstream. There was profound joy, a feeling of having witnessed a miracle, like a sunset, or the stars, and being grateful, but at the same time, bereft. The dream was over. Past. Gone. There was no such place. No such thing as these wondrous quilts, except in my memory.
I grew up Mormon. I quilted whenever I was asked to join a quilting circle, which was often. I enjoyed doing it. It was nice being helpful and being given something to do with my hands as I listened to the other women talk and gossip. It was one of the few times I had the feeling of belonging. But when I left the Mormon church, I left quilting behind me. I had never made a quilt of my own. My mother and sister made quilts for me. I had them in my home and admired them for their intricacy and design. Even my brother-in-law was a quilter. But it never occurred to me to make one on my own. I didn’t have such talents. I had short fingers. Clumsy. I could draw, but I couldn’t quilt very well. Not on my own.
After this dream, all these years later, I wanted to try. It was 2021 and we were just coming out of the second lockdown. I had been suffering from anxiety. Stress eczema. My skin would blossom in purple sores for no reason. Well, I knew the most likely reasons. I had some health issues. But I didn’t want to think about them. I did a lot of drawings and watched many YouTube videos on how to applique’ and do big stitch quilting. That looked possible to me. I got a few books. Yes. It wouldn’t take forever. Big stitch seemed the way to go. My mind came up with a comet. It was a symbol, of course. Of living life fully and courageously. And I had just decided to self-publish a book too. Like everyone, I was reshuffling my priorities. Now. Live now. Don’t wait. Then I decided I needed to find my local sewing shop, which is called a haberdashery here in England. Love that word. Fills your mouth.
I found Jacobs. When I opened the door I discovered a shop that gave me the same feeling as my dream the minute I walked in. Shiny objects. Bright colours. Textures. A feast for the eyes. I stepped up to the nice-looking lady at the counter. Her name was Sammy and her dark eyes were kind. I explained my project, even the dream, and she nodded and smiled. She looked excited about it.
On Youtube, I discovered a large number of Mormons explaining to the world how to quilt. When I mentioned in the shop that I came from Mormon stock, I had the feeling of being an Instant Celebrity. People craned their necks to turn and stare at me. I wasn’t just a strange American anymore. In the haberdashery, I was someone with quilting in my blood.
I started collecting fabric samples like someone possessed. That’s when I stopped feeling like an imposter. I was well and truly hooked. Eventually, I decided the other side of the quilt was going to be a very crude solar system. In space. On a black background.
I was in a pop-up fabric shop, buying more samples when I got to chatting with a woman about what I was trying to do. ‘Oh, you must be an artist,’ she said. ‘You work from your head. You don’t use a pattern.’ I didn’t admit that it never occurred to me to follow a pattern. I didn’t see one anywhere for what I wanted to do. I just wanted to do it. Freestyle. A bit like my drumming.
Quilting has had many benefits for me. It’s helped my skin calm down. It allows me to PROCESS things differently. And I love it as a metaphor for writing novels. Stitch by stitch. Word by word. Section by section. Page by page. I sometimes have to take out huge sections and start again, other times I find a way to make something work, but I never know exactly how it will end.
I enjoy working without a pattern and having the freedom to make something real that once was an echo of a dream. Yes, it is crude. Calling it primitive is a kindness, but it stands for trying something new, reclaiming my Mormon heritage and making something that I can look at and see the progress. I’m sure this has something to do with learning to let go of perfection too, with enjoying the making of something and publishing it, releasing it into the world even if it won’t ever be perfect. It’s part of a larger process of communicating with oneself and with others and with our dreams.
I’d like to thank Ellen Kochanski, a dear friend of many years, for reconnecting with me. She’s the one who inspired this blog post. I have enjoyed catching up with her and marvelling at her website, her artworks, her projects, her teaching and her many accomplishments.