Perhaps you have a beloved quilt that reminds you of a grandmother, an aunt, or a wonderful event in your life? My friend Linda Anderson says that the best Christmas present she ever received was the hand made quilt her husband gave her. One of my nicest surprises last year came in the form of an e-letter with photos of three children perched on crib quilts. They had outgrown the quilts, the letter-writer told me, but they still loved them. “They are,” she said, “an important part of their childhood.”
So what makes quilts—and doesn’t the word itself flow mellifluously from the tongue—so special? Perhaps, it is their composition, the way they can offer warmth and comfort. Perhaps they convey the message that as each piece of fabric finds its place, a quilter sews into her (or his!) work thoughts and hopes; the love for a grandchild, a wish for a sick friend’s recovery, a celebration of weddings and anniversaries and glorious vacations, or a memorial quilt which is made with sorrow for a loved one and a heartfelt appreciation of that beloved life.
Quilts come into being for warmth and also for beauty, and nowadays there are art quilts and crib quilts, prayer quilts and quilts made especially for our wounded soldiers. There are quilts for special causes—just think of the Aids quilt which now has 48,000 hand-sewn panels within it! Quilts, too, have been created to commemorate loved ones in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease, and these beautiful, heartbreaking works of art convey both love and a great loss.
Quilts are also presented to nursing homes or hospitals and emergency wards for sick children or for premature babies. I vividly remember the young mother who once stood before our guild with her beautiful, healthy child—and a quilt. This quilt, she told us, had been given to her when her daughter was so prematurely born that it was feared she would not survive. The quilt comforted the mother during those dark days, and the thought that strangers cared enough to give her this gift gave her courage and hope.
Isn’t that a wonderful story? But sometimes an event so catastrophic occurs, and the quilter can only express her emotions with fabric. Many such were created to commemorate and mourn 911 and to somehow reach from desolation to hope. For me, personally, there was a journey to Japan shortly after the terrible Kansai earthquake of 1995. Dispossessed by the earthquake as were so many thousands of others, my Aunt Juliette was in her nineties and for many reasons could not come with us to the States. In the pleasant and caring nursing home where she now lived, she was ailing and not expected to live long.
This was the aunt who had taught me to sew, to embroider, to observe with mind and spirit the glory of the natural world. I was here to bid her a final good bye, and to say that I was broken hearted doesn’t even begin to touch what I felt. Afterwards I took a solitary walk through the town, hardly seeing where I was going until I found myself in front of a Quilt Store.
Perhaps it was habit that led me inside. There, the pleasant store owner greeted me, and for want of something to say I admired the huge, dramatic quilt she had hung on the wall. Worked in darkest grays, purples and blacks, it was scored with crimson slashes and appliquéd with silk teardrops. With tears in her eyes she explained that after the great earthquake she had been so disconsolate that she had had to create something… and so this quilt came to be. We spoke quietly together of our own quilts, of sorrow and loss, and I told her some part of the reason why I was in Japan.
When she heard that we were flying home on the morrow, she stopped me. “You have come such a long, sad way,” she said. “Now I want you to take something home with you, something I have been working on.” She went into the back room and emerged with a bundle of cloth. I offered to pay, but she smiled and shook her head. “No, No,” she said. “It’s something from quilter to quilter. Maybe when you look at it you will smile and remember your Aunty.”
I carried the bundle back to our hotel and, spreading it on the bed, found that it was a cotton kimono in prime condition. Later I found that it very old, dating back at least a hundred years .
It hangs on my sewing room wall now, a reminder that we do not prize quilts only for their beauty or for their skill or artistry but for that ineffable something that creates a bond of caring and love between those who give and those who receive, between friends and strangers alike.
The hand that stitches
A beloved offering
Gives more than mere cloth.