On a wall in my office, an old patchwork quilt hangs from a rod, bringing visual beauty into my workspace and reminding me of how I’m connected to the world. The quilt tells part of my story. Of long ago visits to my grandparents’s home, filled to overflowing with family, when it was expected that the youngest members of the family would sleep on pallets made up in the floor since there weren’t enough beds to go around. We never thought about sending anyone to a hotel for the night. For starters none of us could afford it. More importantly, though, our family felt that an overflowing house showed how much we loved each other and how blessed we were. Being together was a celebration.
When we made up our pallet beds on the floor, we had many quilts and blankets to choose from and this quilt was always my favorite. I loved the deep reds of many of the patched together pieces of the quilt’s pattern. One fabric particularly held my attention with its glistening gold and black design on a deep red background. I imagined it as coming from clothing that was worthy of having been worn by a queen or a magical being from a fairy tale. In the way that children understand their own experience of the world to be the way everyone experiences the world, I knew that quilts were very special because mothers and grandmothers spent hours and hours stitching them together. I knew that “quilt” meant the thing itself as well as the activity of its creation. First the quilt top was laid out according to the pattern, then sewn together one block at a time. Next batting was sandwiched between the resulting quilt top and the fabric chosen as the backing. Finally everything was quilted together using interlacing lines of small, running stitches. In my great-grandmother’s house, a large quilting frame was stored in the ceiling of the living room, with a system of pulleys and ropes installed by her husband to quickly pull the frame down so she could sit in the living room and quilt, then easily move the frame out of the way with the unfinished quilt still attached. Every time we visited my great-grandmother’s house, my mom made sure the large bag of sewing scraps she’d been saving up made it safely into the trunk of the car for the journey.
As I got older I began to question whether quilts that had been pieced together from scraps of this and that fabric, rather than being a testament to the artistry and creativity of the women in my family, were more the shameful evidence of our lack of resources. Other families, those with more money and more education and more social graces, bought nice velvety blankets at the department store, and if one of the edges started to fray, they bought a new blanket. When I was a teenager it became trendy to revive some of the older homemaking activities, including quilting. I remember how shocked I was to see quilts that had been made entirely of new fabric, with patterns comprised of only a few, matching colors. They looked like frauds to my eyes, like something trying to fit in where it didn’t belong. Quilts should be old, inconsequential things, showing the stains and frays of thoughtless use.
Years later when I was setting up my first home after my college years, I convinced my mother to give me the old quilt from my pallet making days. She was reluctant at first, telling me she’d planned to give it to me but not until after I was married. I felt insulted, as though I wouldn’t be accepted as a full-fledged adult member of the family until I was married. I didn’t understand why I felt so passionate about it, but eventually my insistence won out and my mother gave the quilt to me as a Christmas gift. Only then did I learn that my mother had received the quilt top as a wedding present, and that she, my grandmother and my great-grandmother had worked together to finish the quilt when she was setting up her first home.
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These words are a garment I am trying on. This writing is patchwork….the art form of our foremothers everywhere. The best parts of old garments, cut and saved and stitched together with scraps of leftover new fabric, to make something beautiful and useful. That kind of garment. Soul garment. Spirit garment.” – Pat Schneider, “How The Light Gets In
When I was that small girl with the pallet on the floor, the warmth of my extended family and the embrace of those beautiful quilts told me that I belonged and that there were people who loved me and had my back. Where does it start? The messaging that says we’re not good enough. That what we create, out of the carefully gathered pieces of our life, isn’t good enough. That seeing beauty in the mundane isn’t true artistry. That the gifts we have to give aren’t worth making space for. That we aren’t valuable. Each of us has a story to tell about when we started to believe those messages. Part of the reason I write is to discover where that messaging has taken root in my soul and pull it out. And I’m hoping that the pattern I create will be one that others can use to discover those same roots in their own soul and yank them out. Because I do know this, the belief that we’re not good enough won’t stop on its own, but it can be stopped.
Today I’m linking up with the Story Sisters on this International Women’s Day as we tell stories of the girls we once were. This year the theme for International Women’s Day is “Inspiring Change.” If ever there was a group of women who are inspiring change, in themselves and in others, the Story Sisters are it! These women are fierce, and determined to use their gifts and their stories to bring change in the lives of women. I think you’ll enjoy spending some time soaking up their words.