Monday, May 26, 2014

Learning to quilt

I've been quilting "seriously" since I was in graduate school in the early 1990s.

But I got interested in it, and wanted to learn, long before that. (I did a lot of piecing before I ever quilted anything. In fact, I think I still have some of those early blocks - I made them using templates cut from cardboard, so they are way less perfect than the later ones I made either using plastic templates or rotary cutting like I do now).

My mom was part of a quilting group at the church we belonged to back in Hudson, when I was a kid. Every summer they had a big festival type thing - they had a craft sale, and they served lunch a couple of days (sandwiches and iced tea and strawberry pie - the pie was a big attraction.) Some years when I was in high school I worked as a "waitress." (it was volunteer work. Sometimes the people you served left tips but I contributed those to the funds that were being raised). I also helped pick the berries; that was always enjoyable - some years I went out with my mom's friend Mrs. D. (who belonged to a different church but was happy to help us out), other years I went out with Elsa, who was German and was very strict and I never quite knew how to take her, but I think she liked me because I was a hard worker.

Another thing they did at the church was quilting. I think they did one quilt to be raffled every year (if I remember correctly); the rest of the time I think they quilted quilts for people for money. (All the money went into the CWF funds; some of the funds were used for things like missions, others were used when updating the kitchen was needed or to fund baby showers or stuff when a woman in the church was expecting.).

I often went down to the church on Wednesday afternoons if I was free (Wednesday was quilting day). I liked to watch the ladies quilt. I don't think I ever got invited to try it. (Elsa was in charge and I think she was such a perfectionist she wouldn't be comfortable with a rank beginner trying her hand on the quilt).

Many years later I actually did learn how to hand quilt; it was inspired by those afternoons down in the church basement watching the ladies work together. Also, later on, when my parents lived in Illinois and my mom went to the quilting group at the church there, I'd go along when I was in town. But then, I always got invited to work on the tops with the ladies.

The quilting group at the Illinois church doesn't exist any more; one of the leading members died, another one developed arthritis in her hands to the point where she couldn't do it any more, and they didn't manage to attract any new members. (You had to pretty much be retired or a homemaker to do it, as it was on Wednesday middays.) I think that's kind of sad; the quilting group seemed to play a nice social role for the women - you could talk but you didn't have to, it was a way to get out of the house but still feel you were doing something useful. I'd like to see a revival of those kinds of things, the sort of communal work on some task, the "today me, tomorrow maybe you" thing (the ladies at the Illinois church often quilted tops one of the members had made- she would still pay for the quilting but the idea was you were getting a top done faster than you could do it yourself. And really, the money was essentially a donation to missions work or whatever the CWF was doing - buying school supplies for underprivileged kids, helping fund medical workers overseas....)

There was actually a lot of that kind of shared-work stuff when I was a kid. For a while, my parents belonged to a food co-op where you worked a certain number of hours a month as part of the membership, and you got a discount on the foods (mostly bulk items like oatmeal and beans) that they sold. And I remember how my family used to go in with friends of ours who had lots of land - in the spring we'd all go out and plant potatoes, and then one Saturday in the fall, we'd go out and help them harvest them and split the harvest (and have a cookout to celebrate harvesting). And those things were good and fun and really are some of my happiest childhood memories - and the idea that something could be hard work but could still also be fun and valuable was an important idea I learned as a kid.

I don't know if that kind of "shared work" stuff was more common in the 1970s, or if it was something my parents sought out (as a way to save a bit on money, but also because it was kind of how my parents had been brought up). It seems now there's less of that, and I don't know if it's because people work longer hours than formerly, or if there are more entertainment options (we had five television channels and no internet, and so you had to look other places for "fun"), or what. But I kind of miss that. I still remember happily going out with Mr. and Mrs. Manner and riding on the trailer of his tractor, and then jumping off when he stopped and running to pick up all the potatoes we could see from the plowed up hills in that area. And the dustiness and the sort of early-fall feel to things. And the anticipation of the cookout after the work was done. I didn't even really LIKE potatoes as a kid but I enjoyed going to harvest them....

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