“At the quilting bee, one might have learned.. how to bring up babies, how to mend a cracked teapot, how to take out grease from brocade, how to reconcile absolute decrees with free will, how to make five yards of cloth answer the purpose of six, and how to put down the Democratic party.” -Harriet Beecher Stowe

When I was about 14, I spent $5 on a blue hooded sweatshirt in a thrift shop, and continued to love it to shreds all through high school and college.  Every time a new hole appeared, I saw it as an opportunity to add to the growing collage of bits of old socks and jeans that grew up the sleeves and around the pockets.  When I graduated college and thought I had to start trying harder to look like an adult, I decided to pass on the ratty sweatshirt, covered with about 80 patches at that time, to my youngest sister for her 16th birthday.  She wore it proudly, and as the years and more patches were added on, it carried bits of stories of which no single person knew all the details.  My college roommate gave me a piece of her mother’s old dress.  I added a piece of a pair of jeans I destroyed on an archeological dig in Greece.  My sister stitched in stories of her own.

A few weeks ago, she and I visited the Durham Fair in the pouring rain, which made our long stay in the quilting barn all the cozier.  The quilts were beautiful and tremendously impressive, but I made sure to check the tags for which were “professionally quilted.”  “Made by Machine.”  “Cheating!” I said to my sister.  We ventured on to the fair’s History Barn, where we stretched over the rope to study the details of an old farm kitchen, complete with a ‘window refrigerator’ and a cast iron ball from which to hang your yarn, keeping it clean and out of the claws of the housecat.  We moved on to the ancient washing machine and rolling dryers.  I remembered a few of my grandma’s horror stories of hair and fingers getting caught in the squeezing rollers, and decided that maybe technology isn’t so bad. 

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend–  I had the opportunity to visit an exhibit of the Quilts from Gee’s Bend in 2005 when they were on display in the Boston Museum of Art.  I was stunned and inspired by the beauty and creativity.  This book beautiful book tells the incredible stories of the quilts and the women who made them.  These are quilts made with the barest of tools and materials, often without even scissors, and yet vibrant works of art.

I was so inspired by the book of the Quilts of Gee’s Bend that I decided to try making a quilt by hand myself, since I know I’m going to need another blanket to get through the winter in Litchfield (and since I can never get my handheld sewing machine to work properly anyway.)

Grandma’s Best Full-Size Quilt Blocks: Pieces of the Past for Today’s Quilter–  In this book, historic patterns are freely shared, along with their meanings and stories, and some food for thought.  Some of it is quite moving.  There is a quote from a pioneer woman’s diary- “I made quilts as fast as I could to keep my family warm, and as pretty as I could to keep my heart from breaking.”   Flipping through quilting books with patterns from my grandmother’s time, her grandmother’s time, impeccable creations of very intricate detail, I feel a connection to women in history books that I haven’t before.  I start to wonder if I could learn to quilt neatly and beautifully, maybe even correctly, using the old patterns to honor their originators.

The Standard Book of Quilt Making by Marguerite Ickis- I am enjoying the luxury of a small pair of scissors and the quiet of my own apartment with no babies or hungry husbands around to disturb me while I work.  The pleasant surprise of the needle and thread effectively making the pieces stay together was enough for me, but when my sister came over for a crafting night, hauling her sewing machine into my apartment and unfolding strips of perfectly evenly stitched patches, matched to the millimeter in size, I realized I had a long way to go before winning any ribbons at the fair.  This book is a good primer for a struggling student.

Creative Quilting by Elsa Brown- I find crafts most intriguing not when they’re the most beautiful, but when they are the most creative-  especially taking things that would otherwise be thrown away and making them into something lovely and useful.  Somehow patches of fabric coming together to make a substantial difference in ones comfort when the temperature drops is profound to me.

Historic Quilts by Florence Peto- This is an interesting book on the stories and symbolism of historic quilts.  It offers specific insights into historical, regional and cultural symbolism in traditional quilt patterns.

Mini Quilts from Traditional Designs by Adele Corcoran and Caroline Wilkinson- Another vibrant book that makes it look so easy!  I’m drawn in to the accessibility of a “mini” quilting project, but these patterns are by no means lacking in detail.  (I’m not here to start a fight, but where did this idea that women aren’t good at math come from, when the complexity of the geometry and the precision of the patterns of these quilts is sometimes absolutely staggering!)

Nancy Crow– This is a beautiful book on the quilting artwork of Nancy Crow.  The work is bright and expressive, and the artists statements are truly moving.

The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford will be having a special exhibit this winter called “Colts and Quilts: The Civil War Remembered,” which will include historic quilts.  The Atheneum is the oldest public art museum in the country.  The library owns an admission pass that is available to check out at the circulation desk.

Miriam Lee is the Technical Services Assistant at Oliver Wolcott Library.  She is stock-piling scraps of fabric like a squirrel, and has never been so excited for the cold weather to start!

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