I have always enjoyed working with fabric. My mother taught me to sew by the time I was 10 or 11, starting with hand-stitched doll clothes and then graduating to my own clothes on her sewing machine. As a young mother, I made clothing for my two children as well as for myself and my husband. Making or adjusting curtains became a necessity as we moved many times in our marriage. I never became what you would consider an accomplished seamstress but had fun challenging myself with creating a wall hanging or completing a quilt that my grandmother had pieced many years before.
Recently I completed another quilt that someone else had started. It was a simple task of assembling already sewn blocks into a top and then lining it and providing a backing. But it gave me such unexpected pleasure that now I can’t stop. It wasn’t so much the stitching together (the quilting part) of all the layers of fabric, but more the design and assembly of the pieces that intrigued me. Working with colors and patterns to create something uniquely my own feeds my need to bring order from chaos, beauty from randomness.
And then it struck me. Isn’t this the same fulfillment that I find in writing the biography of my great-grandfather? To gather all the disparate facts and episodes of his life and create something new that will be his unique story?
But the analogy doesn’t end there. (Aren’t analogies fun?) In the process of creating a quilt top, I sort through the fabric that I already have to see what blends with what, what makes for interesting contrast, what can be used for borders or trim, what general theme I want to follow. In the same way, as I write the biography, I sort through the tons of material I have collected to see what might be appropriate for this or that chapter, what little detail might bring a story to life, what is interesting but may be only a sideline, and what general theme will tie it all together.
As I continue to lay out the various fabric pieces for a new quilt, I sometimes come to the difficult conclusion that a certain piece (Why does it have to be my favorite?) just doesn’t work with the others or with the theme I have chosen. So out it goes, perhaps to appear in a later creation. Similarly, as much as I would like to include in my book all the fascinating facts about the development of medicine in the United States from 1880 to 1930, too much of it will bog down the flow of the story. So out it goes — or much of it anyway — perhaps to appear in a blog post or an essay somewhere down the line.
Since my Scotch heritage demands that I pinch pennies, I try very hard to use up the fabric and other supplies already on hand for whatever project I’m working on. Invariably, somewhere in the middle of my planning, I suddenly realize that I need another yard of white cotton or a spool of red thread, and off I go to the nearest fabric store. As I continue writing chapters of my book, I come across blank spaces in my knowledge: What year was the city of Attica electrified? What does “chirurgery” mean? Why did the B & O Railroad help fund a community hospital in Willard? And off I go mining the Internet for those hidden gems.
Of course, as with any analogy, even a fruitful one, the comparison eventually breaks down. In my case, the planning and execution of a quilt (at least the kind I make) is much less involved than the writing of my great-grandfather’s biography. And once a quilt is completed, I can give it to a loved one or a favorite charity, but its distribution is very limited. My book, when eventually published, will be shared with a much wider audience.
So as I work on both my quilts and my book, I’ll continue to find joy in their similarities and satisfaction in their differences, using my God-given talents for both to create beauty from chaos.