Today I have the extreme pleasure of introducing Liz Smith, my first contributor to this new “What Quilts Mean” series. Liz is an endlessly kind and generous friend and a constant inspiration – her lifelong love of textile crafts shines through everything she does, from felting to hand-stitching amazing vintage fabric finds. Today she’ll tell the story of how her craft path led her to quilts in this beautiful essay that I loved so much, it brought a tear to my eye.
I know you’ll make Liz feel welcome, my first guest poster ever – I’m so pleased to have her here!
What Quilts Mean by Liz Smith
I’ve always been a maker and my mom is an artist too. When I was growing up, mom made some square patchwork quilts as baby gifts.
They were very simple, very sweet, usable blankies backed in soft flannel that parents loved to receive and babies snuggled with well into toddlerhood. But I didn’t really grow up with a tradition of quilting in my immediate family and I didn’t give it much thought.
Around college I took an interest in graphic design and collected a few inexpensive Dover quilt pattern books along with books of stained glass and chip carving patterns as reference guides for silk screening designs on T-shirts. I painted the printed tees with bright colors and sold them at local craft fairs.
In the ‘80s & ‘90s, quilting had a frumpy feeling to me, I didn’t think I could relate to the craft. Quilters seemed hopelessly mainstream while I was a punk in black clothes, extra face piercings, and Doc Martens. But there I was, designing quilt patterns on graph paper and making “paper quilts” by relentlessly cutting half square triangles of color from old magazines and gluing them to foam core.
One summer I collected clothes and fabric from the thrift shop, gaudy prints from the ‘60s and ‘70s (which were very déclassé in the ‘90s, that was my counter-culture instinct taking over) which I cut up and pieced as half square triangles into panels for weird little bags I designed myself and made on the sewing machine I’d requested and received upon graduation from college in 1992.
So when I look back I can see my urge to quilt was present for a long time before I actually started quilting. I had plenty in common with the quilters I couldn’t yet see my connection to.
Around the time I started living online, maybe 2006, 2007, I randomly bought Denyse Schmidt Quilts. In her work I saw clean, modern work with a respect for tradition that resonated with me. I started to notice more modern quilting online. I became real life friends with modern quilters and internet friends with modern fabric designers.
But I never made the projects in the books I loved looking at. I found I wasn’t so interested in following patterns. In general, I prefer to learn a technique then incorporate it into something I design myself. And maybe that was part of my reluctance to join up with quilting; it can be heavily patterns based. I gravitated toward the idea of improv quilting, but at the same time I found my heart jumping for joy at the nostalgic quilts featured in the very traditional Martha Stewart Living magazine. I was perplexed. Where did I fit in?
By 2012 I was well established as a professional maker, working with needle felting, polymer clay, and crochet. But I still wasn’t sewing. I had been collecting fabric scraps from friends who sew. Mostly they made bags with modern fabrics. By that time I was thoroughly intimidated by the prospect of sewing anything besides curtains. I knew so many amazing professional sewers who seemed to have it all figured out, I didn’t have a clue.
One day after a terrible dental procedure I found an inexpensive, very old, tattered log cabin quilt in a thrift shop. I had to have it. The pieces were cut with scissors, probably from old clothes, the seams weren’t straight, and the squares did not match up. I adored it, it brought me great comfort. Slowly I realized, being a non-professional sewer was just fine. I still had permission to sew like the lady or ladies who put together this charming quilt.
I started buying little bundles of vintage unfinished quilt pieces whenever I came across them. The first time I realized the squares I held in the thrift shop were hand sewn, my heart exploded with love.
Then my mom gave me the contents of her fabric scrap basket and something sparked in me.
One weekend at home I picked up a little piece of muslin she had cut decades ago and it felt friendly. Its wonky shape was not quite square, like the pieces in my treasured vintage quilt. I got out a box of carefully sorted green fabric scraps and started to piece a log cabin square.
I did it by hand. And I could not stop. I had broken through my reluctance. I loved the constraint of sewing slowly, using only what I already had on hand, and the freedom of using what was discarded by others. I realized sewing machines seemed too fast to me. Quilting can be overwhelming, but doing it this way scaled it down, made it accessible.
Soon after that I found shirting yardage, blues and whites, at a thrift shop on Cape Cod. Someone’s 1960s stash, never used, price tags still attached. I was compelled to begin another quilt top though the green one was not yet finished (sound familiar, quilters??). I started cutting squares, used the computer to create a random pattern, and sewed all the squares together by hand into a queen sized quilt top.
While I sewed on this project for a year, I thought a lot about why I was doing it. Solving the color placement of the patchwork was a challenging puzzle which I enjoyed. But most of all I just wanted a blanket. I wanted to make a blanket for our bed. I wanted the blanket to remind me of Martha’s Vineyard and breezy beach cottages in New England. I wanted to evoke a feeling with my quilt using color, pattern, design, and texture. And I wanted to live with that feeling when the quilt was completed. I wanted to snuggle under the quilt on cool summer evenings with the window open and own it for years, wear the quilt out, and patch it. I wanted coziness and, a feeling of well-being, and a sense of accomplishment.
Quilts mean comfort to me, and creativity, and a connection with a past maker who didn’t worry about whether or not she should quilt, if she was qualified to do it or not, she just did it. With whatever she had on hand, and often by hand. I know where I fit in now, I love both modern and traditional quilting. I want to improvise and use patterns. I want to pair traditional techniques, textiles, and patterns with a modern aesthetic and use modern fabrics with traditional techniques. I hand sew and I machine sew. I want to honor all the quilters who came before me and share in the joy and satisfaction of all the contemporary quilters making things right now.