What Quilts Mean

What Quilts Mean: With Diane Gilleland, aka Craftypod

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Today I’d like to welcome my lovely friend Diane Gilleland to the blog – I’ve talked about Diane before, as the host of the various EPP blog hops I’ve taken part in recently and author of the new book All Points Patchwork (go get it now). Diane has become a very dear friend over the past year, so kind and supportive, and I am so pleased that she was willing to visit me over here and share this story of a quilt specially designed for a precious friend.




What Quilts Mean by Diane Gilleland

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When I started this quilt, I didn’t think of it as being particularly meaningful. Back in 2013, I had a new book out called Quilting Happiness, which I co-authored with Christina Lane. And so I decided to make a quilt from the book and blog about my progress.

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I chose my fabrics purely out of practicality. Normally I love light, bright colors, but I had a dark grey cat (Pushkin) who made it his mission in life to lay upon every piece of fabric that came into the house. And when he lounged, he deposited a fine grey patina. So I decided to stick to a low-volume group of greys for my quilt, since I knew Pushkin would quickly assume ownership and why fight a cat’s inalienable right to anything?

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I’ve never been good at finishing projects that are purely for me, so this quilt crept along like a glacier for the next two years. It wasn’t just me holding things up – when I did work on the project, there was a certain, um… feline impediment. Each time I’d lay out my fabrics and get started, Pushkin would immediately jump up on the table (or my lap), flop right down, and begin purring.

“I AM HELPING,” he’d say (in cat-telepathy, of course).

“You know, I need to sew that exact piece you’re laying on,” I’d reply. Can I just have it?”

“NO. HELPING.”

“Yeah, but I can’t do anything unless you move.”

“I AM ADORABLE. PET ME.”

“Well… when you’re right, you’re right.”

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After a while, I devised some little tricks to get around the “helping.” When I was setting up to work, I’d lay out one nice, fresh enticing piece of fabric, making a big show of patting it and smoothing it out. (Smooth fabric = cat magnet.) Then, once Pushkin was fully settled in on that piece, I’d get out the stuff I’d really planned to work on. Or, when I was hand-quilting, I’d lay the quilt sandwich out on a big table, so there’d be space for him to stretch out while I stitched on another section. We logged a lot of nice hours this way, sewing and “helping” in companionable quiet.

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I’d always envisioned that the first time I made my bed with the finished quilt, Pushkin would jump up, arrange himself regally in the center, and survey his domain (which included, of course, the quilt, the bed, the house, and the humans). Sadly, though, that never came about. Before I could finish the quilt, we lost Pushkin to that thing that claims so many cats – kidney failure.

As anyone knows, it’s a terribly sad time, losing a beloved pet-friend. At first, I thought I’d never work on that quilt again. But as Julie so beautifully put it in her post, grieving sometimes needs ways to shut down the mind while keeping the hands busy. So I found myself digging my quilt-in-progress out more and more – doing just a little more quilting, stitching on just a little binding. As my needle moved in and out of that grey fabric, I could feel my little helper’s presence, and it was so soothing.

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Before too long, I had finally finished the quilt – the first thing I’ve made purely for myself in years. (I mean, you know, I was making it for the cat of course, but then inherited the right to use it.) I smoothed it out on my bed as I’d always envisioned. A bit of a sad moment, since I’d never get to see Pushkin resting there like a king. But I do love getting that little glimpse of grey each time I pass the bedroom door, and I love snuggling underneath it at night. A quilt that keeps my favorite helper close by.

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I think quilts take on meaning precisely because they can take so long to make. They absorb all those days with their ups and downs, and become a kind of memory touchstone. Eventually, I’ll move on to another cat-friend and embark on a lighter, brighter quilt. But I’ll always keep my grey quilt nearby and Pushkin in my heart, ready to pull out and snuggle when needed.


Visit Diane on Twitter and Instagram, and at Craftypod, where she is currently sharing a free design from her totally awesome new book

What Quilts Mean: Why We Sew for Tragedy

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More than two years ago, when my mother was first diagnosed, my family and I quickly made her this quilt and gave it to her for the Mother’s Day we celebrated only a few weeks later. We didn’t really know anything yet, but it seemed the obvious thing to do; I felt quite strongly that a quilt was the only possible gift we could give to someone who would need comfort, care, and rest in the coming months.

We got to work immediately. My father bought the required materials, my brother pressed seams and basted, and I sewed. We felt industrious. We felt like we were doing something that would help. We felt like we were contributing to Mom’s care.

Or, more likely, that was just me and the others kindly indulged me.

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To me, sewing a quilt was the only thing I could think to do, the only thing that made sense when nothing at all made sense. Thinking back on it now, I’m sure my family was shellshocked in a way we didn’t even realize at the time – we all knew the diagnosis was pretty bad, but we went ahead with daily crap. I channeled my worry into sewing and bottled up the rest. I imagined this quilt would be real comfort to her when it got as bad as I feared it would.

I’m sure she loved it and, yeah, she used it constantly, but the truth is – it didn’t do a damn thing for her. She still got sick, and then sicker, and then sicker, and neither the quilt nor I could do anything to help.

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After she was gone, the quilt was passed back to the rest of us and it’s now the living room quilt. The first chilly winter night that I needed the warmth, I pulled it over me and was engulfed in horror. I could barely stand the sight of it, present in so many horrible memories of her tucked under it – not in comfort, but in pain. It suddenly seemed to signify everything I couldn’t do for her. I’m coming around to it now, but I’m still not quite ready for it to be a regular quilt again.

I’ve made a lot of quilts / mini-quilts as gifts, but this one is obviously the most fraught with emotion. I knew I wanted to share it for this series, but I wasn’t sure what to say about it. It hurts me to look at it now, but I needed to make it then. My mind kept coming back to this quilt, pictured in the book American Quilts: The Democratic Art by Robert Shaw (pg 53).

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This quilt is referred to as the “Nancy A. Butler Quilt”, made by Nancy Ward Butler in Jamestown, New York, 1842. It is the single most striking and haunting quilt I have seen so far (in my admittedly limited quilty travels). It hardly needs explanation – Nancy Ward Butler was mourning:

Women also continued to make quilts commemorating special occasions, but some began to use their quilts in more personally revealing ways, adding written messages or other forms of personal expression to their work. One of the most poignant examples has large blue capital letters framed by sawtooth piecework that read simply: NANCY·A·BUTLER·DIED·FEB·3·1842·AGED 20 MO. There are no spaces between the letters and numbers, which are equal in size and spill from one line to the next without heeding the grammatically correct breaking points, a compositional approach that only emphasizes the unflinching directness of the message.
(Shaw, pg. 53)

This quilt makes my heart ache. I see in every hand-stitched letter Nancy Ward Butler’s pain driving her forward. Of course I know nothing about Nancy Ward Butler or her family, but I imagine any grieving quilter would feel an automatic connection with this piece – the grief so loud you can almost hear it – and an instant empathy for Ms. Butler’s need to take thread to fabric. Her quilt commemorates her granddaughter’s short life as well as her own loss, so huge that she simply could not contain it.

Do we sew during tragedy for ourselves or the event? I reckon both, because we simply don’t know what else to do.

What Quilts Mean: with my dear friend, Christa Woodman

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What Quilts Mean - Christa WoodmanI hope you’ll give a very warm welcome to the second guest in this series, one of my dearest friends, Christa Woodman. Christa does not have a blog herself, but if you’re a regular reader of this blog, I’m sure you’ll have seen her name pop up from time to time, as one-third of my beloved Mini-Bee, fellow pub knitter and general crafty co-conspirator. One of the first things Christa and I bonded over was a familiarity with Liberty fabrics (though few rival her encyclopedic knowledge of Liberty prints) and a love of vintage needlecraft books. She’s a lovely friend and ridiculously skilled stitcher, and I’m so happy to have her here today.




What Quilts Mean by Christa Woodman

This is something that I think about more and more – often sparked by conversations with Julie – and I love that quilts do mean more to us than just the pieces of fabric that they’re made of. We share a group of friends who knit and sew together regularly (generally at the pub, what can I say?). I met these friends as a fully-fledged knitter, but patchwork is a pastime that has developed and grown as a direct result of our friendship.

My real interest began a few years ago at the amazing Festival of Quilts. Julie, Karen and I went, way back in the early days of our friendship, when I was still a little afraid to ask if anyone would like to join me for a really long day out somewhere I’d never been and for what might have been a disaster, for all I knew. Ah, how things have changed! We’ve gone every year since and daydream about how, when we win the lottery, we’ll stay in a fancy hotel and go for the full four days of the event. For now we content ourselves with two, and I swear it’s better than Christmas – all the excitement and none of the stress!

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That’s how I started off, but what does it mean to me now? I have one project that probably explains my feelings the best. It’s a scrappy hexagon tote bag – a silly item to have such an attachment to, I know, but there is a meaning to me behind every aspect of it. It was inspired by that first trip to the FoQ and it’s been my long-running mindless project, on hand whenever I need something utterly undemanding.

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I can’t look at it without seeing and remembering. I can tell you where every scrap of fabric came from; bought, given or found. I’m sure I’ve sewn it on occasions that I’ve forgotten but I’ve certainly had it with me on lots of days worth remembering. I’ve stitched it at the pub with my dear Knitters, making each one pick their favourite hexie for me to sew in next. I did the same when visiting Gran in happy circumstances; on another occasion I sewed it at her hospital bedside as she recovered from a major stroke. I’ve sewn it with Grandpa (on the other side of the family) the day we had a picnic at the bottom of his garden. He was full of questions about EPP so I showed him how to do it. He got just a little sweary because it was so fiddly, but he always was a maker of things and he picked it up quickly. He has Alzheimer’s and didn’t remember a thing about it later on but I know he enjoyed that day, at the time. I still have the memory though, and those stitches to remind me.

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I’ve sewn it at home when I should have been doing other things; on my lunch break; on the train going for nice days out; and I’ve sewed it in the pub some more. It’s very nearly done. When it is, I’ll bring it with me to the FoQ, with Karen and Julie, to show a lovely lady from the Quilter’s Guild, who we met on our first visit, how I copied her bag.

Whether it’s hand-stitched and portable, or tethered to the machine, hours worth of thoughts and memories are hidden in the stitches we make, visible only to ourselves – and if we’re lucky, maybe to a few others. I love having friends who know what fabric I own (they made me buy half of it!), how much I worry over designs and decisions and how long I’ve spent stitching. I don’t think I’m imagining it to think that there are little traces of us that cross into each other’s work too: the lazy Sundays spent sewing in the pub just for the fun of it; the Emergency Sewing Sessions because one of us needed it; watching Pretty Woman and Dirty Dancing round at Karen’s. Julie speaks of the tears that soaked into the fabric of her quilt, well, there’s one or two of mine in the quilt I’m making for my Mum, as I thought of Julie and her family.

I never expected to end up in any form of quilting bee. I thought it was an old fashioned idea that wouldn’t still exist in this day and age, much as I might like it to. I love that it’s something that we’ve fallen into by happy accident, made up for ourselves, encouraged each other to ever more stitchy-madness, and discovered to be a modern tradition too. In a word – quilts mean friendship.

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Visit Christa on Instagram, where she shares her beautiful sewing, chalk signage and baking.

What Quilts Mean: with Liz Smith from Smith Dry Goods

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Liz Smith QuiltingToday 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Then my mom gave me the contents of her fabric scrap basket and something sparked in me.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


Visit Liz at her blog, her shop, and as @smithdrygoods on both Instagram and Twitter.

What Quilts Mean (& Orange Peels FO)

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Wow, guys. This quilt has been a long time coming. It’s been through a lot. I started planning this project last August, and started really sewing sometime in September, so it’s been over eight months in the making. And not just any old eight months.

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While I was finally quilting, sitting at the sewing machine for hours on end, the quilt passing under my hands, I thought a lot about what it means to me. What making it meant to me while I worked through the first eight months of grieving for my mother.

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In a very literal way, this quilt helped me work through the first steps of this seemingly never-ending process. The hand-stitching of appliquéd orange peels is a beautifully mindless process, allowing me to shut down my brain while keeping busy at the same time. And sharing the steps and my progress with you all gave me the vehicle to interact online again, before I was really ready to talk about casual stuff. Every bit of this project helped me inch forward in some little way.

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This quilt has been a distraction, a comfort, and a friend. As I guided it through the machine, I thought about the actual tears that have soaked into its fabrics over the last eight months, and I wondered if it’s like the Sword of Gryffindor: what it absorbs only makes it stronger. Will it hold on to all of those feelings for me?

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One thing I know for sure: this quilt is not just a blanket. And the moment I thought that to myself, I knew it was true of all quilts. We don’t make quilts because they keep us warm. For most of us, we don’t need to do that at all. We could go buy a blanket for a fraction of the cost at our local department store. I’m forever saying that I love how quilts are allowed to be, symbolically, a little corny. We join fabrics that symbolize special people or times in our lives. We sew together to symbolize a sense of community or bond between the makers. We quilt to celebrate special occasions or meaningful events.

It’s clear that making quilts means something to us, and (hopefully) to the people who use them. To me, my orange peels quilt was something like an amour – to both protect me from and insulate me in my grief. And for the rest of my life, it will remind me of a comfort that I can’t quite put into words. There is a sort of comfort in sadness, when you feel broken-hearted – and this quilt will contain that for me, forever.

Orange Peels Quilt

I’ve invited a handful of fellow quilters to share their thoughts on the meaning of quilts. I’ve asked them to prepare a post, in any form or style they want, with the title, “What Quilts Mean” and I will share their responses over the coming weeks, or maybe months, or until I run out of contributions. I was overjoyed that they wanted to join me in this little project, though I know so many have thought about this topic from a million different perspectives – I can’t wait to hear some from our online community. I really hope you all enjoy the series!