The Contrary Quilter

My mother insisted I learn to sew when I was young.  She felt it was a good life skill but of perhaps greater importance (important because this is the part I remember with the most clarity), she wanted me to learn because I was a very short child who grew to be a vertically challenged adult.  Knowing how to hem garments was considered crucial.

I may never have gained much in the height department, but I did gain a Herculean stubbornness and independence which resulted in sewing rebellion.  I detested sewing clothes — every pattern required adjustment so the finished product would fit.  And to be told I needed to know how to sew because I was going to be short was just the sort of statement to prompt me to do the opposite (if only that had worked with the growing part).  To say I was contrary is an understatement.

But I still lugged a sewing machine from apartment to apartment once I’d graduated college and moved out on my own.  My mother’s old reliable Singer 401 (gifted to me when she bought a Bernina) sat in a nice cabinet that looked like a small desk.  The desk part was handy for paying bills and writing letters back when people wrote letters.  And, on occasion, I’d use the machine to shorten a pair of pants.

My mother was (is) a quilter but I refused to consider being a quilter myself.  That contrary streak again.  I got it stuck in my head that darn sewing machine was for clothes making only and I was not making clothes.  Finding garments that fit properly in a store wasn’t always easy, but it was a heck of a lot easier than me trying to make them.  (Still is, actually.)

But everything changed in October 1998.  Someone I cared about was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.  His liver, lungs, and other organs were also impacted.  He was given 30 days.

My reaction when loss occurs is to do something.  In the middle of the pain, action keeps my focus pointed outward. This particular ache pushed me to make my first quilt because the disease made this strong man weak, shrinking him at a rapid pace.

He lived 26 days after diagnosis.  He stayed warm under that first quilt for the last 10.


In the next year, I went on to make birthday quilts for my brother, my father, and my mother.  I made a small wall hanging as a wedding gift and an art quilt that is a conceptual take on the original master plan for the Austin, Texas airport (my day job is in construction management).

Austin Airport
Me.  Behind me is what I think construction plans should look like.

Production slowed in the years that followed but I still made a quilted cross; a college logo quilt; a screen printed center patch with rockers wall hanging for a motorcycle club; a hand dyed, quilted and machine embroidered skirt; and a motorcycle club chapter tribute quilt.  I wish I’d taken pictures to show you.  Except for the skirt and the airport, all were gifts.

A little age, a bit of wisdom, and a lot of love tempered my contrary streak.  When I could see past my stubbornness, I discovered an unexpected pleasure in sitting down at my sewing machine.  I can’t imagine losing that.  Creating quilts for others or to display as art work is a gift I was given, one for which I am very grateful.

In what way have you been contrary?  Did anything happen to change that?  

About: The Long(er) Version

I made my first quilt in 1998.  It was made from “cheater” fabric and filled with flaws but I found tremendous satisfaction in the finished product.  The picture in my head came to life.  I was hooked.

Gene's Quilt
My quilt photography skills have improved since 1998. A little. Thank God for digital cameras and auto focus.

For the next few years, I was a prolific seat of the pants quilter, crafting my quilts by reading technique books, listening to my gut, and eventually taking a few classes.  I made quilt after quilt as gifts for family and friends, until I found myself relocating from Texas to Chicago, where quilting fell off the back seat in the wake of new city, new job, and assorted other life changes. In addition to those assorted life upheavals, I found myself dissatisfied with what I made. I wanted to quilt but I didn’t want to make traditional quilts. I wanted to make art like that displayed at Houston’s International Quilt Festival (IQF) and through Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA).  While that desire to be a quilt artist lingered in my soul, I did nothing to fan the flames. I didn’t build up a collection of work; instead, I let fear tell me it was an impossible dream, that I didn’t have what it took, that I couldn’t be an artist.

Until now.

Screw the fear.  I’d rather know I tried.

This year, I dug a UFO out of a box and dove in to finish it. It’s not an original design but the act of picking up the rotary cutter and applying foot to pedal on my machine sparked something in me. It reminded me how much I enjoy the process and the craft. It also reminded me how much I have to learn and how rusty my skills are.  But I still scribbled down a list of over 15 quilts I want to design and make. I can see them in my head, and I know there are more lurking in the background.

I’ve always dabbled in poetry and, in one of those weird, random connections, I find my poems are sparking those quilt designs. (I can’t say if the poetry is any good or not — go here if you’re interested in reading any of it — but I hope the quilts will be!)

It is my goal to become a quilt artist. I know there are many steps to take, many small and large goals to set and achieve on that path. There are classes to take, techniques to learn, wise people to listen to and learn from.

I know it won’t happen overnight, if at all.  In fact, if it happens, it is likely to take years. But I’m looking forward to putting in the time.

This blog is a record of the journey.  Thank you for coming along on the ride.

What journey are you on?

%d bloggers like this: