Thursday, September 15, 2011

Stitches Saved

Yesterday, having finished a work project, I tidied up the garden a bit, visited with the hens, and dug up the onions that need to be cured for storage. But it's starting to be that time of year when I'm drawn to indoor projects.

In a 100-year-old house, projects are never in short supply. I need to finish stripping the wood trim upstairs. And the living room needs a new coat of paint. But for some reason, the projects that have been languishing since spring begin calling to me--the scarf I started knitting in February, and the socks that have been on the needles for M. I thought I'd go through my stash and take stock of my UFOs (unfinished objects).

On the way upstairs, I passed a quilt that hangs there.
It's not intricate or fancy. I'd probably pick different fabrics now than I picked 14 years ago. But it's a quilt that hangs on my stairwell wall and warms by sight, rather than by weight. The quilting stitches anchor top layer and batting to bottom layer, but they also hold something intangible.

I made it when we lived in a small town in Idaho. The building where our little community voted was an old, one-room building constructed around World War II. One cold November day, when I signed in to vote, there was also a sign up sheet for quilting. I added my name to the list.

We met one evening each week. There were usually four or five of us on a good day. In the summer, evening breezes would roll in across the pea and wheat fields, carrying their distinct scents through the windows where we sat quilting. In the winter, we'd arrive in darkness, stomping the snow from our boots while one of the women lit the little kerosene stove for heat.

The quilt frame was held together by C-clamps, and when we'd completed as far as our arms could reach toward the center, we'd stop, loosen the clamps, roll up completed sections, scoot chairs closer, and get back to chatting and stitching. By the time a quilt was nearly done, we'd be sitting nearly face to face, knee to knee. The stitching brought us closer together.

We talked about current events, local news, aches and pains, recipes and diets, grown children and new grandchildren. When I first started quilting, I didn't have children, but in the time I quilted with them, I became a mom.

Eventually, the log cabin quilt I'd made found its way to the frame. We talked over it as the tamarack trees turned from green to golden, and as the air became scented with woodsmoke instead of summer scents.

And then we moved away. It was probably six months later that I unpacked the box where the log cabin quilt was folded and stored, complete. I turned back one corner, and smiled. There they were, in green ink, signatures stacked up on the back of the quilt, slanting lines that reached out warmly to me.

The ladies had all signed it--Jamie, Mary, Dee, Ruth, Earlene, Sherry, Kay. And if you look carefully at the quilt, you can see that there are signatures of another sort. Their stitches were all different, but unique to them. Small and precise, longer and slanted, short and far apart. Each stitch made in the rhythm of easy conversation.

The pattern itself is fine, and the colors are still pleasing to me, but it's the stitches and signatures that make this quilt my favorite. Quilting with others around a frame, as women have done for generations, adds an invisible layer to a quilt, one that's there between the stitches.

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