Saturday, July 5, 2014

Stitching Our Stories Essendon Quilt Show Opening Address

On Friday I had the honour of being the speaker to open the Essendon Quilt Show - Stitching Our Stories.

For those of you who missed it here is the basic run down of it. Parts in "" are the gist of the ad libs.

"Firstly what an honour it is to be a part of your show, to be a part of this 'story' in the book of the Essendon Quilters in their 25th year
Everything looks fantastic so a big thank you to Janette and her team of helpers and to all of you who are here today being a part of this event.
In fact, turn to the person on your left and thank them for being a part of your story today, and to the person on your right,  as without you all and all your efforts this show would not be on, so a little round of applause to all of you."

Stitching Our Stories. 

"Such a broad topic, so many angles to tackle. Where do we start with that one." 

It could be a chapter, a lifes work, a short story or a process. It could be in history, folk lore, day to day enjoyment or a labor of love.

I know that I have my own story to tell with textiles. From an early age to my career as a designer, now sourcing amazing fabrics, to when I pick up a needle and thread for my own pleasure. Those threads are woven into who I am and what I do today. Why I am standing in front of you all, being a part of this story. 

But what does making and creating mean to you. What is your story when you make a quilt?

To cast a long way back into history when the first settlers came to the New World, as they embarked into territory that was cold, bitter and without resources, the women of the New England made a bed cover or 'quilt' of what ever they could find, often stuffed with leaves and dried grasses to have some warmth against the bitter winter. These women stitched for survival. Their story was one of hardship, survival and necessity.

Move forward to a time when fabrics were plentiful and times were more civilised and we see quilts for decorative means. Applique and best quilts, ones made with fabrics purchased specifically for the project. Ladies of leisure in victorian times would stitch with silks or the younger girls would practice their needle work lovingly stitching a special piece of waistcoat silk of her secret love while she sits and waits for a hand in marriage. 

Many a world event has changed the way we view quilts and sewing. WW1 asked that blankets be saved for the boys, so quilts became a necessity item again in the USA. In WW2 we were asked that we made do and mend due to the fabric rationing. At the end of WW2 saw the 'new look' and that was clothing in full skirts to abundance.

The depression, the boll weevil epidemic and the dust bowl were times of great hardship during the 1930s in the USA for many people. Quilts became a necessary item for keeping families warm again. Feedsacks were used not only for clothing and household textiles but the left overs were used in quilts. I cannot imagine how hard life would have been on the plains when the agricultural prices fell, the great depression and the farms being wiped out with drought.

We are lucky to have textile items surviving from this time. I know myself as someone who sources vintage fabrics, finding surviving lengths of yardage from this era is difficult for many reasons. The items were used on a daily basis so they wore out.  There were problems with the textile mills being able to maintain equipment. There was also an awful lot of corner cutting in production to keep costs down. Admittedly there was a bountiful amount of designs produced at this time to foster consumer interest but many were not manufactured to the best quality.  'Sack Cloth' was viewed as a laughing stock by the european manufacturers and the reputation of American Made textiles during this time was considered not the best but the American textile industry survived this time of economic hardship much better than most other industries and went on to be one of the biggest employers and producers of textiles globally in the 1940s.

From sewing for a dowry to the quilting bees in far flung communities a story was threaded through a needle as the stitches played out in the fabrics. There are many myths, romanticised stories and hard facts about quilts and quilting, its is fascinating and I encourage anyone who loves to make a quilt to dig a little deeper into the history of this amazing craft, art or pastime we enjoy. The stories contained in its history are more engaging than fiction.

To stitch a story on a more personal level is about what drives us to make or create.
The feelings, the efforts, the memories that the quilt or the process of creating it holds.

I want to share with you this statement.  Marguerite Ickis, some of you might know as the author of the 'Standard Book of Quilt Making and Collecting' that was first published in 1949 documented this quote from her great grandmother.

--- It took me more than twenty years, nearly twenty five, I reckon, in the evening after supper when the children were all put to bed. My whole life was in that quilt. It scares me sometimes when I look at it. All my joys and all my sorrows are stitched into those little pieces. When I was proud of the boys and when I was down-right provoked and angry with them. When the girls annoyed me or when they gave me a warm feeling around my heart. And John too. he was stitched into that quilt and all the thirty years we were married. Sometimes I loved him and sometimes I sat there hating him as I pieced the patches together. So they are all in that quilt, my hopes and fears, my joys and sorrows, my loves and hates. I tremble sometimes when I remember what that quilt knows about me. ----

Now that is a story, A journey, a narrative of this woman's life. Imagine if that quilt could talk, I wonder what it would tell us.

For each of us here, our 'story' of quilt making is as individual as we all are. There may be similarities or a common thread of discovery among us, but we all have our own story to tell with our quilts. What sparked off the interest, what keeps us creating, why do we go nuts when we see fabric? We are all quilters of sorts and we all share a common thread of this interest  but we are all unique in our story.

The quilts hanging here today in this show. What is the story behind them? What is the story behind your own entry. 
I am humbled to see so many fabrics I have found in my travels in quilts in this show too. And entries that evoke memories.

Could it be a quilt that was made for a special new arrival, perhaps a grand child. Where the quilt was stitched with all the hopes you have for this new child entering the world. It is made with love, with kindness and with a special touch that only you have. You put into it all your wisdom and your thoughts that this quilt you made will be wrapped around this infant to keep them warm and safe. All that you can hope for that baby is in that quilt. 

Is it that the quilt you have hanging here today was a challenge you set for yourself. One that drove you crazy as you tried to do a method or technique you hadn't encountered before. One that only you know how many times you unpicked that one block to get it to line up properly. 
How many bottles of wine were consumed during the making of that quilt. Did your partner accuse you of making them a 'quilt widow' and that they had to fend for themselves with toasted cheese sandwiches as you were just too busy in quilt land?. Is it the quilt of all quilts that you will swear never again or is it one that even though you hated it at the time, you are so freaking happy about it you will now go off and try the insanity quilt. Yes, are you a quilter with an addictive streak that needs the next challenge.

Is it that you have seen an inspirational quilt that you would like to add to your collection. You chose the design because you love it and wish to make your own. What feeling does it evoke for you. Did Quilt Mania make you manic until you got stitching on that next project.

Is it that this quilt is the culmination of many hours of quiet contemplation or keeping your hands busy at night. Slowly and carefully pulling that needle through the fabric. Feeling the sense of contentment that working with your hands gives you.
I know my grandmother would knit, even in poor light without her glasses she would still click clack away, quietly and rhythmically. Perhaps with the radio on low in her favourite old wicker arm chair by the heater in the living room. It was her meditation. I often wonder now that if she was born in a different time in a different country she would have been whiling away her time stitching a quilt at night.

Is it the planning and buying of the fabric, the collecting of supplies. All the future quilts that you could create. Do you have more UFOs than FO's? Are you the quilter that quietly squirrel things away for a rainy day.

I know that I personally love collecting the fabrics for future projects. And I do have quite a few UFO's as I wait for more fabric to turn up thats suitable to finish the quilt. As I only work with what I find, sometimes I wait a long while for the 'right' fabric to add to the project pile to keep going. I often start a project based around something that has crossed my path. A pile of orphan blocks from the 1920s or a partial quilt top with amazing fabrics. This triggers in me something that compels me to finish off what someone else started. 

I often wonder. who made this? Why didn't they finish it. What was their life like. I often make up little stories about imaginary women with old fashioned names like Beryl or Phyllis who might have been the maker of these things. I picture them with curlers in their hair wearing hooverette style aprons made from feedsack. Yes this is probably a romantic view, but I don't want to think about the hash reality of how things were between the wars and the depression.

Is it your time out. Did you make this quilt in-between tacking kids sports commitments, work and everything in-between,. Is it a reflection of your time, your ideas and your experience that this quilt made it here to be hung. Even though the dog walked on it or one of your kids split juice on it. Do you hope and pray for an afternoon to yourself so you can lock yourself way and sew. Or to get together with like minded quilty friends to stitch, drink coffee and eat treats and have a laugh. 

I love hearing the stories behind the quilts. I love the little details that are put in. One lady I know always puts one piece of fabric from a dress of her mothers in every quilt she makes. It's a green paisley and it's there, even if logically from a design point of view it shouldn't. 

"Its would be like a quilt version of Where's Wally, looking for that green square is if all her quilts were hung here today"

I love this connection between memory and comfort this quilter makes. Or recently a wool quilt that was made to save a fathers camel coloured dressing gown made into a quilt for a bothers 60th birthday, The braid on the collars and cuffs used as a decorative element along with other pieces of suits he once wore. 

During this show ask your fellow quilter, 'What is the story behind your quilt?'. We often don't get the opportunity to tell the details in the statement pinned to the wall. There is often so much more as to why this quilt was created. 
But if you have a little more time, maybe ask them what their 'story' is? As we now live a more fast paced life we sometimes don't ask as many questions. Find those parallels and shared experience of stitching your story.

1 comment:

  1. I often get a bit emotional looking at and holding old quilts, it feels like a step back in time where I have made contact with a quilter from the past. Did she feel the same as me about the people she made quilts for? Was that cot quilt full of dreams? Her hand has touched the very same fabric and suddenly we are connected. Yep I am the kooky woman who strokes fabric too!