I was sitting with my mother at the kitchen table eating half a bologna sandwich when we heard a knock on the door. My mother walked to the door and turned the knob to open it. She returned to the table with a small package from her sister, my aunt Ann who had no husband or children of her own at the time and, therefore, doted on her nieces and nephews.
She lived in New York and I saw her only once a year when my family visited every summer. She always had a surprise for me, usually a little doll. She knew how much I liked dolls.
I wondered if the package contained the aqua-colored sweater she was working on for me when I saw her a few months ago. I was almost eight at the time. When we got to her house, she said, “I haven’t seen you for almost a year. Before I finish your new sweater I want to measure your arms to make sure the sleeves are the right length.” I held out my arm and was excited to hear I would have a new sweater for winter.
“Do you like these?” Aunt Ann asked, showing me six sparkly buttons attached to a piece of cardboard. “Oh yes, they shine like stars!” I replied.
“In a few weeks, I will send a package with some things to keep you warm this winter: two new pairs of mittens, one for you and one for your brother, and the finished sweater. ”
Mom opened the package and inside were some boxes of jello, pudding, and cake mix. “Is my sweater in the box?” I asked anxiously, remembering my aunt’s promise.
My mother reached in again and pulled out a pair of grey mittens for my brother, red mittens for me, and my much-anticipated sweater.
I held the sweater close, sliding my fingers across the buttons. The aqua-colored surface and shimmered brighter than I remembered. The sweater represented more than just an addition to my winter wardrobe. It was also a tangible reminder that someone had thought enough of me to spend hours knitting with me in mind. Putting on the sweater, my slender body warmed.
School bus transportation was not available in the mid-1950s. Students walked to school in rain, cold, and snow. I knew the sweater would keep me extra warm walking the half-mile each way. I wore the sweater all afternoon thinking about the day Aunt Ann measured my arms. The sleeves came right below my wrist, the perfect length. Her attention made me feel noticed, special, and worth the time to let me know through her creative work how much she cared.
When I finished my bologna sandwich, I carried the red mittens to my room and put them in my coat pocket ready for the first cold day. Hanging next to my coat was a light blue dress with puffed sleeves that my mother’s other sister, Helen, had made. Aunt Helen liked to smock. I was drawn to the grooves of the fabric and the stitches criss-crossing the front of the dress. Sometimes I took the dress off the hanger, sat on my bed, and rubbed my fingers over the red, green, and yellow thread used to gather the pleated fabric across the top of my dress. How did the fabric become pleated like an accordian? I wondered. My mother used a needle and thread to mend holes in my father’s socks, but smocking was different, a beautiful pattern unlike the simple stitches my mother used.
I didn’t know much about knitting or what tools were used, but I noticed the even rows of stitches Aunt Ann used to make my mittens and sweater, the same stitch for both. I rubbed my fingers over the soft wool and imagined what Aunt Ann might look like when she knit. Where did she sit? Where did she keep the yarn? What did she use to loop the yarn together to make mittens or a sweater? Did she have a pattern? How did she make sleeves on a sweater or a thumb in a glove? I wanted to learn more about Aunt Ann and her knitting.
I was grateful for these homemade items, gifts from the hands of these creative relatives who I rarely saw but deeply appreciated. When I asked my mother about needles and thread, or other artistic activities like coloring, she said these activities were a waste of time. She kept our shoebox of broken crayons on a shelf in the coat closet and occasionally let us color. One time Aunt Ann sent us a roll of paper with pictures printed to color, like a coloring book on a scroll. I thought for sure my mother would let us color this gift from her sister, but she put the roll in the crayon box out of reach. We only colored a few times a year. I felt that Aunt Ann would be disappointed if she knew we ignored her gift or didn’t bring the paper with us to show to her when we visited.
I wondered why my mother did not knit or smock like her sisters. Their mother died from diptheria when my mother was 7, my Uncle George, 9, Aunt Ann 11, and Aunt Helen 13. Aunt Ann was so distraught over the loss of her mother that she missed a whole year of school. Perhaps the older girls learned hand-work from their mother before she died and my mother was too young to pick up on these skills. Maybe my mother thought hand-work and coloring to be a waste of time because she didn’t have an opportunity when she was young to do these things. My mother once told me that when she was in first grade, her teacher held up a picture she colored and made fun of it in front of the class. I was sad to hear her story, but since I had crayons and paper, I wondered why I wasn’t allowed draw? Without crayons or paper in reach in our home, my mother’s shame and embarrassment translated into deprivation for my brother and I.
One day my mother asked me to help her clean a closet. We took everything out: cleaning supplies, toilet paper, kleenex boxes, towels and washcloths, and a plastic bag with cloth inside.
“What in the bag?” I asked my mother.
“Oh, that’s an embroidery kit I got a long time ago. I think it’s time I throw it out.”
“What is embroidery? Can I see the kit? ”
It seemed that my mere presence annoyed her. She threw the bag at me and said, “Here you can look at it yourself. Go out and sit on the side step while I finish.”
My mother seemed glad to get me out of her sight. I like being outside and away from her. I sat on the concrete steps at the side of the house and could feel fresh air around my face. Hearing the birds sing made me smile. I watched the clouds moving across the sky, changing shape. I looked down, opened the bag, and pulled out a piece of fabric stamped with x’s and flower petals. I found, a needle, a circle made of wood, a folded paper printed with directions, and some blue, green, and yellow thread cinched around the middle with a black and gold strip of paper.
I read the directions and placed the fabric between the two nesting circles, or the hoop as the directions called it. Threading a needle was a challenge for my untrained hands. The hole was so tiny. I tried over and over and finally the thread went through. I followed the directions, knotted the thread and pulled it from the underside of the fabric to the top, and began to push and pull the thread, sewing in and out. With the blue thread, I made an x and then another one until I had a row of blue x’s. “I can embroider,” I said, pleased with my first efforts.
However, when I tried to create petals using the daisy stitch again and again, I couldn’t figure out how to make them. They didn’t look at all like the picture. I became discouraged, and went in the house to ask my mother to help. She refused. I put everything back in the bag, put the bag under my bed and decided to try another day.
A week later, when I came home from school, I pulled the bag from under my bed, and went outside to the porch steps. I embroidered another row of blue x’s. Starting to feel more confident, I tried the daisy stitch for the flower petals, but frustration came quickly. I put everything back in the bag, threw it under my bed, disappointed that a few days later my fine motor coordination hadn’t improved enough to make something beautiful.
Sadly, my hands remained bound for many decades.
When I met my husband, Mike, he was finishing graduate school, preparing to enter the three-year seminary program at Duke University. We married following his first year. Each summer, students are appointed to serve a church. From June to August 1975, Mike pastored two churches in rural North Carolina about forty-five minutes from where we lived in Durham.
These churches were not large enough to support a full-time pastor. They were used to having students from Duke care for their needs, provide leadership at meetings, assist lay people in making decisions for the church, as well as having a service each Sunday morning. The warmth and gracious hospitality of the people in these churches reflected their gratitude for having a pastor.
Many Sunday afternoons and occasionally during the week, we were invited to have dinner with individuals and families in the congregations. We looked forward to going to people’s homes where we would get to know them and the history of the rural area and the church. Most of the families had been in the church for generations and were proud of their long-established heritage. We learned so much by visiting them in a relaxed and informal setting. Being a newlywed, I always took along notecards to record recipes from church members. The southern women were excellent cooks and were generous in sharing their secret ingredients and advice for preparing delicious meals.
Annie Watson, an elderly member of one congregation, was a retired teacher who had spent most of her early career in a one-room schoolhouse. She had taught many children who were now adults in the church. One evening, she invited me to share dessert while Mike attended an evening meeting. I was thrilled to have time with “Miss Annie,” as everyone called her. We laughed and talked about teaching
“Do you want more cream?” she asked several times while we lingered at the dinner table covered with a lace tablecloth. At first I didn’t know what she meant by “cream.” She chuckled. “Cream is what we in the south call ice cream.” I laughed adding “cream” to my growing list of southern expressions.
Of course I wanted more “cream,” and Miss Annie added another scoop to my bowl.
Miss Annie had a rack full of quilts in her living room, and a stack piled on the book shelves. I had never heard of a quilt before and wondered if quilts were another part of living in the south.
I was intrigued how combinations of circles, triangles, squares, and rectangles came together in each quilt.
“I sewed every last one of them.” Miss Annie said.
“Where did you get all of the fabric to make your quilts?” I asked. When I wanted to make a dress, I went to the fabric store, but Miss Annie told me her quilts were like diaries recording the memory of the people who gave her fabric.
“You see, most fabric for quilts is made from scraps leftover from projects like making drapes, or dresses, or aprons, or clothes for little ones. Here in the country, we save our scraps and use them to make quilts. My cousins, sister, sisters-in-law, friends, and nieces all have boxes filled with scraps. When we want to make a quilt, we share our scraps with each other.”
Miss Annie spread one of her quilts over the couch and pointed to each piece of fabric. “My sister gave me this fabric after she made dresses for work. One of my teacher friends gave me a whole bag of fabric leftover from making drapes and clothes for her little girls. One day I came home from school and saw a bag of fabric ready for the garbage at the end of my neighbor’s driveway. I quickly jumped out of my car, and knocked on her door. She said she was tired of the fabric, didn’t know what to do with it, and decided to throw the bag away. When I asked her if I could have it, she said, ‘Of course, take all you want.’ The fabric she gave me is the border of this quilt. When I look at a piece of fabric, I think about the person who gave it to me. Sometimes I remember a happy time we shared together.”
Over the summer, we found most homes we visited for dinner also had a pile of quilts just like Miss Annie. When I asked about the fabric, the stories I heard were similar to Miss Annie’s - remembrances of people who were special and loved.
I enjoyed hearing the stories about these quilts and was fascinated by the way different shapes were put together to make colorful patterns and designs, like when you turn a kaleidoscope and see different pieces of tiny glass in colorful arrangements. I decided when Mike graduated in a few months, and was assigned to a church back in Indiana, I was going to learn to quilt --- and I did.
Walking into the YMCA one mid-September evening to swim, I noticed a sign on the community bulletin board for a beginning quilt class offered at the Y on Monday nights for six weeks from 6-8 pm. Before entering the locker room, I took a minute to register at the front desk. I was so excited and could hardly wait to write Miss Annie a letter telling her I was going to learn to quilt just like her.
We moved to New Castle, a small town in east central Indiana in June 1976, where Mike was appointed to the First United Methodist Church. We were getting to know the people and adjust to the rhythm of life in the church. We had one car and lived three miles south of town, but Monday was a frequent church meeting night. When I told Mike about the class, we decided to ride in together and park in the church lot, and I could walk to the Y a block away.
At the first class, I listened attentively as the teacher, a lawyer from a town fifteen miles south of New Castle, taught the basics of quilting. I learned about batting, how to put fabric together, and how to join the top fabric, batting, and bottom fabric with a special stitch. The teacher suggested we start with a simple pattern: the nine patch alternating solid and patterned fabric.
Oh how I wished Miss Annie was there to help. I joined Mike in the parking lot, eager to get home and find the pieces of leftover fabric from curtains I made for Mike and his two roommates when they all were first year students in the Divinity School. Their small apartment had two long windows. I had volunteered to make curtains, if the guys paid for the fabric.
I had spent many nights in my own apartment making the curtains, happy to have a project to look forward to after a long day at work. I saved the scraps not knowing how important they would be in the future.
Mike usually worked on Saturday morning, making final preparations for Sunday, reviewing his sermon and making sure the sanctuary was ready. If there was a baptism the next day, he filled the water in the fount at the front of the sanctuary. If communion was scheduled, he looked in the church kitchen for juice and bread. He put the bulletins in the narthex where the ushers would hand them out the next day. There was much to do to get ready to welcome a congregation Sunday morning.
One Saturday, he came home carrying a box.
“Guess what I have for you? “ he said with a twinkle in his eye. I didn’t know but looking at his expression I knew he must have something special.
“I told the ladies in the quilting group last Wednesday about your class. They wondered if you had fabric. I told them only a few pieces. Yesterday, I heard a knock on my office door. Marilyn came in holding this box. She said everyone wanted to help you get started with your quilt.”
I was so touched by their thoughtfulness. Mike put the box on the floor and I quickly turned it upside down. Out came scraps of solid fabric, fabric with designs, plaids, cotton, corduroy. A rainbow of color, red, blue, yellow, green, aqua carpeted my floor. Looking at the abundance I realized I had more than enough to start cutting squares for my quilt.
Although the ladies did not label their fabric, I looked at the pile and felt loved. Their generosity showed that they noticed me and cared about my new interest in their much-loved hobby. This was especially meaningful since I had only known them a few months.
I cut the fabric into squares, matching complimentary solids to patterns. Using a running stitch, I hand-sewed the squares together, making twelve nine-patch squares, big enough to cover our double bed. And just like that, my first quilt top was done!!
In my final quilting class, I learned how to layer batting, a fiber filler, between the quilt top and bottom fabric. Sewing these three layers by hand was a challenge. The stitches needed to be short and close together. The teacher explained pioneer women made eleven stitches per inch, but my beginner fingers could only manage four or five. I was looking forward to the coming winter, where I could practice making smaller stitches during the long, dark nights.
When I finished the top, I went to the church during the ladies quilting group to show them my work. I pointed to the fabric from the box expressing once again my gratitude for their kindness. I described my friend, Miss Annie, and how each of her quilts was like a diary of her relationship with others who gave her their scraps. They smiled when I told them I would always carry their thoughtfulness in my heart, pictured in my first quilt.
I spent the winter of 1977 sitting on the floor moving an oval wooden hoop over sections of the quilt, working hard to narrow my stitches to seven or eight per inch, binding my quilt together.
One night when Mike was at the church for a meeting, I noted my stitches getting shorter and shorter. Watching my right hand manage the needle and thread and feeling my left hand steady the fabric underneath the hoop, I remembered those days when I wanted to learn how to embroider. I recalled frustration and disappointment sitting outside on the step next to my house. The energy in my hands matched the desire of my heart to create. At that time, my hands were not developmentally-ready to embroider, but now my hands had the necessary dexterity and an outlet to make beauty. I was grateful for Miss Annie who introduced me to quilting, for the class where I finally received instruction in this form of handwork, and for the dear church ladies who lovingly donated their leftover fabric to a newcomer like me.
Sitting on the floor, covered with my quilt, I looked out the window at the dark, dark night. I saw a few stars, shining like the buttons on the aqua sweater my aunt had made. I wished I could share my quilting with Aunt Ann and Aunt Helen, both of whom brought love to me with their handmade gifts when I was growing up. They introduced me to creativity and handwork that I could explore when I got older.
Moving the needle in and out of three layers of fabric, peace came to my heart. The steady rhythm of quilting, watching the needle go in and out of fabric, was calming, meditative. I discovered a deeper meaning than just sewing fabric. This felt like a spiritual practice.
Up to that time, I had engaged in prayer while reading my prayer book or being in church. Now I was becoming aware of God’s presence everywhere and in every activity. I felt God near me with every stitch. I wasn’t just putting together fabric from loving friends, I was making a connection to God. I was praying.
I felt a strong sense of comfort as I finished my first quilt.The first night I slept under it, I felt surrounded by God’s love and filled with God’s presence. This quilt was a tangible reminder of the kindness of God and the hospitality of other women.
When my youngest daughter left for college, she asked if she could take the quilt with her. For four years she used it, resting under my love, God’s love, and the love of others. She still has the quilt in a box in her garage in Oregon.
Through the years, I made many quilts for my daughter’s beds and for their dolls, often using scraps of outgrown dresses I had made for them.
In my own home today, stacked on a set of shelves in the family room, I have four quilts over a hundred years old made by Mike’s maternal grandmother. On another shelf, I have two quilts I made for each daughter to celebrate their move from a crib to a big kid bed. Next to this shelf is a lap quilt made by a close friend when my parents died in January 2013. The quilt on the bottom shelf was given to me by the quilting group at Center United Methodist Church in Indianapolis where Mike served from 1983 to 1989. Full of quilts, my shelves now look like the ones in the homes we visited in rural North Carolina during our early years of ministry.
Often I wove together Scripture, my emotional needs, and quilting. For example, in one season, I reflected on Psalm 73:23-38. These verses speak of God’s constant presence, guidance, and assurance. God’s strength will sustain, even in times when “my flesh and my heart seemed like they were failing.” (verse ).
To illustrate my broken heart, I drew a large heart on a piece of paper and cut it into seven pieces. Using it as a pattern, I cut a different fabric for each piece and sewed them all together to make a complete heart. When I quilted the pieces onto fabric, each tiny stitch was the cry of my heart to an ever present God. God was with me. (picture)
When I wanted to feel the coziness of God around my heart, I pieced together the log cabin pattern where light and dark fabric strips wrap around a yellow square in the middle. The yellow square meant “Light in the window.” Darkness and light seemed to weave in and out of my life for many years. The log cabin was the perfect picture of what my heart was craving. Once again, as I placed the fabric and quilted a square, each prayerful stitch brought God’s comfort and companionship. (picture)
The most powerful image from Scripture that still grounds my quilting is the story of the woman who suffered from severe bleeding for many years (Mark 5:25-34). This suffering woman was powered by faith to get through the crowd, believing, “If only I touch his cloak, I will get well” (verse 28). When she reached Jesus and touched his cloak, her bleeding stopped. She felt inside that she was healed of her trouble (verse 29) Jesus turned around to see who had caused power to go out of him. Trembling with fear, the woman came to him. Jesus said, “My daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your trouble.”
The story of the woman and her encounter with Jesus was a connection that became foundational to my quilting. Every time I held fabric or quilted, I imaged myself touching Jesus’ cloak. I longed for my own wellness. I felt when I had fabric in my hands, I was connected to his hem, reaching out for comfort, courage, support, strength, and companionship. (picture) In difficult times, I could relate to Jesus through my familiarity with cloth. Later, I would be able to connect with Jesus for who he was beyond just what he wore, but the idea of the cloth at the edge of his robe was an unthreatening starting point. I could eventually look at him face to face without fear. I could imagine him calling me daughter.
Although I did not have a mother who was interested in helping me learn to work with my hands, I had two aunts, whose small gifts of handwork opened my eyes to creativity and introduced me to the possibilities of what I could craft with my hands. And I had the women in our churches, like Miss Annie and those who gave me scraps to make my first quilt. They encouraged my interest in quilting and introduced me to a serendipitous connection to God.