Quilting is often a group activity, but the process of teaming up on a quilt often starts as a lone endeavor. The design has to be decided and pieced together, and one person—the quilt’s owner—often does that beforehand. The style is her decision. A Double Wedding Ring, often given as a wedding gift. A Log Cabin, recalls days of old. Or maybe a Crazy Quilt made from bits and pieces that yield no design, except the one that says nothing shall be wasted.
Once the quilt-top pieces are stitched together, the group must decide when and where to gather themselves for assembling the quilt. Likely it will be at the quilt owner’s house, but subject to a practical question: Who has room to set up the frame and leave it in the way for the several days it will take to complete it? Quilting entails layering the backing, the cotton-pad filler, and the quilt top like a sandwich and then stitching all the way through, top to bottom, while following the outlines of the design. As the thousands of hand-stitched loops are pulled over, under and through the material, something else is pulled together—strength from the bonds that come out of the camaraderie of people working together. That work will turn the three parts—backing, padding, and quilt-top—into a finished colorful quilt, a trinity to comfort the body that mimics the way the Trinity soothes the mind, warms the heart, and nourishes the soul.
The process requires a large, wooden frame substantial enough in weight and strength to form a rectangle. The frame hangs from the ceiling and floats parallel to the floor. It will define the borders of the quilt, which may be adjusted to hold the makings of a cover for a single bed, or maybe a baby’s quilt; but usually what will emerge from the frame, in full color like a butterfly showing off intricate wing patterns, will be a full-sized quilt for a standard double bed. The size chosen often reveals the stage of life of the planned recipient. A queen or king would be grand indeed. Whatever size and design is chosen, it will soon become a practical thing of beauty; a Grandma Moses work of art.
“Y’all be careful, kids,” my mother or aunts would say as my cousins and I passed through the room dominated by the quilting frame, ducking under if there was no space to pass around the edges. We’d be trying to get from the front door to the kitchen for a drink or snack, or racing to the bathroom to recycle what we had already consumed. Those warnings were always good-natured, and the conversation of the quilters flowed as easily and freely as water rushing downhill. Still, there were frequent patches of silence as each seamstress focused on the calling at hand. Not in sadness, but with seriousness.
That way of life produced a reassuring calmness. But things change, and even an idyllic life in a pastoral land can’t last forever. Eventually, the number of participants began to dwindle. Some members of that quilting circle died off. Others lost interest as their financial fortunes improved. Factory salaries meant cash to buy more perfectly formed eiderdowns made by machine and sold in stores.
Yet, my mother never gave up her quilting—although, the large wooden frame eventually became too much for her to handle alone. So she downsized to a wooden ring. That small quilting ring was about two feet in diameter. It still provided the necessary tension to allow easy stitching, but it limited her access to one small section of cloth at a time—and while held in the lap, not while hanging from the ceiling and spread flat across the room like a large map of the world.
“Everything needs a frame,” my mother said when she’d been concerned about giving up her original, large frame. In recent years, the fence around her world has been shrinking. “Good fences make good neighbours,” said Robert Frost in his poem Mending Wall. My mother doesn’t know this Frost, but she has always known the warmth and comfort of good neighbors. Like Frost, she believes in the utility of boundaries.