Requiem for an Old Friend

It was not unexpected, but the finale still caught me by surprise. Had I been a bit more aware, a bit more focused, I might have seen the end coming. As it was, all that remained was my deep sighing that so often comes with hindsight.

The signs were obvious: the increasing frequency of a missed thread or two in our conversations, a noticeably crooked gait and tensions that could not be soothed.

And, then, one morning, my poor little $99 entry level sewing machine that had been pushed so far beyond its limits while gamely stitching on, simply choked on a wad of thread and sputtered one last time. And with that, my old friend froze and was no more.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I was heading into unknown territory, probably a more expensive territory than I wanted, but now that I am officially addicted to quilting, I knew I needed more than a $99 entry level machine to feed the cravings.

So I headed back to the major retailer, stood in the middle of the enormous showroom and looked something akin to a deer in the headlights.  A young sales man approached, realized I needed more help than he could provide, and returned with a knowledgeable, seasoned fellow who figuratively took me by the hand and began to narrow down my options.

The sticker shock was not as bad as I had feared as the store was having a seriously discounted sale coupled with 60 months interest free financing.  Whoo Hoo!!  This had all the markings of a sugar-coated, addiction-laden quilting heaven.

A couple hours later, I left with the new love of my life, a sewing machine that, as my good friend Gail notes, does everything but bake bread and iron.  Too bad about the ironing.

My old friend was quickly put to rest and my new Soprano immediately began singing.  What an amazing machine. I fully expect it to break into dance at any moment. In short order, I had completed five almost-finished twin and queen quilt tops, their backings and had actually quilted another crib size quilt.

I should know by now that any love brings the expectation that space will be shared, and this one is no different. 

Well, almost no difference. Unlike my old $99 entry level friend or the former men in my life, the Soprano demands a lot of space and, in no time at all, took over the dining room, which was not an issue as it’s seldom used. She also demanded the guest/sewing room.  And the great room. And a couple of closets for fabric, notions and whatchamacallits that I’ve yet to figure out.

Thus far, I’m keeping her out of my bedroom.

The cat looks very cautiously at this new rival, not quite sure whether to simply ignore the intruder or fight for his turf. Thus far, his posturing has been limited to sprawling over fabrics and half-finished quilts,  but he is giving the Soprano wide berth. She ignores him as well, instead singing softly as she swiftly stitches through whatever I give her.

As long as the cat doesn’t get too jealous, I think I’m going to thoroughly enjoy having this new sweetheart of a Soprano around.



Spring Cleaning

MopAdmittedly MIA from Justme…a combination of wrapping up the piecing the quilt tops before family and guests begin arriving, spring cleaning and general busy-ness.

It was rather cathartic, giving my home a thorough cleaning, concluding with a rather thin motley orange mop tossed out with the garbage and poking out of the top of the green trash can. From a distance, I swore it had a comb-over, but that could have just been wishful thinking.

This was the usual spring cleaning, dust-bunnies included. I don’t have a lot of extra stuff; most everything I have, I use. It’s been part and parcel of being a gypsy and moving fairly regularly.

In one of my early moves, just post-divorce so it was a long time past, I rented a small storage unit for all the treasures I couldn’t part with.  A few months into my adventure, as I wrote the check for the monthly fee, I began wondering just what exactly was nestled in that storage unit.

So, I drove there shortly thereafter, on another spring day much  like today. I arrived at the storage facility, punched in my code, unlocked and rolled up the metal door and stood face to face with no more than ten boxes.  In the grand scope of things, it was a pretty meager stack and certainly, at face value, not worth the monthly fee I had been paying.

That was even more evident when I opened said boxes.  Good grief, talk about junk. 

Needless to say, I tossed a lot into the garbage, loaded up the very few items worth keeping and cancelled the storage unit.  Since then, I’ve been vicious at recycling, donating and tossing a whole lot.  And haven’t missed much of anything.

This year, however, has been a bit different due to this new quilting adventure.  Having been both handed a large bin of scraps from our local Project: Linus and having my own smaller collection, I managed to piece together four — count ’em, four — scrappy quilt tops.  Now, I’m in a bit of a quandary: what to toss; what to keep.

The whole process gave me pause.  The scraps became one queen, two twin and one crib quilt tops. Out of habit, I probably tossed more scraps than I should have and I began to wonder what other things could have been put to good use, other than the trash or recycle can. 

On the other hand, the scraps are gone and my guest/sewing closet is once again relatively neat, organized and ready for guests. And, of course, another quilt.  Or two.  Or three.  But first, family, friends and then a run at actually quilting the five tops I did make this winter.









Caution: Hard Right Ahead

IMG_0366Back when I was teaching, when we actually had to write on chalk boards, I’d patiently wait for the kids to offer their predictable September insight.

Ms. H,  do you know you never write in a straight line?

I’d stand back, survey my scribbling that always ended taking a hard left, heading upwards.

Yep, you’re right.  It means I have a positive attitude.

Of course they believed me as they believed most of the non-English nonsense I shared with them.  Teenagers can be a very gullible group.

I remember one very hot summer during one very tedious summer school session, when the air conditioning failed and we were collectively dying.  I gave up the ghost of the lesson and showed the kids how to hold energy in one hand, then move it from one hand to another.

It was an act of desperation.  There were only ten minutes left in a four hour class with thirty teens repeating an English class they didn’t like in the first place.  The kids immediately focused on holding energy and forgot all about the oppressive heat.  One young man was still struggling when the class ended, but burst into my room the following September.

Ms. H, Ms. H, look!!!  I can do it!! I can move energy!!  I am now a man!!!

I’m at a loss to know what moving energy has to do with be a man as opposed to being The Man, but back to writing in a straight line.  I failed at it.  Even on paper, my writing still takes a hard left upwards. 

I also have a rough time walking in a straight line, but have never really focused on whether I am veering right or left.  Most of the time I am just trying to stay out of harm’s way.

We won’t talk about my driving; my daughter is already terrified that her kids may one day find themselves in a car with me behind the wheel.

So it wasn’t a complete surprise that my sewing — I know, I know, those of you who knew me in my past lives might be very shocked to find that I am now a struggling novice quilter — also takes a turn towards the end of a seam.  The surprise is that it takes a hard right.

I’ve never taken a hard right in much of anything.

I figured that out over the past couple of rainy days, standing at the windows, watching yet another downpour and musing over the quilt squares that needed to be ripped out.  Again.

It began last week when I thought I was putting the quilting away until next fall, but first there was a trip to drop off my stack of quilts to the monthly Project Linus meeting (for those of you new-to-this-blog quilters or knitters who have no one remaining to give your projects to, check out the website)

Kathy, our fearless local leader, invited me back into the Stash Storeroom.  Oh jeez. It looked just like our old department offices, loaded with stashes and stashes of lesson plans and handouts, only this was all fabric. 

I left with with a very large bin filled with what one might generously call strips of fabric and another armload of charm packs of thousands of five inch fabric squares.  The internet, thank the goddesses, is generous with patterns for novice quilters who only sew in more or less straight lines and don’t do corners or reverse.

I thought I was in relatively safe territory.  Sort of middle of the road, staying on the straight and narrow stitching course and coming up with a few acceptable quilts for our next get-together.

It was going fairly well, with both quilts for a teenage girl and boy progressing nicely. Then I opened a charm package of plaids and stripes squares and began making a Disappearing Nine Patch pattern for a baby quilt. Nine lousy squares.  Should have been Easy Peasy.

It all looked marginally fine until I started stitching the squares together. That’s when things got very ugly, very quickly, and I discovered my hard right sewing tendency creates havoc with plaids and stripes. 

So I’ve been back to the sewing table, so to speak, ripping out seams and now determined to sew in a straight line forevermore. 

I suspect it’s going take some mighty strong will-power to see this through to the end.




Driving the Ferrari

gammillGentlemen, don’t hold your breath on this one…

I was buying material at one of one of my two favorite quilting shops in the Sierra foothills (Whistle Stop in Auburn and Sugar Pine in Grass Valley, should you ever be up this way) and chatting with the owner about sewing machines while waiting to connect with Sister Jane so I could begin quilting the two quilt tops that were my gloomy, stuck-in-the-house January projects.

The owner suggested that I drive down to Sacramento and check out an inventory of new and used machines at a large warehouse type store.  I did just that, with the plan of getting an overview of what I might, possibly, need somewhere in the future. Maybe.

A young clerk smiled and offered to help.  I was ready for the sticker shock, having already visited one of their satellite shops nearby, but, row after row of machines doing more that I’d ever use at prices I wouldn’t want to afford was still overwhelming.

She finally stopped, looked at me and said, Let’s go down to the other end of the warehouse.

We made the long trek down to a row of four or five ENORMOUS machines.  They were beyond what you’d call long-arm. They were each 12 feet long and we won’t talk about the price other than to note they’re in the tad pricey category. One would doubt take up an entire garage, which given the price, may be an appropriate place for them.

But those machines sure did the job of making quilting a breeze.

The driver of the machine stood, holding a bicycle handlebar, on which was attached a laser light.  The beam shown down on a design that extended along a 12 foot long roll of what looked like the old continuous feed computer paper.  You just selected the design (or make your own), attach your quilt top, the batting and the backing to the machine, turn it on and follow the design.

The clerk had me hooked, especially after explaining that after a day long training and $15 an hour to rent said machine, I could be on this Ferrari model of sewing machines and quilting!  And have someone around to answer questions and provide the thread!

Whoo Hoo!  Sign me up!

Earlier this week, I attended the six hour class. It was learning to drive a Ferrari, including trying to remember how to use a stick shift while following the laser dot on the pattern and keeping an eye on the computer screen.  Good Grief.  I used to be able to multi-task, but this was more challenging than I imagined it would be.

I was also the novice in the group.  The instructor asked how long we had been quilting.  Twenty, thirty, forty years. Eight weeks.

Nonetheless, I got four rows quilted on a dummy quilt.  It was not close to being ready for prime time, but I am going back in next week, with more scrap material in hand and will practice some more, and some more and…

…and a whole lot more before the Ferrari and my two quilt tops will ever be introduced.  I figure that when I can quilt a pattern and have it kind of, sort of look like the pattern is the time that I will bring in my quilts.  In the meantime, my two quilt tops will just be folded, looking tidy, neat and very impressive to my non-quilting friends.

A Fraction of an Inch

IMG_0351It’s all about a fraction of an inch.

I don’t know what it’s called. Spatial something or other. The bottom line is that I seem to have an internal gauge or yardstick that can see the placement of items and whether they are aligned with everything else and are straight. Really straight. A fraction of an inch off and I fix it.  Immediately.

It’s a gift and a curse. 

I’m really good at hanging paintings without levels, pencils and the like. I can eyeball a wall, and, yep, that’s exactly where it goes. Usually, not always, one little nail hole and the painting is perfectly hung.  Or, it’s off by an eighth of an inch and I begin again.

At times I actually can help family and friends.  I recall my daughter calling, crying.  Newly married, beginning grad school, and in a new apartment, she was near hysterical.  Her husband and his buddies had spent the afternoon arranging, rearranging, then moving yet again the living room furniture and it still wasn’t perfect.  It didn’t flow and, if the energy doesn’t flow, my daughter would be unnerved and unable to study. They would have to move.

She is, after all, a bit like her mother.

Mom, help.

She rattled off the location of walls, windows, doors and views. 

I said Give me a few minutes and I’ll call back.

I did and twenty minutes later, she called again, relieved.  It worked. The living room was perfect and they did not have to find another apartment. Her husband and his buddies were relieved as well.

I know one other person with the same eye; when I was moving into yet another home, my friend arrived to see how things were going.  The movers had just moved my very heavy bed into the bedroom and called me to see if it was placed correctly.

Alas, they know me too well.

Two and a quarter inches to the left, we said in unison. It didn’t matter that the room is twenty feet long; the bed needed to be moved two and a quarter inches. To the left.

And, then, it was perfect. And I knew I wasn’t the only one in this world with the cursed spatial gift.

So, now, I am attempting to quilt and my mind’s eye sees exactly where the seam should be, how the pattern should unfold. Fabric, however, is more difficult than paintings or furniture. Or teenagers.  It moves; it dances and I, the novice, have not yet learned how to manage it, other than cursing.

And, that doesn’t seem to help very much.

I picked up a second pattern for a “scrappy” quilt, queen size no less. The woman who had designed the scrappy pattern said, of course, you can do it; it’s not that hard.

Being new at this, I was without scraps, which meant I had to purchase sufficient material — yards and yards — from which to make the scrappy squares. I also got so enthusiastic that I cut 288 pieces of 2 1/2 inch by 4 1/2 inch blocks before realizing I had not washed, dried or ironed the fabric.


Of course, after washing and drying, the blocks shrunk ever so slightly, which probably wouldn’t have been a problem, but, given “the eye” and being a novice, I went back and purchased yet more yardage of a slightly different shade, which I didn’t like nearly as much as it didn’t dance that well with the 72 scrappy squares, each with 16 squares of different fabrics.

I started working on the alternate squares.  One square scrappy, followed by alternate square of cream material with an “X” of small black squares.

Easy Peasy, the designer said.

Sure.  One little black square was a smidgen too large; another a bit crooked.  I tore out more seams than I sewed.


I finally called it quits, wondering what to do with the 72 already completed squares of scrappy material.

ah ha!  I now had scraps; 288 rectangles in a rich cream tone; 288 slightly larger rectangles in a lighter cream tone.  It’d work, dammit.

I am now somewhat happily putting together 72 more squares (actually 62; ten are finished) of alternating squares; all the squares seem to be co-existing together and a new quilt top will someday be completed.

I think.





An Unexpected History

Century Quilt Top

I have officially completed the top of the Century Quilt without harming myself or the sewing machine. It just goes to show what can be completed in the dead of winter when one is (a) retired with no responsibilities other than feeding the cat and (b) there are no little ones underfoot.

While I was ripping out far too many seams, swearing at my stupidity and the @#($%&  mess of tangled thread, bent needles and/or sewing machine, a chance remark by a dear friend regarding the cultural and historical context of quilting got me thinking in a non-sewing direction.

I knew nothing about the history of quilts so it was a very healthy diversion from throwing out everything and taking up solitaire as a hobby.

I also had noted a trend as I started seeking out quilting blogs and websites when I needed help or advice, which happened a whole lot. Most of the sites began with Insert your favorite profanity here before proceeding with troubleshooting remedies.

I found I had remembered words my dad had learned in WWII and had unintentionally used in front of us kids.

That made me wonder more about the culture surrounding quilting.  I also wondered about the politics of quilting, given that most of the women I know aren’t especially silent, especially on matters of importance, and their opinions surface in all kinds of formats.

A little investigation quickly showed that women were not terribly silent in the past and politics played a very major role in quilts.

Apparently, quilting was not all that common in early American history, or any history for that matter, except for the 1 Per Centers who could afford fabric.  For the average woman, material was far too expensive and time was better spent spinning, weaving and sewing clothes or mending blankets. It wasn’t until much later, when affordable fabrics were available that quilting became commonplace.

American quilting designs were grounded in religion and politics, God’s Eye (see below) as a reminder of both God’s protection and religious freedom, but so much about quilts and quilting has been romanticized over time. 

Quilting bees? ah, no.  Maybe a friend or two, but the romantic notion of women coming together, singing and sewing, is not much more than fiction unless religious or political groups brought women together for one cause or another. 

Given the tangles of thread, I suspect there was more muttering than singing.

There is an entire mythology that has grown around women’s quilts and is more wishful thinking than fact.  This includes the fiction surrounding quilts and the Underground Railroad ~ for example, Jacob’s Ladder Myth, with a black center for the chimney, symbolic of a safe house for run-away slaves on the trail to the North and freedom.  

That said, many Northern women did support the Abolitionist movement, renaming many of their quilt patterns in support of ending slavery. Job’s Tears became Slave Chain by 1825, far in advance of the Civil War.  Freed black women and white women alike formed Female Anti-Slavery Societies. Anti-Slavery Fairs sold donated quilts, clothing and decorative items to underwrite schools for black children, circulate anti-slavery petitions, etc.

These fairs also found their way into churches and other community causes before becoming the basis for raising money for both sides during the Civil War. Southern women made enough money with their Gunboat Quilts to purchase three ironclad gunboats.  Both sides turned their focus to helping soldiers by sewing comfort quilts for them.  It is estimated that the Union women donated over 250,000 quilts to soldiers while Confederate women, with sewing skills more aligned with embroidery and facing a scarcity of material, made quilts for the southern soldiers from any available material, including rugs.

Quilting made bold political statements in the Civil War era, with Log Cabin (a nod to Lincoln’s birthplace and Union support) a favorite among northern women as were Liberty Star and The Lincoln Platform.

Women silent? ah, no. Even without a vote, women were not silent.

Imagine crawling into bed with your sweetie under the Drunkard’s Path Quilt, a favorite of the Temperance Movement, or a Suffrage Quilt promoting the women’s right to vote.

With the 20th century, there was a whole new movement in the quilting world: AIDS, pro-war, anti-war, anti-violence against women…the list seems endless with both men and women finding a voice in their quilts.

Of course, at the top of the list, quilts are a still form of meditation for the quilter, assuming things are going right and ^$*@#&($&  thread is not tangling, as well as a source of protection and comfort for the recipient.

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The Tesla Sewing Machine

sew machI’ve finished sewing what seemed like thousands of cut, ironed and starched pieces of fabric together into nine blocks for my Century Quilt and am now starting on the trim. 

My seven year old, entry level, little sewing machine that cost $100 and has never seen reverse, until now, has done a more than admirable job. 

I’m very proud of my little machine that chugs along with the refrain, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…

But, as the piecing is nearing completion and the quilting on the cusp of beginning, I am well aware that the next step may be far beyond the capabilities of my little sewing machine.

With that in mind, I ventured down the hill and into the valley in search of a more appropriate sewing machine that could handle simple quilting.  The shops that sell sewing machines also sell vacuum cleaners, although I have no idea what that connection is. 

I walked into the nearest Sewing Machine and Vacuum Cleaner Shop and straight into a display of what can only be described as the Tesla Model of Sewing Machines.

The price tag was well in excess of 13,000 dollars.  I think that was more than we paid for having our two kids, buying our first three or four cars combined, and much more than I’d ever consider paying for a sewing machine.

I choked and momentarily considered bolting out the door and racing back up the hill. 

Instead, I took a couple of very deep breaths and proceeded up and down the aisles.  $10,000, $5,000, $4,000, $8,000 — holy mackerel, I couldn’t find even a used machine for under $1,000.  It all got very discouraging, very quickly.

The clerk approached with a warm smile and invited me to try out a lower-mid level machine at $2,500 but was on sale for somewhere around $1,000.  I was still in sticker-shock at the prices.

I sat in front of the $2,500 on sale for $1,000 model that almost resembled a sewing machine. It had 3,252 stitch options, which was 3,250 more than I’d ever use. It also had a computer that was far complicated than my MacBook Pro and could keep track of my two favorite stitches should I ever want it to do so.

Good Grief.

It took about two minutes to realize that this machine was more like driving a car while using a computer than using a sewing machine.  There was something that resembled an old stick shift that you nudged with your knee and it did something dramatic, but I forget now what it actually did. It also went at speeds that rivaled race cars even though most people run it at a much lower speed. 

I didn’t ask if there were speed limits posted with this machine, but I was beginning to wonder if I were test driving a car or sewing machine.

I explained that I just wanted a next level up sewing machine from my entry level little sewing machine that is chugging along so I can do the quilting.  Not interested in much else; I know my limits. But the warm and friendly clerk was adamant that I would grow to love my new machine that could handle basic quilting in addition to 3,250 more stitches, and that I would grow to embrace all the domestic features it offered.

The sewing machine didn’t iron or cook, so I knew it was not going to be something that would be going home with me, especially if I had to pay $1,000 for 3,250 stitches that I would never use, even if there was a computer to monitor the two stitches I would use.

I left, very disappointed and not really sure the direction I was going to take, except that I was not going to take on a huge debt to make one quilt, maybe more, if I survive this one.

I started to consider my options which was pretty much limited to hand quilting and problematic given I can’t sew a straight line, much less sew even stitches.

Fortunately, my Sister Jane called a few days later.  Jane is an excellent quilter, although she says it’s primarily a winter activity.  I can understand that.

Jane cut right to the chase.

You need a new sewing machine.  Yours is too small.

Do you know how much they cost?  Of course she did.

Don’t buy one.  You can have my old one. It’s a step or two up from yours and you can figure out if you want to continue quilting in the meantime.  I just have to find it; it’s buried somewhere in the garage.

Finding the machine may take a while, but that’s just fine. I can wait. I can cut and stitch tons more ironed and starched fabric for multiple quilts while I’m waiting.  There’s absolutely no hurry.

Bless our Sisters for they do take care of us.

And, thank you, Sis!