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The Quilting Mystique

By Patricia Littlefield

CHURNDAS.GIF (1596 bytes)I have recently taken up quilting after years of doing other kinds of needlework. I’m talking about American quilting, patchwork quilting, putting small pieces of fabric together to make colorful blocks which when assembled and quilted, form a bed cover or wall hanging.

As I’ve gotten into it, I find that the entire process of quilting has a calming effect. Cutting the fabric and feeling the different textures, arranging and rearranging varying colors, sewing the cut pieces into blocks and those blocks together into still larger blocks is sort of a sensual and very satisfying experience. I somehow feel I am participating in an almost ritualized activity which I, in some way, share with many others.

Think about it: none of the other needlework arts, knitting, crocheting, needlepoint, cross stitch, bargello, etc. engenders such an encompassing sense of coziness and familiarity. At one time or another I have tried most kinds of needlework and still do counted cross stitch when watching television. With no other form have I felt such a sense of belonging, that somehow I was part of a community of women doing much the same thing, unknown though they may be.

What is it about quilting that fosters this feeling? I’ve talked to members of my quilting guild and to others on the Internet who are on quilting mailing lists about this phenomenon I have come to call the Quilting Mystique. There is a certain feeling, an attitude, a Zen if you will, that is connected to culture of quilting.

The responses that I have gotten were varied, but through them all runs the thread of sharing a common experience. Historically in America’s past, the quilting bee was a treasured time for women in remote areas to get together around a quilting frame and visit, share their thoughts, and support each other through the trials of everyday life. It was a time, too, to teach the next generation as the older, more experienced quilters would instruct the younger ones.

Today, many women belong to quilting guilds which provide much more than a place to swap quilting patterns. One quilter mentioned that her group had been together for twelve years, with the members supporting one another through the trials of breast cancer, death, divorce, along with promotions, weddings, birth, and adoptions, and it is that sharing that holds them together.

Love is stitched into the quilts that women make for their families and friends and according to those quilters I spoke to, that has always been so. Many remembered growing up with a quilt on their beds that their mother, grandmother, or a favorite aunt had made and the feeling of comfort and security it gave them.

One quilter pointed out that quilting is a little like therapy: the rocking of the needle, the feel of the fabric, the mix and contrast of colors. She wondered if psychologists had ever tried using quilts to get their patients to open up. After all, she noted, who ever heard of a silent quilting bee?

Quilting gives the quilter a link with her friends and relatives that can reach back over history. There is a sense of well-being and accomplishment as you quilt a special quilt for a wedding gift or a new baby. But for many, many years, quilting was not considered anything more than something utilitarian and thrifty that women did: they recycled old and worn-out pieces of clothing into quilts that could be used for survival on long, cold winter nights. It is only within the past twenty-five or 30 years that quilting has come to be recognized as an art form.

As a group, quilters tend to be warm and unselfish and ready to share their time, fabric, and patterns. There is a definite lack of competition amongst them which accounts in large part for the supportive atmosphere. Perfect strangers will start talking when they find out they are both quilters. Their eyes light up, and the conversation does not lag because of all the ideas and projects they share.

So what is the Quilting Mystique? I’m not sure that I know even now, after discussing it with many other quilters. I do know that it is made up of a sense of community, laced throughout with love and, topped with a satisfaction that feeds the soul at having creating something that is unique and yours alone. Perhaps that is all we need to know.

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Patricia Littlefield lives and quilts in Hawaii. She can be reached at palagl@aloha.net. This article was previously published in Quilt Magazine.

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