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Passing it on—a quilter’s story


By Penny Schmitt


Handwork runs in my family, passed down from some misty origin represented by hand-made tapestries still hanging in my mother’s home, to my British grandmother and great aunt to my mother, to me. Aunt Ethel (Ethel Lillian Freeman) made her living as a fine seamstress in Harrods bridal department. She and my grandmother were also tireless and wonderful knitters, taking the time and trouble to make men’s socks and polo shirts and ladies cardigans in two-ply yarn on skinny size one or two needles. My mother, who has knitted many dozens of mittens and socks and sweaters and afghans, taught me to knit when I was in the first or second grade. Together, we also dabbled in crewel embroidery and needlepoint. Machine sewing was simply not our thing.


So, my initial attempts at quilting were exercises in recapturing the gracious economy of turning scraps into a coverlet by hand. In the seventies, when I was a busy young mother, my scant opportunity for ‘gracious’ hours limited my accomplishment to two baby quilts and soon dampened my enthusiasm for hand piecing and hand quilting.


Years later, after becoming familiar with a simple sewing machine, I again began to make quilts. This time the person passing on the skill was my friend and colleague Marilyn Hunter.


Whether Marilyn was whipping together a new publication or a queen-size quilt, her methods were never primitive or even old fashioned. She loved to get things done, and finding the best, cleverest and easiest way to make something was one of the delights of the game for her. A natural-born teacher (she was once chosen as Minnesota’s teacher of the year), Marilyn guided me through the process of putting together my first bed-size quilt, and assured me that it would be good enough to enter in a quilt show.

Her fearlessness with new tools and techniques, and the fountain of small and large projects that flowed from her hands and machine and into the office and the lives of friends and family inspired me. I loved the playfulness and fun in the bright, often humorous fabrics she chose for her stash. I was entranced by her discoveries—how to put pictures on fabric for an 80th birthday quilt for her dad, how to foundation piece perfect Mariners Compass patches, how to machine quilt, how to use little cloth bags full of bee-bees to hold down a piece of fabric, how to use a serger, how to gather up a whole community of quilting friends on the internet, and of course, how to make the best use of the magical rotary cutter.


My first bed-size quilt involved not just hand quilting, but a lot of cross stitch!


 In May of 1999, Marilyn died after heart transplant surgery. Suddenly, getting around to my next quilt ‘someday’ wasn’t soon enough. It felt to me as if the best way for me to remember my friend would be to consolidate what she had taught me right away, before I could have a chance to forget it. Thus began my real journey into quilting, and my discovery of a most important life lesson: when someone you love dies, you must simply continue your friendship by other means.

I pulled out the small packet of fabric I had long been putting aside for a pieced quilt, including a few pieces Marilyn had passed along to me, and began to make a simple four-patch using my sewing machine and remembering all her pointers as well as I could. Still a handwork person, I spent some long weeks quilting my project in a lap frame, adding one appliqué heart to cover a flaw in my work, and as a remembrance of my friend. I named the quilt for Marilyn and entered it in the local quilt guild show. It won no prizes, but the story attached to the quilt provoked shared hugs and tears with fellow quilters, many of whom had stitched similar memories of friends and family into their own quilting lives.



My first machine-pieced, hand quilted four patch


Doing this one project was enough to fire up a passion for quilting that continues to grow. I joined a local quilt guild and began to subscribe to quilting magazines. In March of 2000, ‘critical mass’ arrived in my life when Marilyn's husband Mike Hunter gave me Marilyn’s entire stash of fabric, along with her books and many small tools and supplies. Since I now live nearly 400 miles away from him, we met at a halfway mark on Route 95, and he transferred a van full of treasure into my Mazda Protégé. When I drove home from our meeting, the only room in the car was the space I filled up with my own body! Once unpacked into my own home, the stash became an endless source of support and inspiration for my quilting career.







This heart appliqué covers a faulty seam & honors my friend


Every quilter has UFOs (unfinished objects), and Marilyn’s stash proved the rule. I found the beginnings of several items, and some nearly finished ones. My first priority was to finish work Marilyn had to leave undone. For Mike, I finished up a piece of patriotic cheater cloth she had surrounded with tiny log-cabin patches. For her son Paul, she had begun a foundation-pieced cat & mouse quilt made from his old ties. I quickly decided that I would not try to finish the whole quilt, but instead took the eight completed patches and made a wall hanging that I delivered in person to Paul on a business trip to Atlanta. Later, I completed another cheater cloth piece for Mike’s newborn granddaughter, Katelyn.



Marilyn’s foundation-pieced cats


One UFO fit more in the category of a ‘challenge’ quilt fabric. I found a stack of outrageously ugly nine patches made in polka dot fabric of particularly harsh royal blue, yellow and green with big white dots. According to Mike, this was fabric bought and sewn in ‘a bad mood,’ and it sure seemed as if putting all together in one quilt would give anyone hives. Certainly it wouldn’t be something pleasantly restful to sleep under! But I was determined to make use of these legacy patches.

One Sunday morning early, I began to rummage through the stash, and came up with an abstract color block design that made sense of the blue and white patches. A featured fabric from Marilyn’s stash was a hot pink printed with tiny fruit flies—her more typical ebullient-mood humorous fabric choice balanced that ‘bad mood’ nine patch perfectly. The resulting quilt raised a good sum to support the Society of American Military Engineers scholarship fund. I’m still waiting for the perfect inspiration to deal with those garish yellow and green nine patches.




Those loud polka dots don’t look so bad with the even louder hot pink!


In between finding ways to finish Marilyn’s projects, I made projects of my own and began developing a personal style and my own taste in quilts and quilting. Always inclined to the traditional look of antique quilts and to prize beauty above amusement, I found that the bright, quirky selections running through Marilyn’s stash kept me from tipping too far to the dark and somber side. In fact, I’d say my most dreary quilt top ever is an antique-looking strip quilt that contains only a very few pieces of her off-white fabric. I learned a lesson there! Over the development of my quilting life, I have almost always managed to include at least one scrap from my inherited stash in my own quilts, even if it is the patch I use to make the label.



 Patches in this ‘cake stand’ wall hanging include several fabrics from Marilyn’s stash.


Marilyn’s example has continued to draw me along in my quilting career. She was an eager learner as well as a great teacher, and attended many workshops and classes. I have made a point of attending at least one class a year to learn something new, even though I’m more inclined to ‘go it alone.’ It’s true, classes really do advance my abilities and confidence!



 This quilt top was made in a class—machine quilting yet to come!


I’ve also followed Marilyn’s example by investing in high-quality tools. The day I ‘road tested’ a Bernina sewing machine I laughed aloud at the quiet precision of the stitching. I had been sewing—when I resorted to a machine at all—on a 25-year-old economy model that needed to go in the shop after every six hours of noisy sewing and unreliable tension. The new machine of course brought on more classes and then a sewing cabinet that increased my comfort and effectiveness. A year ago, Mike added one more dimension to my legacy . . . Marilyn’s serger and work table. Now I am gaining still more skills and getting back to garment sewing after a couple of decades of neglect. And I am saving up for a really fancy Bernina Aurora 440QE with a Variable Stitch Regulator to help me with my machine quilting ambitions.

I’ve added yards and yards of my own fabric, thread, and notions to my inherited stash . . . which I’ve acquired with Marilyn’s watchword in mind: “if you like a fabric you might as well get at least three yards of it!” My one-bedroom sewing space is now expanded to include the guest room, unless I have guests.


Leia’s flowerpot quilt


I’ve had the opportunity to ‘pass it on’ to others as well. My old sewing machine is now being used at a local school for beginner projects. Leia, the caregiver for my friend Cris’s Venezuelan mother has become a skilled quilter, by studying the pictures in American quilting books. Along with fabrics and books bought especially for her by Cris, I have sent her a few books and fabrics from my & Marilyn’s stash. A few weeks ago, I saw Leia’s latest quilt. There, peeking between the white ‘picket fence’ stitched around the quilt, was a bright floral border print I inherited from Marilyn. It had traveled all the way to Latin America to be quilted and come back under my eyes once again.



Fabric from Marilyn’s stash shines through


Nearly seven years later, I am still ‘discovering’ gifts left me by Marilyn that are ready for me whenever I acquire the new skill it will take to use them. When I began making bias flower stems, I found the set of tools to turn them right side out. When I settled down to hand quilt, I found a pile of stencils.  Once, I bought a specially grid-printed ironing board cover, only to discover later that I already had one just like it deep in the closet. A few months ago, when I began to machine quilt, I not only dipped in to the two books on machine quilting waiting in my library, not only made use of some amazingly brilliant red flannel printed with Dalmatians to make a practice quilt for a friend’s child, but also discovered a pair of garden gloves dotted with rubber grippers and a small hoop designed just for use with the machine. Because of the immediate decision I made, to weave what Marilyn taught me right into the fabric of my life, I can say: “When the pupil is ready, the teacher still appears.”


This angel is my own design—& a beginning machine-quilted piece.


-- Penny Schmitt is a writer who used to think that her full first name, Penelope, was given to her because like her namesake in Greek mythology, she never finished her projects. In her quilting life she is learning to overcome this mythic curse as she continues to acquire new skills. Penny lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, and can be reached at peninith1 at bellsouth dot net.

See Penny's wonderful tree skirts, now available for sale!

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