Planet Patchwork Personal Profile
Passing it on—a
By Penny Schmitt
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.
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.
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
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,
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
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
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.
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
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
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.