Christina here. When I was a teenager, I had an American friend who used to work on patchwork quilts with her mother and two sisters as a group project every so often. It made the work go faster, and was also a lovely way for them to spend time together. I remember thinking I would love to try it sometime, but then I forgot about it. Quilting wasn’t a handicraft that was practised much in Sweden when I grew up, or at least I’d never seen it done, so I didn’t have a chance to learn how. (Plus I don’t have any sisters.) But I had heard of them – over there they are called lapptäcke.
Later, when I moved to the UK, I saw quilts for sale in Laura Ashley shops. I couldn’t afford them myself, but my mother bought one which she later handed on to me when she no longer wanted it. In the meantime, I tried making one myself by sewing squares together on a sewing machine, but it wasn’t as nice and I didn’t like it much. It didn’t feel authentic either, since it hadn’t been hand sewn. To me, the charm of a patchwork quilt is all the work that has gone into it, each piece of material perhaps a memory of the garment it had come from and lovingly stitched.
At one point, I did try to make a small baby’s quilt with hexagons, and the result was OK but not perfect because I didn’t really know what I was doing. (This was long before the time of YouTube tutorials). I still dreamed of one day making a big one, but I didn’t want to do it wrong so I gave up the idea. That is, until I heard about a one-day patchwork course that was happening near where I live. I signed up immediately.
Quilting and patchwork are two different things – quilting as a technique has been around for a very long time, at least as far back as medieval times according the Victoria & Albert Museum website, although probably much longer. (They have some fabulous examples in their collections!). They say that “the word ‘quilt’ is linked to the Latin word ‘culcita’ which means a bolster or cushion and seems to have first been used in England in the 13th century”.
Historically, a quilt was made up of two layers of material that were stitched together with some kind of padding or wadding in between to add warmth. The padding would be held in place by stitching lines or patterns onto it. Mostly they were used as bed covers and many were passed down through generations. In medieval times quilting was also used to make warm clothes – a definite plus if you lived in a draughty old castle or manor house!
Patchwork – also called ‘pierced work’ or EPP (English paper piecing) – is similar, but uses tiny pieces of fabric that have been left over and need to be reused or recycled. These designs are often geometric and various different shapes are joined together to form a whole, at least on one side. (The back can be a large piece of plain fabric.) It’s a great way of using scraps of material and old clothes that can no longer be adapted, and it makes sense to utilise everything you have to hand in this way. Sustainability is the key and these quilts actually look best when they have some age to them and have become heritage pieces.
They are often associated with the early settlers in America. There were (still are?) ‘quilting bees’, social occasions when groups of women got together to make a quilt for someone who was about to be married for example. That sounds like a wonderful tradition to me!
So anyway, heading off to my one-day course, I was thrilled that I would finally be learning the right way of going about it. First, we were taught to cut out paper templates from thick glossy magazines, as it helps to have paper that is a little bit stiff. We used hexagon templates made of acrylic, although of course there are other shapes too in lots of different materials like metal and plastic. Next, we pinned the paper shapes to fabric and cut around them, leaving a wide border (1-2cm). Then we folded the material over the paper and tacked it to hold them together. While folding, we had to make sure the angles were sharp so that all the pieces of material would be the same size. Where I’d gone wrong when I previously tried this on my own was that I didn’t tack the material to the paper first, so they weren’t uniform enough.
Holding two tacked pieces front to front, we practised sewing them together with tiny stitches all along the edge. It’s best to try not to catch the paper as that way the templates can be removed and reused later, although in the past, the paper was sometimes left in situ as it helped to make the quilt warmer. The stitches have to be very small and neat – not always easy!
We practised sewing together seven hexagons to form a sort of “flower” and I was delighted with the result. I finally felt as though I knew what I was doing. We also tried making stars with diamond shaped templates, but I found that clumsier as you are left with weird bits sticking out.
The best part of the day was seeing the quilts the two ladies had already made as they brought quite a few along to show us. It gave me lots of ideas and I went home ready to make one of my own. Rather than stick with the tradition of using old things, though, I want mine to be specific colours so I have started to buy fabrics I like. Hopefully, one of these days I will have a proper, handmade quilt to display somewhere. In the meantime, I’ll have great fun working on it.
I would also like to try making a little quilt for my dolls’ house. When I went to a dolls’ house fair recently, there were quite a few on sale and they were made out of such tiny scraps, the mind boggled! I might have to get myself new glasses if I’m to sew anything that small, but I’ll enjoy trying.
It occurred to me that as authors, we weave together a story one piece at a time and it’s just like a patchwork quilt. Some authors have all their pieces beforehand and laid out neatly to form the pattern, while others – like me – have various patches that don’t necessarily fit together but need extra bits inserted to form a whole. I’m determined not to be that disorganised with the real quilt, but when it comes to writing, that’s what works best for me.
How about you – have you ever worked on a patchwork quilt by yourself or with others? Or have you seen beautiful examples in museums that you’ve admired?