Row by Row, Peace by Piece

Some fabrics are much too special to sit on shelves or in boxes, never to be leavened by sunlight, or by a child’s fingers gripping them for comfort at naptime.


I have found peace in some unusual places, including a snowy owl’s golden eyes, a sedate sunrise, and yards upon yards of cotton fabric.

I collect mainly what my father would aptly have described as an “absurd” amount of fabric. I have traveled as far as India to marvel at woven silks and printed and embroidered cottons. Our first son’s first declarative sentence was made at the threshold of the room where I kept my stash: “Mess room!”

In “Noah’s Garden,” a wall hanging I made soon after my second son’s birth, the fruits and radiating colors were cut from a single enormous piece of woven cotton hand-dyed with plants; it was carried back from Malawi on a visit from my husband’s Aunt Jeanne, who was a nurse there for decades and knew I loved to sew. Some fabrics are much too special to sit on shelves or in boxes, never to be leavened by sunlight, or by a child’s fingers gripping them for comfort at naptime.

My fabric collection patiently waits–sometimes for decades–until I am stricken with inspiration. I usually end up cutting fat-quarters into much smaller pieces before introducing them to dramatically contrasting or subtly companionable neighbors, reconfiguring them into something unique and new.

Fabric will always be tied to family. It may not be a coincidence that my mother’s principal art form was making fabric collages. She collected and made all her clothes from wildly bold Marimekko prints from the 1960s and 70s. I saw the way she looked at those fabrics and hypnotically ran her hands across the tall bolts they wound around. Pure, silk-screened vivid reds and yellows and blue-greens she gathered from Copenhagen to Cambridge.

Having grown up without money for luxuries, and some necessities, she would not throw out even the tiniest scraps when she cut the pattern pieces she designed for clothing or collages. Many of her fabrics’ saturated colors now enliven fabric insects and radishes and carrots and wildflowers in quilts I’ve made.

Clipper Ships

I began sewing clothing when I was a child, but did not begin sewing in earnest until I was in college. By the time I graduated, more than one professor had observed what I had not: that much of my academic writing was a patchwork, taking them on a winding path through seemingly unrelated concepts–history, literature, philosophy, religion, poetry, music, plant biology–until, at the end, they began to see the connections I had assumed everyone sought among such disparate elements.

There is nothing that cannot be rendered in fabric. Feathers, fungi, planets, pomegranites with ruby glass “seeds.” The constellation Pleiades. Wedding bouquets. Biblical fruits and the stone-inset Rose Window at Iona Abbey, off Scotland’s western coast.

Quilts invite quiet, and are quintessentially comforting.

Almost without exception, each quilt I’ve pieced together has been a gift to someone–most often for a child or a wedding or Birthday of Significance. I’ve made memorial quilts for survivors of tragedies and sewn countless quilts for strangers.

I worked on one quilt for a year, after, on his final ride home, my husband asked that I do something for our friend Dr. Bob, who was at our house preparing to shepard us through my husband’s last days here with us. At home, my husband was covered with the first quilt I made for him. His bed faced our daughter’s whimsical oil paintings and a wall quilt overflowing with an alphabet of fruits and vegetables he had grown in our New Hampshire garden.

I design, applique, and quilt each one by hand; machines are not soothing. Even the repetitive physical motion of taking stitches is calming and brings me peace. One cannot sew for long without letting go of tension.

And every time I sew, I hope the finished gift will be a visual and tactile treat that will bring at least an equal measure of comfort for its recipient. Best of all is when love undoes the careful stitches, and a child eventually wears a beloved quilt back to pieces once again.

Green: Of Monsters and Men

When I was in first grade, we were given mimeographed sheets (look it up, kids) to color.  They had rows of small images, like comic strips, filled with simple outlines–a house, grass, an improbable spiky sun.  Below the images were empty dashes where we would write in the name of the object and then color it in.

Whether or not my parents truly had favorite colors, I assuredly had bugged them until they both claimed one for me.   My mother said blue was her favorite, and my father reported a fondness for green.

When I took out my bright Crayolas–how I loved those crayons, especially the breathtaking tiered assortments which came in boxes with a built-in sharpener–I was obsessively careful to be fair.  With mathematical precision I would parcel out an equal amount of blue and green as I meticulously filled in shapes.

Fairness can be a simple for a five-year-old.

For Elphaba and Kermit, it was not always easy being green, but all its shades remain a glowing, growing wonder for me.

It happened that on our very first date in college, Jim wore a hunter green button-down shirt, and I wore cobalt blue silk.  I have a curiously acute memory for fabric.

When I went out today to capture images of green, I was drawn to interiors–to the soft cotton fabrics with which I nested, creating quilts for our children-to-be; to bright emerald silk like the precious yardage my daughter brought me from India; to the ribbons  Jim and I would use to wrap gifts well into the wee hours of Christmases past as our children slept and we gamely attempted to assist Santa.

But when I think of Jim’s greens, they overwhelmingly tend towards the outdoors: the brilliant green of those pre-incarnadine multitudinous seas,  the diamond at Fenway Park, the solemn gray-green Solitario Jorge.

Together, somehow, Jim and I forged a marriage that–were I prone to bouts of synesthesia–was of deep greens and blues.

Green speaks to me of Jim–the Scout leader, the outdoorsman, the nature lover.  His eyes, especially as they looked at me during the months he knew would be our last here together.  Shagging flies on the Green Monster.  Hiking in the Green Mountains of Vermont.  Walking hand-in-hand around the Emerald Necklace.  Holding our youngest infant’s tiny hands and gently guiding them through the sleeves of a mint-green sweater knitted by her grandmother.  The shiny Boston Celtics-green wrapping paper on what he knew would be the last present he gave me.



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