By Barbara Falconer Newhall
It had been staring at me from that drawer for decades, guilting me. The quilt from hell. My wedding present to my brother and his wife. Never finished, never presented.
Their marriage had done just fine over the years–all 43 of them. It hadn’t needed the validation of a splashy gift from the big sister.
But every time I opened up that drawer, there it was again–the awful evidence of a gift never
given, a promise never kept: a half-made quilt tousled in a pile of calico scraps.
I was young and broke back in 1971, the year my brother and his wife got married. I was scraping by on a freelance writer’s income, a few hundred dollars a month.
I drank cheap Alamaden chablis from the jug, and when I had to go someplace I used San Francisco’s public transportation; if a bus, trolley or cable car couldn’t get me there, I didn’t go.
No way could I afford to slip into Macy’s or Gump’s and buy my brother and his bride something memorable. A Waterford crystal vase? A Dansk teapot? A set of trendy Marimekko sheets? Not a chance.
But I was hip and artsy, a veritable earth mother. I could make things. I could sew. I was sewing clothes for myself at the time with the help of a cast-off vintage Singer still in its original cabinet. I made corduroys that actually fit me and a striped bikini that I could swim in.
Since I could sew, why not sew my brother and his fiancée a wedding gift—a quilt?
It would have to be a crazy quilt, of course. That would be so much simpler than trying to follow a pattern—the Dresden Plate pattern, for example, that my grandmother had used to make a quilt for my mother from patterned grain sacks back in the 1940s.
My sewing skills were pretty darned good, I told myself. If I could sew a bathing suit, I could sew a quilt. A quilt is flat, for heaven’s sake. No need to make allowances for a dinky bustline or bulging thighs. How hard could it be?
And too, this would be an opportunity to show off my renegade creativity. I’d buy calico in bright colors, cut it into odd shapes and stitch it all together. It would fit a full sized bed. Nothing too ambitious. Quick and easy, no problem.
And crazy making.
No one was there to counsel me back then, not my Grandma Falconer, not my Aunt Ferne, my Aunt Lois, my Aunt Ruth, my cousins Nell and Mary Helen, nor any of my knitting, tatting, embroidering, crocheting female relatives back in Scottville and Pentwater, Michigan. No one was there to warn me off my—crazy—quilt idea.
How could I know that this little sewing project would take months, more time than I realistically had between now and the wedding date?
Nor did anyone show up to tell me it was a truly bad idea to sew a bunch of odd-shaped pieces together without first pinning them to something flat; if I sewed them freehand, I’d end up with a rippling, disjointed mess.
But I was hip and artsy and confident. And besides, I couldn’t afford a bed-sized piece of fabric large enough to pin my scraps to. So I plunged in and stitched away.
The days passed. A few weeks before the wedding, all I had to show for my time was a wavy, odd-shaped chunk of piecing—colorful, but nowhere near big enough to cover a bed. Desperate to speed things up, I began cutting the pieces bigger and bigger.
That didn’t help. The wedding day arrived and I had a half-finished quilt on my hands. Reluctantly, I wrapped it up and presented it to the bridal couple, promising to finish it before they returned from their honeymoon.
That didn’t happen either.
I’m not sure what got in the way. Maybe I fell in love. Maybe I got a real job. The half-finished quilt ended up in a drawer, then another drawer, and then in a drawer at the bottom of a built-in chest in the house Jon and I bought after we were married. There it stayed for three-and-a-half decades.
Children were born. Children grew up. Children went off to college. And when I opened that drawer last summer, sure enough, the quilt from hell was still there, guilting me from its hideaway.
It was time to finish the darned thing.
That is, it was time to hire somebody to finish the darned thing.
I headed over to Berkeley, where the ladies at Stonemountain and Daughter Fabrics knew what to do next.
It’s one thing to do the piecing on a quilt, they told me. It’s quite another to do the stitching—the quilting—that holds the front, back and stuffing in place. What I needed, they said, was a quilter with a long arm sewing machine.