BARBARA’S BOOK

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The Quilt From Hell — Forty-Two Years Later, It’s Still Not Finished

A portion of a crazy quilt made in 1971 by Barbara Falconer Newhall of calico fabrics in primary colors. Photo by Barbara Newhall

A section of the crazy quilt from hell. The calico I used is now considered vintage. Photo by Barbara Newhall

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

An unfinished quilt and stray piece of calico overflow from a storage drawer. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Hidden away in a drawer behind a door for thirty-plus years. Photo by Barbara Newhall

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.

A vintage black and gold Singer sewing machine in a cabinet. Photo by Barbara Newhall

A friend gave me this vintage black and gold Singer sewing machine still in its cabinet. Photo by Barbara Newhall

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.

A quilt made with grain sacks following the dresden plate pattern made in the 1940s in Scottville, Michigan. Photo by Barbara Newhall

My grandmother made this quilt from patterned grain sacks. She followed the Dresden plate pattern, but I knew I wouldn’t have the patience to cut and sew all those precisely shaped pieces, so I opted for what I thought would be easier– a crazy quilt. Photo by Barbara Newhall

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.

Vintage calico scraps from the 1970s in bold primary colors await sewing into a crazy quilt. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Just a few of the calico scraps waiting to become part of that crazy quilt. Photo by Barbara Newhall

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.

Coming soon: Sue Mary Fox and her quilting machine to the rescue — at “A Crazy Making Crazy Quilt — Finished at Last.”

A crazy quilt made of colorful calico is riddled with ripples and waves because the quilter, Barbara Falconer Newhall, failed to stitch the pieces to a flat backing. Photo by Barbara Falconer Newhall

I spread the quilt out on the floor, but it would not lie flat no matter what I did. It was originally intended to fit a full sized bed, but, given the ripples, I could see no way this piece could become a bedspread. Maybe those danged ripples are the reason I gave up on this project 43 years ago. Photo by Barbara Falconer Newhall

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Comments

  1. Let’s see. Was it 42 years between starting this quilt and finishing it? Or 43 years? My brother and his wife married the summer of 1971, and I finally pulled the quilt out of that drawer last summer. I think that makes it 43 years.

  2. Sue Watson says:

    Looking forward to the outcome. I am wondering how to repair quilts from the past which I value and want to keep. perhaps your ladies would have a suggestion. I am thinking of of cutting my mother’s wedding quilt and framing the pieces for the cottage. Sue

    • Sue — see my answer to Katherine and consider folding the quilt and displaying it on a shelf in a cabinet with glass doors. This might be a valuable old quilt and it may be a shame to cut it up. You see quilts hanging in museums these days, and on sale in antique stores for a pretty penny. Too, one of your heirs might actually have the space to hang it up some day. I’ll bet there are some quilting experts in your area you could go to and get an opinion on how to care for the quilt. My grandmother’s quilt has some torn pieces — that quilt was on my bed when I was a kid, and my mother washed it regularly — but I don’t plan to try to repair it; its tatters are part of its charm and authenticity. If you do frame the pieces, make sure that it is done correctly and beautifully — that will increase the chances that your heirs will keep the framed pieces and not toss them out. (Framing is very expensive>) Either way, be sure to write up a history of the quilt, with names and dates, to accompany the quilt into posterity. That will make it more valuable to your great-great-grandchildren.

  3. Katherine Philipp says:

    Loved your story. It inspired me to tell mine. We had a party for our 25th wedding anniversary and I invited family and friends to make a 13 inch square patch for my project – an anniversary quilt. The color scheme was silver (or gray or black and white) A number of creative friends made wonderful squares and I laid them out in a pleasing pattern and eagerly sewed them together. I couldn’t decide from there how to proceed so the quilt sat in a drawer for years until I attended a Quilt show at the Historical Society of Baltimore featuring quilts made by women in the Baltimore area in the 1850’s. A number of the quilts on display were unfinished, so I decided to add a tube of grosgrain ribbon at the top and hung the quilt on a curtain rod on the landing of our house – visible from both the first and second floors where we could admire our friends’ thoughtfulness and creativity. Then we moved to a smaller house and I had no place to display it, so it went into a box for a few more years until I saw a class advertised at a local sewing store offering help with finishing unfinished projects. There I got the advice and motivation to finish the quilt – in time for our 40th anniversary. But it is still in box – seven years later. We don’t have a wall to display it in our current house, and I don’t think I want it on a bed. I suppose when we are gone, it will be one more decision for our children.

    • Katherine, Interesting challenge — how do display a meaningful quilt when you have neither wall nor bed space for it. I have two quilts — the one my grandmother made and another that was given to Jon and me as a wedding present. I haven’t had the time to figure out how to hang them — and I worry about hanging my grandmother’s quilt in its fragile state. I finally hit on the idea of gently folding them and placing them on shelves in a bookcase with glass doors. I tucked clean towels in the folds, and I refold them once in a while. And there they are decorating our bedroom, safe and sound and very pretty.

  4. Margie Bowman says:

    In 1980 I collected 8″ lace doilies from everyone I knew; 67 then were appliqued onto a soft colored blue fabric square. In the seamline of each I roughly stitched who’d given the doilie and where I was as I worked on it.

    It is endearing as many of the donors are gone now and I can no longer sit in the passenger seat of a car on the way to a wedding in L.A. or to backpacking at Thousand Island Lakes, or subversively sew at a boring meeting.

    In order to sew the squares together I needed a big table and lots of quiet time. So we rented a house at Sea Ranch, lots of clear light and no interruptions. Tom bicycled for days, alone. I cut the lattice strips, sewed the squares together with them, made the “sandwich” with layers of fibrefill and the backing fabric, basted and basted and basted it all together. Then the handwork began, oh my — outlining each lacy doilie, plus, plus, plus. Finally I was able to pay a professional quilter to put the “framing” border on, then more quilt stitching there.

    Now, about the chart that details the history of each square, still not done. I still plan to commit it to fabric somehow and sew it onto the backside.

    Meanwhile, it looked gorgeous on a queen-sized bed in a guest room……that is until kids moved home, dirty snaggy clothing and all; so it lives in a pillow slip on a closet shelf, unseen but protected. The first part only took 22 years. I did have 7 grandchildren and admit to having spent lots of time making crib sized quilts for the little darlings. Nothing like a deadline, eh?

    Thanks for reminding me of the unfinished historical chart that I must accomplish. It lends a nostalgic touch and supposedly adds to the value. I have one square that says “Reagan Shot,” and not long after, “Pope Shot.” Obviously, those were the hours in front of the TV, which gifted the time for handwork.

    Seeing as I just had my 87th birthday it seems only right that I recognize a new “deadline” (how literal can one get?) and finish this endless quest for completion.

    Can I call this “Wrestling With Myself”?

    With affection, Margie

  5. Margie, This is wonderful. So good to know that I’m not the only one to let a project stretch over decades — that quilt for one, and my book for another.

    I too have precious textiles squirreled away in pillowcases in the linen closet. My mother made beautiful Christmas stockings for all the grandchildren, and that’s how I store them. btw, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, you could display this beautiful thing by folding it gently and putting it in a cabinet with a glass door where it can be seen, but not destroyed by muddy jeans and snaggy jewelery. Good luck with the chart!

Trackbacks

  1. […] miss the first two installments of my 40-year quilting saga at “The Quilt From Hell — Forty Years Later It’s Still Not Finished” and “A Crazy-Making Quilt — Finished at […]

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  3. […] years later, I decided it was time to finish the darned thing. It had languished in a drawer for decades; it was time to put it out of its […]

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