Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Writing a patchwork quilt – sewing stories

When I first visited the United States, I saw a juried quilt exposition – and I was blown away. The variety of the pieces presented, the creativity, the attention to detail, the different interpretations of a single theme, all of it blew me away. Before the week was over, I found a beginners book, bought a few swatches of fabric, and I began my first quilt by hand.

I have been sewing and quilting ever since, and over the years I’ve come to realize why I enjoy it so much: for me, quilting is just another form of writing.

The first step in making a quilt is to pick the fabrics, and to me, they are the characters of the piece. Some quilts – some stories – only need two fabrics to take life; others require an entire collection. What matters is not how many I use, but the colors, the patterns, how vibrant each fabric is by itself, and more importantly how the fabrics play off each other. Sometimes, the most beautiful fabrics just don’t belong together – just like sometimes, two compelling characters don’t have the ‘spark’ that makes their relationship compelling. Some fabrics dominate a quilt, others are just secondary splashes of color or texture to accentuate the entire piece.

Then comes picking up a pattern. How are these fabrics I just chose going to mesh together? Will there be an overall theme, a pattern repeated over and over, separate blocks stacked up side by side or ‘integrated’ blocks in which the design is seamless? Something classic, maybe, a pattern that can be identified with only a look but with an unexpected twist, or a modern, abstract design? This is the ‘plot’ of the quilt, and deciding what story to tell is always an exciting part of the process.

Usually at this point I figure out the size of the quilt, depending on the size of the pattern I chose and how much fabric I have. In a story, the number of characters, side-plots and setbacks would dictate the length. From lap quilts to queen-sizes, I’ve done all sizes, but I have a fondness for lap quilts – the same way I have a fondness for short stories. I just love curling up under a small quilt, and reading/writing a bite-sized story.


It’s finally time to cut the fabric into the pieces I need, and I see this as the equivalent of the rough outline of the story: I divide my plot in acts, then in scenes, so that when I’m ready to sit down and sew – sit down and write – everything is ready for me to do so. That doesn’t mean I won’t change my mind if I realize something doesn’t quite fit, or a color needs to be a little more or a little less vibrant, but at this time I know where I’m going and what the end result will look like.


My least favorite part in making a quilt is putting together the top, batting and back. It’s this unwieldy, awkward, time consuming process – and I dread it just as much as I dread editing a story. Both things are just as necessary, though. Without edits, a story feels raw; all the edges are showing, stray strands of thread, and the underside of the assembled top: it’s not worthy of being shown to anyone yet. But after those edits are done, after the three layers come together… now we’re talking!

The one difference, I guess, is the quilting itself. Embellishing the quilt, by necessity, comes at the end when making a patchwork. These embellishments, in the writing process, are the words themselves, the style, metaphors and so on, and each sentence added to the story is the occasion to make it shine a little more. In a quilt, it’s difficult to redo the quilting once it’s done; in a story, what is difficult is to stop. There is always one more tweak to a sentence, one more adjective to add or cut, one more little change to be made, but at some point the question arises: is this one more tweak a good thing, or is it detracting from the story? I have to admit my quilting isn’t always very good; my stitches are sometimes uneven, my curves aren’t regular, my angles are off. But I think – I hope – that I get a little better with each new quilt. I hold the same hope that my writing improves, bit by bit, with each new story.

But the best part, in quilting or writing, has to be sharing what I made. Maybe that’s why most quilts I make are gifts for friends or family. And maybe that’s why I enjoy writing freebies and flash fiction so much.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I always love to hear what you think!