Sewing/sowing history

The lavender bias tape is sewn in small, even stitches along the inner edge of the richly patterned cloth. My grandmother once sat quietly, sewing this binding to finish the apron she was making for me. After wearing the apron for decades, I have been cutting it apart, incorporating squares of the purple, cream, and brown fabric into coasters for a friend, a shoulder bag for my niece, and now a quilt. These little squares and rectangles sew/sow history into new textiles. 

Grandma Marguerite Walker (nee Potter) was born in 1896 in Fort Scott, Kansas. Although I didn’t know her well, I have fond memories of her. She was gentle and genteel, soft-spoken, and poised.  When my parents when to Europe for several weeks when I was 8 or 9, she came to stay with us in Toronto. She taught me how to set a table during that visit because, apparently, my mother had never taught me the correct way to place napkin, fork, knife, and spoon. I once visited her in Los Gatos, California, where she lived for many years. One day, we wandered about, looking at the shops. “What a lovely colour your blouse is,” grandma said to a woman we approached on the street. That stranger lit up from the compliment, and I never forgot that simple, kind exchange. Another time we heard ambulance sirens in the distance, and my grandmother prayed aloud that nobody was hurt. This was something new for me. “Prayer” was not in my parents’ lexicon. And in her letters, grandma wrote “thot” for thought, not because she didn’t know how to spell—she was an excellent speller—but because she had her own shorthand. 

In my twenties, I underwent surgery to correct infertility. I was told after the surgery that I still had only a 15-20% chance of having children. Grandma Marguerite started sending me her copies of Unity magazine and told me her church congregation was praying for me. Ultimately, I gave birth to three healthy sons. I don’t know about cause–effect, but I was forever grateful to her for the energetic and spiritual work she undertook on my behalf. All of these warm memories float through me as I sew squares of Grandma’s apron into the mix of this new quilt, which I think I’ll call “windows to a purple world.” 

Windows to a purple world (quilt in progress)

This type of sewing I’m describing is upcycling, but with a difference. Take fabric that’s been in your family or is otherwise meaningful and make it into something new. If you do this, you incorporate stories into your sewing. A couple of years ago my friend Nancy gave me a large basket of textiles from her family—old linen tablecloths and napkins in pastel green, pink and salmon that her mother and grandmother had used over many years. I cut these precious pieces apart, mixed in other contemporary fabrics, and fashioned pillowcases. I gave Nancy the pillows for her birthday. She can remember her mother and grandmother and meals at the family table whenever she looks at them.  

I incorporated cloth from pink and green tablecloths and napkins from Nancy’s family into pillowcases.

Scattering scraps of one fabric over countless projects feels like I’m sowing seeds of connection far and wide. When Michael and drove to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon in the summer of 2017, we visited Sew Creative, a beautiful fabric store on the main drag. I fell in love with designs by Australian Aboriginal designers: swirly organic patterns that looked like amoebas and rhizomes done in purples, reds, browns, and oranges. And there was a binder there with each designer’s photograph and profile so I could learn about them–their processes and inspiration. I bought two one-yard pieces of fabric. During the last five years, I have cut and sewn those fabrics into countless things: purses, pouches, quilts, coasters. I love the dispersal of one thing into many. Cadmus sowed dragon’s teeth and up rose an army: the fierce Sparti (which means “sown”). I sow scraps of fabric and up rises. . .  delight! 

Scraps of the same fabric show up over and over again. The cloth Nat and Sam chose for their aprons (animals on the Serengeti; a bright turquoise broadcloth) show up in the bookmarks I recently made and distributed to friends and family. The blue tablecloth I bought at Value Village became the lining for my blue patchwork apron. It feels, at times, as if I—and not just the fabric—am being dispersed across time and space. It is too easy these days to disconnect and withdraw. I am trying to stay connected through writing and sewing, sewing and writing. Sowing myself far and wide through words and fabric.

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