quilting life stories

I’m thinking about quilts today. More specifically, I’m thinking of quilts as storytellers, as letters, as conversations stitched together. [for those that are dying to hear more about Tissot, letters, and bodies, stay tuned …. but don’t for a moment think that this has nothing to do with them…I’m slowly but surely thinking through the what, how, where, when and why of life writing…. ]

Back to quilts….

We know, of course, of the massive AIDS quilt – that piece of work created by thousands upon thousands of individuals and groups to commemorate all the lives lost to AIDS. It’s grown so big that it’s now impossible to show the whole thing in one place. Each square tells a story of a life lived, a life loved, a life ended. Each square is a conversation within itself, each square a shared testament of memory created in loss and in hope. And stitched together, the squares tell a collective story of living, loving, suffering, and remembering.

And I am captivated by the possibility of showay quilts, even if their stories are contested. Imagine narrating the journey from enslavement to freedom in quilt blocks. The quilt as map, stitching routes, paths, and dangers along the way.

And of course, we can consider quilting traditions; quilt making as community building. And crazy quilts patching pieces of lives together.

I  have a few quilts in my house. My mother made one for each of the boys, painstakingly planning, patching and sewing ideas and love into them.

She made one for our bed as well, a magical carpet of exploding colour that radiates more energy than you can even begin to imagine. It’s a happy-making quilt that includes some fabrics from my childhood, but also, intriguingly, hints of fabrics that were present in this house – the first house we ‘own’ [well, the bank still owns most of it] – when we first moved in. The previous owners loved valances and they were on every single window.  Three years later, bits and pieces of those valances found their way into that quilt.

A close friend made another quilt, a baby gift received in the weeks just after our first son was born.

But of all the quilts in our house, there are two quilts that are different from the rest.

Or at least, they are different to me.

On the surface, these quilts look very similar to the other quilts in our house. They have colourful squares and easily recognisable patterns. But the stories they tell are very different.

The first is, perhaps, not properly a quilt because it doesn’t have the requisite batting inside it. But it involved much of the same kind of work. This quilt is the result of a nesting project, undertaken while I was pregnant with son #1. It tells a story of a waited for birth, of a life in transition, of a body that was and was not my own. It tells the story of a body (re)learning to sew, revelling in the sensuality of touch, of colour, of fabric, of a new world slowly unfurling itself.

I sewed my quilt from pieces of fabric old and new. My batik skirts are in there, yes, but so, too, are squares pulled from a most magnificent batik muumuu I found at Value Village. There are squares of mustard yellow, fuschia, navy blue and green. And in between my quilted squares, there are ribbons of black fabric. Later, son #2 imagined them as roads, driving his cars around the colourful neighbourhood.


The end result isn’t perfect. I know exactly where things went awry, where ‘perfect’ squares suddenly turned out not to be quite so perfect after all. It won’t win any prizes. And if someone found it, they’d probably toss it, unimpressed with my lack of skill.

But that doesn’t matter.

When I see it on the bed, I see the story of my maternal life arrayed before me. I see my growing belly, my swollen ankles. I see my young baby, rolling on it. And I see the cars and hear the putt-putt that accompanied their journeys through Quiltville. I see my fingers cutting squares, learning the pattern, figuring out how to work the 1950s black Singer generously gifted by a friend. All of this life is reflected in my uneven squares.

Superimposed on these squares, so carefully, if inexpertly, crafted, I see a second quilt.

This one is expertly made. Each stitch is confident. Even. Assertive. Each stitch tells the story of a woman who knows how to make textiles sing. Nobody would think of tossing this quilt.

This quilt is smaller.  36 inches by 36 inches, to be exact. The fabrics are soft. Cotton. Flannel. And filled with colourful designs suited to young children. A group of dancing snowpeople. A gaggle of jewel-toned cats (do you think they’d mind being compared to geese?),  several psychedelic lizards, some leaping frogs, dinosaurs and a few schools of fish. On the back, a flannel communion of ‘animals of the jungle’: lions, giraffes, monkeys, elephants and hippopotami.


This quilt, too, tells a story.

No, it tells two stories: it tells the story of a boy born too soon. A wee boy who spent his first week cocooned in the warmth of an incubator-womb and the next few growing in what was then known as the Special Care Nursery (now the NICU). It tells the story of a wee little one who wasn’t even strong enough to suckle, who mewled when he fussed, and who spent most of his first weeks of life attached to monitors of all sorts.

And it tells the story of a family living through an intense period of growth and journeying together. Of a preschool-aged  brother whose life had been turned upside down and didn’t understand what was going on, of a family limping back into existence after too many weeks of bedrest and too many hours and days in hospitals.

In that quilt, I see conversations with doctors, with our midwife, with interns, with nurses. I see charts. I see hospital trays. I see numbers blinking red. I see exhaustion and I see exhilaration. And I see my wee lad growing. Just over 5 pounds when he finally came home, still premature, at 35.5 weeks.

But I also see something more. In this quilt, I see a gift.

The quilt was a gift from the Fraser Valley Quilters’ Guild. Since the early 1990s, the quilters in the Guild have made over 9000 quilts for the babies cared for in the NICU at BC Women’s/Children’s Hospital. 400 quilts a year. All of them made by hand and made to order. Cotton. Flannel. No ties. Natural fibres. 36 inches by 36 inches. All given out of love and with generosity of heart.

I don’t know the woman who made my baby’s quilt. I have never met her. I don’t know what she looks like. I don’t know how old she is, what her interests are, or if she has a dog. But her name is on the quilt and so I wrote her a letter. I don’t remember what exactly I said. I do know that I said thank you. And I know I included a picture of my slightly less wee boy after he came home. And I know I told her a bit about our story and how it as that we came to receive her quilt. And I think I told her about some of the other babies. Some so very wee that they barely had a chance to live at all. In the three weeks my son spent in the NICU, three babies died. It was hard for everyone there: family, nurses, doctors…all had grown to love those babies. For those families left behind, memories are all that remain, and far too few memories, at that.

I didn’t expect a response. I just wanted the quilter to know that her work – her care – was appreciated. And I wanted her to know that what she did mattered, and it mattered a lot. Her quilt has become an intrinsic part of our story.

But she wrote back.

She wrote to say thank you. And she wrote with the same generosity of spirit that went into the quilt in the first place.

I still have the letter. It’s part of the quilt, its words part of the story she – and I – have stitched into the fabric of our lives. Through her quilt, her story has also become my son’s story. And perhaps, when he’s a bit older, we’ll have a chat, the two of us. About generosity. About gifts of kindness. About quilted roads. And about monitors. And medicine. And lights. And bedrest. And growing. About uneven stitches and confident ones. About cats. And elephants and batik neighbourhoods. And about black Singer sewing machines with knee pedals.

And I’ll tell him about the stories that quilts tell and about how those stories change as we invite more people into our quilts. About how stitches expand. And how squares grow. And about how it is that suddenly a quilt can become so very big that there’s no longer any place big enough to carry all the stories shared within it.

What happens when we imagine quilts as sites of life writing? When we think of quilts as narrations of selves? What happens then? What stories do your quilts tell?


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