Friday, May 12, 2006

Six Degrees Among Quilters

So while I'm thinking about this six degrees of separation concept, let me share a fun quilt story with you. Only the heroine's name has been changed, to protect the obvious. :D

Julia had been a quilter for 23 years. She could always easily remember the number because she began when she was 2 months pregnant with her second child. Funny how people use life’s events to help keep track of such things. In all that time she’d never once come across an antique treasure of blocks or a top that needed rescuing - that is - that was within her price range. She heard others tell tales of finding this incredible 1930’s Wedding Ring top at a barn sale while vacationing in Iowa; or these appliqu├ęd fan blocks that were bought from a friend of a friend’s retired sister-in-law for a song. But in all her years as a quilter, she’d never found what she was looking for.

She went to collectible shops on a regular basis, looked among the tired linens, table cloths and old doll blankets, remnants of another woman’s domestic life. But all she found, all she ever found were has-beens, cast offs, blocks so badly pieced a blind man would cringe, or tops so loud and ugly it made you wonder how all those fabrics could live together in one scrap bag, let alone co-exist in a top? Had all the nice blocks and tops disappeared? Probably they’d been snatched up by other hands than hers.

She remembered a time at Quilt guild when a long time member stood up and showed top after gorgeous top, all to be sold that weekend at the Respite workers Fund Raiser. They were AMAZING examples of needle art, the 1930’s colors clear and bright despite their age. The patterns were finely worked: Grandmother’s Fan, Wedding Ring and Dresden Plate. All three were favorites of hers, but they were patterns she knew she’d never manage to create in her life time. The guild member said the prices would be reasonable. The owner had donated them and didn’t care what they sold for.


She got up early the morning of the sale, borrowed the car from her husband, tucked her carefully counted dollars in her coin purse and was at the door of the Respite Fund Raiser when they opened the doors. But to her disappointment and dismay the only quilt tops for sale that day were uglies; a poorly pieced Flying Geese in drab colors and a skewed crib sized quilt, badly worn. Where were the promised tops? They had been sold after the guild meeting in a clandestine way to a woman who apparently couldn’t wait for the Respite Fund Raiser. Awww. It was always the same story.

The years went by and Julia continued to make quilts, buy fabric when it was on sale and browse the collectible shops when she could. She bought some ‘cutter’ tops and carefully took them apart, re-cut the pieces and made small vintage replicas. It was satisfying to her sense of quilt history on the one hand, but in her heart she was still waiting for that set of orphan blocks that one day she would find, purchase and bring home to call her own.

Time passed. The computer age came into Julia’s life and computer use gradually crept into her quilt top and block hunting experience. Now she could surf national shops and sites, seeing tops and blocks of ALL colors, piecing quality and prices. She browsed e-bay from time to time and bid on sets of orphan blocks, but she was always out bid.

One day she found a set of Flying Swallow blocks from the 1930’s advertised on e-bay. Nineteen blocks with an opening bid of $3.25. Was it possible? The seller said they were yellowed and stained, but hand stitched and otherwise in good condition. Two days and two bids later, Julia was the proud owner of these blocks, for $10.50. Go e-bay!

When the blocks arrived she wasn’t surprised to see how stained the muslin was. Several of the blocks were unfinished, but there were enough to set together with lattice strips and make a quilt. A six hour soak in Biz removed even the worst stains and revealed that the background fabric wasn’t unbleached muslin at all, but white. She was elated.

She started corresponding with the seller of the blocks, gently inquiring after the name of the maker, the region they were from or any other information that could be gleaned.

“Every quilt has a story and I bet these blocks have one of their own to tell”, she wrote, “Would you be willing to write and tell me where these blocks were made? I’d like to include it on a label I’ll put on the quilt when it’s done.”

The seller lived in San Luis Obispo and wrote, “The maker is my friends’ Aunt. She lived all her married life in Northern California.”

“I live in Northern California!”, Julia wrote by return e-mail. “In Redwood Valley, fifteen miles outside of Ukiah. Maybe these blocks are coming home. Do you know the name of the town?”

The Internet is a funny environment. You can write to people you’ve never met and never will meet and start a correspondence. But after a few days had gone by without a reply, Julia wasn’t sure if the seller was getting tired of her queries. Finally she received a reply and she couldn’t believe what the message said, “The maker of those blocks is named Derhonda Burkett. She lived in Ukiah for 35 years.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
For the last few weeks Julia’s been working on turning the Flying Swallow blocks into a quilt top. After the careful presoak and hand washing, she squared them, pressed the many, many seams that make up the Flying Swallow’s block and has planned a layout. Her heart is full and happy as she works. She thinks about Derhonda, whom she was told is almost ninety and lives in a nursing home somewhere in southern California, and she feels proud to be making something special out of an unfinished project that belonged to another quilter. A quilter that had lived all her married life in the same valley as she lives now.

While laying out the blocks she discovers that five of the Flying Swallow blocks were pieced with the swallows flying clockwise and fourteen of the blocks were pieced with the swallows flying counter clockwise. She wonders if perhaps THIS is why the quilt maker abandoned the blocks. If symmetry and uniformity were important to Derhonda, this mistake would be unbearable.

But to Julia’s eye as she lays them out, interspersing the ‘rogue’ blocks with the others, she likes the spirit it gives to the overall appearance of the quilt-to-be.

After all, she’s waited a long time to find and adopt a set of quilt blocks. And she has fallen in love with these.


Su Bee said...

Hey -- are these a quilt yet???

Tonya R said...

Great story. It's hard for me to believe that anyone would worry about which direction the swallows are flying when they are so GORGEOUS, but I do know it happens. So glad Julia found them and is making a quilt from them at last.