Men’s ties lined up, plain, striped, paisley, sewn into the frenetic mosaic of a crazy quilt and knotted through with yarn – I could pretend that it was pretty or even artfully wrought because it was made and handed down by my great-grandmother. That was my first understanding of a quilt, anyway, and I’d studied it, the varying qualities of silk and polyester against my fingertips, the batting puckered, the backing slouched. I’d imagine the collecting of ties in some random corner of the house the way great-grandmother collected anything else (empty syrup bottles, shaped candles, magazines, shorn-off braids, hat boxes). I’d imagine the woman she must have been back then with her needle and thread and the haphazard progression of sewn-together ties draped across her lap. I always wanted to make a quilt.
When I found myself with a handled shopping bag full of baby clothes I couldn’t seem to give away, it occurred to me I could make a quilt out of them. I spent an afternoon ripping seams in onsies and gowns and pajamas and cutting out small squares. I spent another afternoon poring over Youtube videos to get some idea of what I was doing. On little two-minute clips the hands of various middle-aged women managed neatly cut scraps and pins as their seemingly disembodied, vaguely distant voices, ranging from whisper-thin to raspy, directed me to keep a pill bottle for worn needles or wear a thimble all day long so it becomes a part of me. In the pauses, someone admonished a dog, a child’s toy erupted in bright melodies, a dryer buzzed. Labored breathing, the plucking of a needle at cloth, the snapping of a thread broken against teeth – I watched over and over and learned more about character than quilting.
As I proceeded on my own, sewing squares together, making mistakes, ripping them out, starting over, finding a pattern in the arrangement of outgrown clothes, I had a simple revelation. This was a familiar craft. At the same time I was also at a loss to revise a novel, and as I took pictures of different configurations of quilt squares I remembered something I’d written about the main character early on, that he sees a pattern to everything. The novel is all about patterns, in fact – generations repeating lives, repeating mistakes, characters rethinking and reliving the past. The novel structure, I decided, had to enhance this as well as the eventual change in the patterns that begin to take place. Like scrap cloth, I took the novel apart, evaluated, rearranged, rewrote, added on. So Milan Kundera once decided his novel should have the structure of a symphony, and I decide my novel should have the structure of … a baby quilt.
Maybe the lesson is that inspiration can be found in the strangest places if you’re paying attention … or that when you’re having trouble with one craft you should try another to find the solution … or even that Marguerite Duras was right to suggest that “everything is writing.”
* pictured above, my daughter displays the finished quilt