My First Quilt – Festival of Quilts 2017
As I type this I have no feeling in the tip of my left middle finger. I have decided to dub it ‘quilter’s finger’. It is the result of furiously stitching to finish my first quilt. As you may have already read (here), after years of visiting the Festival of Quilts at the Birmingham NEC with my aunts and pledging to have our projects finished for next year, this year I have finally gotten it together to enter. That does not, however, mean that my quilt is finished … yet.
I started ‘my first’ quilt over five years ago (if I am being honest, it may be more like six or seven…). It has been a long-term project, for sure. I have a vague recollection of catching a programme on TV about make do and mend, or possibly one of those Kirtsy Allsopp upcycling shows, and thinking, ‘yeah, I have a ton of scrap fabric, I could do that!’
This was also partly informed by my love of home textiles (I would seriously hibernate every year for a week or two at a time if it was socially acceptable). But they are always so expensive. So making my own quilt would serve as a way for me to have a unique piece, exactly as I wanted, for a fraction of the price.
Now I am sure anyone who sews will probably be snorting at the screen right now, ‘but fabric can be expensive, and there’s all of the other stuff you need.’ Well, here is where I am quite lucky – one, because I am a bit of an creative hoarder, and therefore will never throw out fabric or other materials in case they come in handy one day. And two, because I have two very talented aunts who both are avid stitchers. They have always been on hand to let me beg, steal, and borrow from their own vast sewing collections!
So in reality I could get started pretty quickly. The main fabrics in my quilt turned out to be two large off-cuts that had always been in my dressing up box as a kid. I have fond memories of draping myself in the swathes of cloth, layering on costume jewellery and pretending to be whatever ostentatious character took my fancy. Fortunately, these two large pieces of fabric were in complementary blues and white. Seeing as I am a big fan of blue, that was my colour palette set.
But what design to do? And what method? At this time I did not have my own sewing machine, so maybe hand-stitching was the way to go. But this, I knew, would be a mammoth task. ‘Start with something small’, or something to that effect, was the advice of my aunts. The thing is, I always feel that if I am going to do something, I might as well go for it and make the thing that I want, otherwise I will probably lose interest. Remember how I said I like to hibernate (at least pretend to anyway)? Well that means that I like my blankets big. That is, big enough to wrap myself in, twice. Have you ever heard wrapping yourself in a duvet described as a burrito? Well, it pretty much explains itself, and that is my goal for a good quilt. It has to be a decent enough size to make me into a successful blanket burrito!
So it was a go big, or go home type of deal. And, if I am honest, this could have easily turned into a project that got started but never finished (a bit like the cross stitch I promised my friend as a housewarming present, twelve months ago – sorry Sarah! Or the wooden coasters I spent ages getting my dad to help me slice with the power saw now languishing in the loft. Or the half finished bag from years back… you get the picture!).
But what I discovered was that I actually really enjoyed patchwork. I think it has something to do with the construction element of the process. You take some smaller pieces and arrange them into a larger whole. You can use subtle changes in colour and texture to create variation and nuance in the surface pattern. And above all, it was actually quite therapeutic.
I have clear memories of my blood pressure rising while doing coursework for my PGCE (that was a stressful year!) and picking up my patchwork and feeling that tension ebbing away with each stitch. I found that in times of stress I stitched more. Yes, in part it was an act of productive procrastination, but it also served another purpose too. The rhythmic process of stitching has become an essential way for me to relax. To lose myself in a project with no pressure to complete it – just stitching and creating for the sake of it.
At times I would go for long stretches without picking up my quilt. Other smaller projects snuck into the order of play and usurped it as a priority. But over the years I have always come back to it. What is so great about patchwork, especially in the early stages is how portable it is. In my many hours commuting to work or university on the train I could have a small bag of fabric to start working on.
As I said, I stitched my quilt, all 245cm x 212cm of it, by hand. I used the papers method to create the traditional log cabin design, with a little bit of freestyle patchwork in the middle strip. Once this patchwork phase was finished, I then had to start quilting – something I had never done before. This was probably the most frustrating stage because the work could now only be worked on at home (but any excuse for a Netlfix binge, right?).
But the time came that I needed to get this project finished. And the impetus to do this was entering it into the Festival of Quilts. My first entry, it has been entered into the ‘My First Quilt’ category. While it will be great to see it displayed with all the other work at this year’s event, what I am most looking forward to are those chilly winter nights this year where I can ‘burrito’ in front of the TV.
But ‘My First Quilt’ is the perfect category for this work. Because it is a working history of my learning process. When I look at it I can see the early blocks that I created – the tiny stitches that I worked so intensely. As I relaxed into the work, my stitching took on a more even and measured rhythm. Is this a perfect quilt? Do I expect to place in the competition? No, not at all. But that was never the point for me. It was firstly about creating something for myself; a piece that I will use for years to come.
Yet, it has also turned into something more. Yes, I did stitch before – I have repaired clothes, done some cross stitch, and made a few bags – but nothing to this extent. But now I have the bug. I already have a quilt in progress all of the scrap strips from this design, and another where I am trying to push the paper piecing patchwork to see how complex the design can get. So yes, this will always be my first quilt, but it has certainly ensured that it won’t be my last.
You can see my quilt for yourself at this year’s Festival of Quilts, Birmingham NEC, 10th-13th August.