Calling All Quilters
I did not come from a quilting family. We aren't crafty people at all, in fact. It's sad. So most of my exposure to the world of quilting came through my study of American history, and especially Black history, in graduate school. When you are searching for the contributions and voices of women in historical movements -- and I often was because my PhD minor was women's history -- you often find them doing politics on the sly, while they do something domestic. Like those quilting circles in the American Revolution. Or the quilting of resistance maps by enslaved women, to show runners how to plan their escape and/or find support networks. Those who recorded history, by and large, didn't stay home to sew. But women hatched plots and shared secrets and used their cultural marginalization as a weapon. Women are crafty that way.
When I began to plot out my plot, my mind turned immediately to quilts. I had to do new research, of course, in order to hone the broad outlines of my historical awareness into a detailed narrative form. The main challenge for me was not the history of quilting, but the craft and culture of quilting. On this, I was fortunate to have a helpful quilter in my own life -- her name is Jean. She made and gifted both of my daughters beautiful quilts when they were born. She was generous enough to answer my very basic questions for this novel. For instance, here's a bit of her answer to me, after I asked how someone might repair a tattered section, for reasons I obviously cannot disclose so don't ask me!
It most likely wouldn’t be done on the treadle machine but would be done by hand. How big of a section? Could the removed sectioned be reused? If so, it would only have to be partially removed and the rest would be stitched back in place with tiny appliqué stitches. Perhaps the [redacted] needs to be encased in fabric (or light flannel...was that used then?) Less paper crackle that way??
Fun fact, by the way: I also went to garage sales, which I hate, to look for a treadle machine from this period, 1900-1910. Not only did I find one in my neighborhood, but I bought it for 10 dollars and lugged it home, where it sits today. Reading up on historical sewing machines and typewriters was a whole job. So much research goes into a novel, it's rather astounding. Now that I have written one, I read novels differently, thinking of individual scenes in terms of what the author had to learn before writing them -- the quality of the waves in the north Atlantic, or the engravings on a church door in France, or how short adults were in the 1600's (and why Tina Fey calls her children "colonial people").
Anyway, I was revising the quilt stuff recently, based upon other editorial insights from my friend -- hey, Rebecca -- who came from a quilting family. Before I tell you about her very useful feedback, here's a quotation from a scene I wrote in which Jesamyn, the main adult protagonist, is allowing herself to give in to some burning curiosity about their family heirloom.
It is a peculiar truth about ancestral keepsakes that they can exist for years, visible yet totally unseen. In part, that is because children and adults don’t look at treasured artifacts the same way. Nor for the same reasons. By the time children grow into their adult eyes, the elders who might have explained their unique perspectives have passed. For Jesamyn, this generational divide was compounded by the fact that Granny Rayna’s precious quilt emerged during the Civil War, a chaotic time that was further convoluted by their uprooted lives and imposed family secrecy. Jesamyn treated this object with utmost respect and tenderness, despite the fact that removing it from the closet at all – where it might become lost or simply forgotten -- probably ran counter to her late grandmother’s wishes.
Rebecca essentially challenged the idea that a quilt would be preserved, hidden away, and not used. Quilts were artifacts, she said, but they were also used all the time, used to decorate, and needed for warmth. And I've been pondering this information because it does affect how I rewrite this scene, rather substantially. It's totally doable. But before I go ahead, I would really love to hear input from other quilters or quilt inheritors, or quilt adjacent folks of any kind. Is it inconceivable that this character might never have looked closely at her grandmother's quilt? Is it inconceivable that her grandmother, a formerly enslaved woman, might have preserved it for (let's just say, ahem) political reasons? Do Black families have a different experience with this, in any respect? Drop me a comment, crafty people!