The Fabric of Our Lives
Long gone are the days when quilting was relegated to little old ladies. Today it’s a billion-dollar industry with talented women of all ages creating vibrant, cutting-edge work. Many of them attended the world’s largest annual quilting convention, in Houston, so I tagged along with one of the art form’s biggest stars: my mom.
Quiltmaker Jane Hall—author of The Experts’ Guide to Foundation Piecing, teacher of classes such as Pineapples Plus and Log Cabins Revisited, and the woman from whose womb I emerged fifty years ago—stood in front of her quilt Galaxy and had her picture taken while a steady stream of women walked past, eyeing her and the sharp blue points of the dozen mariner’s compasses floating behind her. She was tired after spending the whole day teaching at the International Quilt Festival in Houston. Plus, her knee was killing her.
A woman approached. “Are you the artist?” she asked.
“It’s just beautiful! Beautiful! How did you get the points so thin?”
“I used a foundation of freezer paper.” The mariner’s compass is a difficult pattern, and Mom was pleased to have the chance to teach a little more. It seemed to justify the fuss being made over her.
Another woman walked up. “You’re the Jane Hall of ‘pineapples’ fame!”
“Yes, I’m one of the Pineapple Queens,” my mother replied politely. “Both my writing partner and I have a quilt in the show.”
“Oh, very nice.”
My mother wore a blue-and-white-print jacket that matched the quilt. She is 75, with spiky gray hair, and looks like a woman who spends most of her time working with her hands. Her fingers are twisted and her knuckles nubby from years of stitching, cutting, folding, and ripping. She is friendly with strangers; long ago she learned how to talk to just about anyone, a skill she developed as an Army wife. These days it serves her well. Fame for my mom came on the far side of middle age, after raising five children. When my dad, Colonel Robert Hall, retired and they moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, Mom found her calling.
She became a quilter. She didn’t just cut fabric and sew it together into pretty blankets. She took classes, learned design theory, taught classes herself, wrote books, became a judge, and traveled the country, lecturing and winning blue ribbons. Basically, she reinvented herself. She did all this after I had moved away from home, and I was oblivious to most of it. Truthfully, I didn’t take quilting—a bunch of little old ladies sitting around a table with needle and thread—very seriously. And so I didn’t take her very seriously either. As a mom? Yeah, of course. As an artist? Not so much.
Even now, as all these fans walked by, I tried to see her through their eyes. What I saw instead was what I’ve known forever—the same knock-knees I clutched as a toddler, the same Birkenstocks she’s worn since the Carter administration, the same reading glasses permanently perched on the end of her nose.
A stout woman with a cane walked up, looked approvingly at the commotion around my mom, and announced, “When, yesterday, the quilt convention made the front page of the Houston Chronicle, I knew it had arrived.” My weary mother nodded and smiled as the lady went on. “We women make an economic impact on the city. It’s one of the largest conventions in Houston. Women always get underrated. Our society thinks normal is male. But this is a different world.”
Well, she was sure right about that. We were standing on the floor of the George R. Brown Convention Center. Around us, upstairs, and all over this corner of downtown Houston swirled thousands of well-mannered women and a handful of men, crowding to buy stuff and take classes. The IQF is the largest annual quilt festival and trade show in the world, bringing in 54,000 fans and more than $18 million to the city. Quilting is no longer the stay-at-home old lady of American arts and crafts. Books, TV, and the Internet have made it a $3.3-billion-a-year business. There are some 27 million quilters in the country, though maybe 1 million of them are fanatics, the ones who spend hours a day with needle, thread, fabric, and sewing machine. They get together once or twice a month to quilt in bees, and they wander in packs on the floors of convention centers. Their average age: about 59. Their gender: definitely female. The statistics say that only 1 in 100 quilters is a man, though by the evidence at the IQF, I’d say it’s fewer than that.
In the old days, women made quilts for one place, the bed, and one reason, to keep their families warm. Traditional quilts were a fabric sandwich: the top (the pretty part), the middle (the batting, or the part that keeps you warm), and the back (the part that rubs up against your body). The top was usually made with strips or squares of fabric sewn or pieced together with great precision, sometimes in patterns and often in six- or eight-inch blocks; after sixty or seventy blocks were completed, they would be stitched together. The Amish made their quilts this way. The other main way of making tops was appliqué, in which the quilter sewed flowers or other designs onto a large top or background fabric. When the top was done, the quilter stitched all three layers together, by hand or sewing machine; this was the actual “quilting.” The quilter could sew a straight, utilitarian line or get as fancy as she wanted, with swirls or patterns.
In the early seventies, a couple of young artists got the idea of exhibiting some Amish quilts at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York. Soon people were thinking of their work as “art quilts”: ripping instead of cutting the fabric, creating new geometries, using strips of lace and candy wrappers and found objects, aping the splatter and pop of Pollock or the playful lines and circles of Kandinsky. Then came digital cameras and Photoshop. Quilters began calling themselves “textile artists,” and they worked alone in studios, not in bees.
Just around the corner from where my mom was having her picture taken, there were dozens of modern quilts that looked like paintings: a pensive Filipino masseuse, a young girl on a bed with her legs spread and her hand holding some kind of fork. There were also quilts done in the nineteenth century, minimalist masterpieces of color and design, made by women who never thought to sign them, who were simply taking care of their families. These are the kinds of quilts my mom likes the most. “Those women made art without knowing they were making it,” she says. Unlike her, they were anonymous. Like her, they had stumbled into something wonderful.
My mom is of industrious Scottish-English-Irish blood, born to discern goals and attain them, several at a time, if possible. She was the first of four children born to an outgoing, prankish New York country doctor and a dour, pragmatic nurse. She grew up in Oswego, New York, on Lake Ontario, graduated from Cornell University, and was contemplating law school when she met my father, married, and started a family. I came first, in 1957, then Sue, Betsy, Tom, and Jenny. My mom was never into sports or games, but she liked to do things with her hands, especially needlepoint. She sewed my dad’s Army patches and my Boy Scout merit badges onto our uniforms. She made dresses for my sisters, shirts for my brother and me. When my dad was stationed in Saigon in the bloody year of 1968, she kept herself busy needlepointing a vase full of colorful flowers. At four hundred stitches per square inch, it kept her mind off the Tet offensive.
When we lived in Hawaii, from 1969 to 1972, she became obsessed with a Hawaiian quilt she saw at a museum and was determined to make one herself. She knew how to sew. How hard could quilting be? At the time, quilting was a dying art form, the province of the aged. There were no how-to books, but she found a home-extension course she could take at the Army post, taught by a Hawaiian woman, and she bought a pattern on the beach at Waikiki. Hawaiian quilts involve folding a large piece of cloth into eighths and then cutting it, resulting in a giant snowflake, which is then appliquéd to a large top. Hers was seven feet wide, with dozens of flowers and leaves, each of which had to be sewn onto the cream-colored background.
It took a year to make the top, and by that time we had moved back to Texas, to Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio. Mom joined a fiber arts group of weavers, stitchers, and macramé artists. “Quilters were looked down on because we used patterns,” she told me. She took classes at the Yarn Barn and would pick up the unfinished quilt, work on it, and put it down again. The bicentennial brought a resurgence in Americana, including quilting, and soon specialty shops were opening in Texas, stores where she could buy fabric and patterns.
My mother remembers when she finally began the actual quilting of her Hawaiian project: the day Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as president, in January 1977. To Mom, the lifelong Democrat, this was a grand moment, and she sat in front of the TV and stitched as Jimmy and Rosalynn walked down Pennsylvania Avenue. The quilt was hard work, and at one point, Mom ripped out a three-foot square in the center because the stitches weren’t right. She finished it six months later, just in time to enter the Houston Quilt Show. “I drove over from San Antonio with a carload of women,” she told me. “We walked in, and there was a best of show ribbon on it.” By this time I was enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, learning about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I was only eighty miles away from San Antonio, but it might as well have been a million.
My parents moved to Nassau Bay, south of Houston, and Mom taught basic quilting classes at a recreation center. She took classes too, on design theory and art, and began piecing, both by hand and machine. In 1979 the family moved to Raleigh, and she started taking quilting even more seriously. Within a year, she turned the basement into her quilting room, and she would spend all morning and early afternoon working, until my two youngest siblings came home from school. She had started collecting old quilts and blocks, some from the early nineteenth century, and she would pull them out, run her fingers over them, and get ideas. The quilting industry was expanding, with companies making more fabric and more tools, like the rotary cutter (a rolling blade, similar to a pizza slicer), and publishing more books. National organizations were forming, and so were other conventions; the Houston one morphed into the IQF, and Mom—with her teaching certificate from the National Quilting Association—started teaching there. Most of the classes were for beginners, using easy patterns like the log cabin (a simple square surrounded by increasingly longer strips), but then a group asked her for something more challenging, and she showed them a variation called the pineapple. “A pineapple is a log cabin gone berserk,” my mom told me.
Back in Texas, I had other things on my mind. By 1986 I was touring with a rock group, and my bandmates and I would stay with my parents when we played in Raleigh or Chapel Hill. I had no idea what she was doing in her quilt room all day. Pineapples? I thought she was sewing pictures of fruit. Mom had always been about serving me and my siblings, and she was no different now, making my band dinner and buying us cases of Budweiser. I’d look at the quilt she was working on and say, “That’s great, Mom. When do we eat?”
In 1987 she and Dixie Haywood, a quilter from Pensacola, Florida, who also liked working with pineapples, began writing a book on the pattern. Two years later they published Perfect Pineapples, and Mom came to Austin to teach a workshop at a church and sell books. I drove her there, dropped her off, and went somewhere, probably to a rehearsal. At that moment, I was about as big a rock star as I was ever going to be, making albums and playing shows, after which, on a good night, I might sell a few records from the stage. When I returned three hours later, there was a line of middle-aged women standing along the walls of the classroom. I watched as Mom chatted with each of them, took their money, and autographed their books. She sold thirty copies that night at $20 apiece and walked out of the church with a wad of cash as big as a jelly roll. I was stunned. She was pleased, and not only because she could afford to buy more fabric. She knew she had made an impression on me. All I knew was that Mom was the rock star of the family.
She was getting teaching invitations from guilds and conventions all over the country, plus she was judging shows. She and Dixie started writing other books, all of which dealt with foundations, or sheets of paper used to stabilize the pieces of fabric being sewn together (when the block is done, you carefully pull out the paper). They started experimenting with new ways of foundation piecing. “I found my niche,” Mom told me. By this point, she and Dixie had become good friends. Indeed, Mom was making lasting friendships all over the country, something she had had a hard time doing when she was an itinerant Army wife. My dad seemed happy for her. She had been supportive of his career for so long, and now he returned the favor. Even better, when she retired to her quilting room, he had the whole house to himself.
Mom was getting deep satisfaction from being an artist and from being regarded as one. She was a traditionalist and used traditional piecing methods and patterns, like pineapples, but her sense of design and her use of color were, if I do say so now, stunning. Chroma VI: Nebula, with its brooding reds and blacks, looked like a Rothko. Hope looked like the sun seen from the bottom of a lake. The Ultimate Pineapple, which she did in 1997, won blue ribbons at every show she entered it in. Galaxy, the quilt with the twelve mariner’s compasses, won best of show at the 2003 North Carolina Quilt Symposium.
Like most quilters, she had been making quilts for her children and grandchildren, and I finally earned one when I got married, in 2000. It’s a dark masterpiece of red-and-gold concentric diamonds, each made from a dozen shades of red and gold cloth. She used a sewing machine to quilt parallel lines of straight stitches into the red, and she hand-stitched curves and swirls into the gold. It took three months to finish. She called it Austin Sunrise, a nod to the fact that her obtuse, self-involved eldest was finally marrying, at age 43, long after her other children. It’s been on the bed ever since.
When my mom is not on the road, she’s in her quilting room, a former garage, with several desks, a cutting table, a design wall where she can size up colors and fabric, a wall of thread, two tall shelves of books, two more of magazines, and others holding thousands of pieces of fabric, stacked by color and source, sometimes neatly, sometimes threatening to spill over onto the floor. The room itself looks like a crazy quilt. When Mom gets bored, she goes there and folds fabric. When she gets stressed out, she cuts it up and sews it together. “Something about the fabric,” she says. “It’s very tactile. It boosts your serotonin level or something. It’s a tranquilizing, soothing thing. It’s serenity-making.”
Mom took me around the convention center floor, where two thousand quilts hung. We went to the exhibit of Amish quilts, with their bright, simple designs. There was the Poos Collection of antique quilts: white backgrounds with austere appliquéd green vines and red flowers. Looking at them hanging on a wall, as if in a gallery, was different from seeing them draped on a bed or folded on a shelf. They had been elevated, and the colors leaped out from the white background, as if they were put there for art’s sake, not adornment’s. We stopped at a quilt that had either a photo or the name of all 3,600 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan through June 2007, and we saw others made for the children of soldiers still fighting, with pictures of their fathers on them. We walked through the Journal Quilt Project, a large area of the floor with hundreds of smaller quilts, most the size of notebook paper. They had the feel of free association—a lot of writing and photos, plenty of allegories of self-discovery, and plenty of naked self-absorption. “What Part of Me Will I Let You See?” asked one, portraying “the schism I often feel between how much of the real me I let the world see and who I truly am.” We walked past the Husband’s Lounge (half a dozen men inside were reading the paper and watching CNN) and through several exhibits of art quilts with dancing rectangles, singing pop stars, dreaming women. Words, swirls, clowns, slaves.
We walked past the 85 quilts that had won awards in this year’s contest, including one of Mom’s. Everywhere we went, someone congratulated her on her ribbon or her most recent book. Then that someone would inevitably say to me, “You must be Jane’s boy!” (The head of the IQF, Karey Bresenhan, had announced at the opening ceremony that a reporter from a Texas magazine, “who happens to be the son of our own Jane Hall,” would be following her around the festival.) Mom took me to her quilt Vinas Viejas, a green-and-purple minimalist homage to her and my dad’s love of the grape. It had a white third-place ribbon next to it. Dixie had won second, and though my Mom joked about it, I could tell it bugged her a little. Quilting may be full of well-mannered ladies, but they are competitive well-mannered ladies.
Some of the women were dressed as vividly as the quilts, wearing bright floral prints and solid colors. There was a lot of purple. I saw embroidered flowers, elephants, pumpkins, stars, and, of course, Elvis. Most women wore comfortable footwear for the constant walking. They would stand in front of quilts and sometimes stare for minutes. For a devotee, the true test of a quilt is not the top but the back—the size of the stitches, the creativity of the stitching, how the whole thing meshes with the design on the front. Many of the women would ask white-gloved volunteers to flip the quilt over. The convention center’s halogen lighting had been dimmed, and twelve-foot posts with incandescent lights had been installed, so everything felt close, warm, and well lit, like a gallery.
Mom took me by each of the seven top award winners, most of which were art quilts. The best of show, which won $10,000, was Hope for Our World, a striking scene by Hollis Chatelain with a purple Desmond Tutu surrounded by a group of purple children. Chatelain had painted the entire scene on fabric, but most of the color came from the hand-dyed threads she had machine quilted. The work had a crowd of twenty people in front of it, taking pictures, talking in hushed tones. Gloria Hansen’s Squared Illusions 6 hung nearby, an almost completely machine-made work of art (circles, stripes, and right angles), designed in Photoshop, printed by a color inkjet onto fabric, and machine quilted. I asked Mom if all of these newfangled techniques bothered her. “No,” she insisted, “it’s good art. I like it.” She accepts the artier work, as most in the quilting world now do. This wasn’t the case in 2004, when Chatelain won best of show for another painted quilt, Precious Water, leading to a lot of grumbling along the lines of “That’s a painting, not a quilt.” This year, when her award was announced, she got a standing ovation.
Mom does plenty of nontraditional things, with color mostly, and she’ll play around, up to a point. For example, she’s part of an art-quilt critique group, and a few years ago she quilted a humu humu nuku nuku apua’a, the state fish of Hawaii. “I put netting on it, used beads all over, like bubbles, had loose threads hanging off, did some of the freehand machine stitching that Hollis Chatelain does. I loved it. It was fun. I try to be open about a lot of the modern stuff, but I do what I like.”
Mom remembers a famous art quilter giving a lecture years ago. “He stood up and said, ‘Just because you put little hearts on your quilt, don’t think you’re an artist. You can’t be an artist until you’ve had the proper training.’ One quarter of the women got up and left.” The artist was arrogant, Mom says, and she was on the side of those who walked out. But she also knew that he had a point. Self-expression is not necessarily art, and neither is following the directions in a kit. Mom knows the difference between art and craft. “I’m not Van Gogh,” she said. “I’m working with patterns. I don’t know if it’s art, but it’s artful.” As much pleasure as she gets out of color and design, I think she gets more out of teaching, even if her students aren’t necessarily going to become Chatelains. “There’s an urge in everybody to make something beautiful,” she told me, “to do something creative. Maybe it’s been squelched since kindergarten, hidden under child-rearing or a job or life, and it just needs to be encouraged. I spend ninety percent of my time teaching ordinary people who are fretting whether the blue in the fabric will match the blue in the bird in their bedroom curtains. Usually their creativity blossoms, even if it’s very simplistic: doing something nice with color or just following a pattern. When you make a certain number of patterns, maybe you begin to fiddle with fabric or thread or design, and then maybe you break with tradition, go abstract. Quilting provides a way for ordinary people to do all this. It’s not necessarily art, but it’s very, very freeing.”
I watched her teach three classes and give a lecture, on Hawaiian quilts, pineapples, the mariner’s compass, and foundations. “There is no right way to do a quilt,” she had told me beforehand. “One of the joys of quilting is that you are in charge. Some ways are better than others, but it’s up to you. This appeals to women, who have had so many ‘shoulds’ and ‘ought tos’ their whole lives.” In the classes, each of which had 20 to 25 women, she cajoled, pushed, and praised. “Oh, guys,” she said to her Hawaiian-quilt students about the eighteen green, red, blue, and turquoise snowflakes laid out on the floor, “is this not wonderful?” In the class on the mariner’s compass, Mom held up a wedge of paper while she gave tips, and I watched the women hold theirs up too at arm’s length, squinting, eyebrows up in confusion, trying to visualize what my mom was talking about. I watched a sixty-year-old woman at the back of the class, with curly, faded brown-and-gray hair; her face and mannerisms, though, were those of a nervous first-grader. When Mom went around the room inspecting patterns and got back to her, she said, “Are you okay back here? You are! You paid attention!” The woman smiled with pure satisfaction.
Mom’s mantra was “Just remember, you’re in charge.” In her pineapple class, she walked around and asked each student, “What would you like to do next?” Some of the women were visibly nervous. “I’m totally confused,” cried a woman, panicking. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Yes, you do,” my mother answered. “I saw you do it.”
A fortysomething woman from League City had never sewn on a foundation before. “I can’t do it,” she cried melodramatically. “It’s too hard!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” my mom answered. “I told you, you can do it. You just have to mess around with it.”
I remember that tone. I remember fifth-grade math, which I was absolutely incapable of getting, and how my mom sat with me at the dinner table every night for a month, forcing me to do the exercises over and over until I finally understood it enough to pass the big test. “She’s good,” the totally confused woman said to me, loud enough for Mom to hear.
“I have five children,” my mom replied. “I have a lot of patience.”
Packs of women roamed the floor, some dressed alike in T-shirts printed with names like “Misfit Quilters.” I saw a group of six women wearing white sailor’s caps and yellow T-shirts with black bumblebees stenciled on the front. They were the Busy Bees quilting bee from Waterloo, Iowa, and they had saved up their money to come to Houston for the weekend, sleeping two to a bed in a hotel room. Almost every quilter I met was part of a local guild or bee, getting together once a week, month, or year to quilt and hang out, to “stitch and bitch.” One night I went out to dinner with my mom, her old friend Nancy Brenan Daniel, and four members of Mom’s Raleigh guild, all women in their forties and fifties, married with children. They get together twice a month. Members bring their own projects, something they can work on while they talk. “People bring quilts to show, for feedback,” Mary Corcoran, a former social worker, told me. “We do show-and-tell,” said Janice Pope, with a loud laugh. “We stop and listen, say ‘ooh’ and ‘aah.’” Janice, who works part-time in a quilt shop, said sometimes they rent a two-bedroom condo and have a bee. “Sew together, take walks together, eat together, encourage each other.”
Mary laughed. “We clap for each other. Mostly we talk about our families, children, grandchildren. When someone is going through something hard, we talk to her.”
Nancy said, “Quilting is a bonding situation. Even a fast quilt is really slow.”
“I don’t think husbands understand it,” said my mom.
“I don’t think men understand how important the group is to women,” replied Nancy.
“Women need other women,” my mom said. “They need to talk to each other.”
This is not news to me; men do too. I have a weekly poker game. I’m a terrible player. I lose more than half the time, but I don’t go for the cards. I go to be with friends, most of whom I’ve known for more than twenty years, to talk about our children and our jobs, to complain about the Astros and getting old and the new Wilco album. There’s not a lot of encouragement. Indeed, we clap only when someone loses a lot of money.
If a bee is like a weekly poker game, going to Houston is like going to Vegas. “We cemented our friendships in Houston,” Mary said (the Raleigh bee has been coming here for five years). There’s something about leaving your families behind and traveling to a giant festival full of people like you. One of the journal quilts pictured five women standing, their arms around one another, and the words “The joy of reuniting with my quilting friends in Houston.”
“Women come here and feel like they belong,” Karey Bresenhan told me. A fifth-generation Texas quilter, she has been running quilt festivals in Houston for more than thirty years. With a full shock of graying black hair and a rich East Texas accent, she’s become something of a matriarch to the quilting world, especially in Texas. “People understand the women here. People don’t think they’re weird because they fondle someone’s shirt. These women at the Quilt Festival understand when they need a new sewing machine, even though they already have three. They understand when they want more fabric, even though they have no business buying more.”
Ah, fabric: the addiction, the dirty little secret of quilting. Women come to Houston for the camaraderie and they come to see the winning quilts. But they also come for the fabric, dropping hundreds of dollars (at about $9 a yard) on cloth they can’t get at home. I asked the Busy Bees if they were going to buy fabric at the fest, and they all started laughing loudly, as if I’d asked if they were wearing underwear. “There’s this idea,” one of them said, “that you can’t buy more fabric until you do something with the fabric you already have—produce something.” This idea is universally ignored. At one point I was standing with my mom when a woman I work with named Marilyn Carter walked up with her mother. They had just come from the vendors’ booths, and my co-worker’s bags were full of cloth. She began whipping it out—cloth decorated with grackles, witches, and lipstick tubes. “I have no idea what I’m going to do with all this,” she said. “None.”
Almost every single woman walking up and down the aisles of the thousand-plus booths had a bag full of fabric—hand-dyed, shimmery, African, Thai, Japanese. But they weren’t just after the cloth. They cruised booths that sold frames, cordless electric scissors, beads, buttons, thimbles, stencils, bobbins, bobbin winders, bobbin drawers, books, magazines. You could buy a quilt-making kit with bass, baby bears, or Native American folk art (for example, a young Indian maiden sewing) or kits called My Vision of Miro or Krismas Kats. You could buy software programs to design patterns or $37,000 computerized long-arm machines that can stitch a whole quilt in a day. I walked past several computerized sewing machines that were stitching flowers all by themselves. There were also a number of antique-quilt vendors, and unlike on the other side of the convention center, here you could actually touch the quilts. My mom took me to a couple. “This is where my heart lies,” she said, running her hands over the top of an ancient white quilt with simple green, red, and orange flowers. “It was made by somebody doing what I teach today. Who was she? Where did she do this?” She turned it over and showed me a tight path of thread. “Who did these little stitches?”
After three days of walking back and forth through mobs of middle-class women, I did something I had been putting off since I’d arrived Thursday morning: I went to the Learn to Quilt booth. I was exhausted, mentally and physically, tired of hearing women tell me about the joy of quilting. The volunteer teacher, Dolores Rieger, helped me pick out a little kit with 4 three-inch squares, plus six-inch batting and backing. I chose a kit with two little yellow squares and two red ones decorated with sneakers. I threaded the needle and tied the knot—skills learned in the Boy Scouts—lined up a yellow and a red square, and started sewing. In and out, up and down. Dolores said to make the stitches as small as I could, and I did. Up and down, in and out.
Dolores, in her seventies, told me how both her grandmother and her husband’s great-grandmother had quilted; she had been doing it for ten years and had made ten quilts. There was a young family there, the Stevenses: Brian, Alesia, and their eight-year-old daughter, Bria. Alesia told me that she quilted some with her church group, and Bria liked doing anything with arts and crafts. Brian was there, he admitted, because of “the power of pillow talk.”
I finished piecing the first two squares, and Bria showed me a better way to do the next two, holding them together with a thin piece of tape, which also gave me a line to stitch along. When I was done with the top, Dolores showed me how to finger-press the seams down, as if I was ironing, and put the sandwich together. She gave me a choice of stencils to use to trace the design for the quilting: a heart or a star. I picked the heart, though as Bria told me, “You can actually put on any design you want.” I penciled the heart on the yellow fabric, and Bria showed me how to stitch, starting at the top, where the curves met. In and out, up and down. The downs were easy; on the ups I had to aim for the line, push the needle through, re-aim, push it through again. Sometimes the stitch was too big and I’d redo it; sometimes it was too big and I’d keep going. I talked with Bria about school. I talked with Brian about the L.A. Lakers. Up and down, in and out. I poked myself in the finger. I put on a thimble. Dolores invited Bria and her mom to her quilt group. Bria mocked my stitches. I poked myself in the finger again. I lost the needle. I found it stuck in my boot. “You have to be a patient person to do this,” I said aloud at one point.
By the time I was done, the Stevenses were gone, and Dolores was getting off duty. It had taken an hour and a half to produce a sad little orphan of a block with printed purple tennis shoes and two little hearts with pencil marks showing underneath them. Dolores inspected my quilting. “Those stitches are real good,” she said, “for a man.”
I didn’t realize until after I had left the convention center and sat down in a hotel bar how great I felt—the stress and fatigue were gone. I was completely relaxed and wide awake. I honestly didn’t care about my six-inch block. Was it art? Of course not. Was it a quilt? No. Was I one of the 27 million? I’m afraid so.
That night I went to the Silver Star Salute banquet and sat at a table with seven women—a pair of elderly twins from Minnesota and five women from Texas. Two were from Pottsboro, one from Denison, and two from Grand Prairie. In no time they were sharing war stories about the convention—fabric bought, appliqué techniques learned, cotton versus polyester batting (“Warm and Natural is best with a machine,” said one of the women from Pottsboro). Mary Lynn Cuevas, from Grand Prairie, sat to my immediate right. The best thing she’d bought, she said, was a gizmo to make yo-yos, little old-fashioned flower-like fabric circles. “I bought three from a Japanese woman who didn’t speak any English,” she told me. She then pointed out that one of the twins wore an exquisite hand-quilted yellow jacket with black piping and delicate puffy designs.
I told Mary Lynn that I had spent the past three days following my mother around, watching her teach and listening to her talk about quilts. I said how I’d never appreciated what she did until now. “My son laughs at me when I tell him I’m coming here,” she said. “He says, ‘What are you going to do all day—look at quilts?’” I told her I didn’t think that men really understood. When she asked if I thought that I got quilting now, I found myself reaching into my bag and pulling out my pathetic little red-and-yellow block. “It’s okay,” I assured her. “You can laugh.”
“No, no,” she insisted. “You did a real nice job. Your stitching is really good.” Yeah, I knew. For a man. More than anything, it seemed, Mary Lynn, like Dolores, was pleased that a man had entered a woman’s world and tried playing with their toys by their rules.
Two nights after returning home, I took my block to my weekly poker game. It was obvious what was coming; I longed for it. Six friends were sitting around the table shuffling decks and counting chips when I walked in. I opened a beer, sat down, and tossed my square on the felt. “Check it out,” I said. “I’m a quilter now.”
The host looked at my little piece of cloth. “That’s great,” he said. “Now cut the f—ing cards.” When I called my mom later and told her the story, she laughed and laughed. She’s been going back and forth between the two worlds for a long time. She knows how men are.