Real Life Stories

How Quilting Is Getting Me Through The Pandemic

Quilting connected me to my great-grandmother—and reminded me that this moment, too, shall pass.

The author holds her pandemic quilt, a large mix of denim and fabric

The author with her Lone Star quilt. (Photo: Carmen Cheung)

As a child, I lived in a world of blankets. I splayed out under droopy living room forts to watch Star Trek on Sunday nights and cocooned with books under layers of loft when I was home sick, which was often. Blankets were capes, costumes and cherished companions.

My favourites were my great-grandmother’s quilts. Each was a fascinating mix of colours, patterns and textures—a code to be studied and cracked. I played with them often; they held on through years of a child’s hard handling and were a constant comfort. When I left home, I chose my travelling companions carefully, and the quilts made a series of drafty, mouldy student apartments feel like home. Each kept me connected to those precious childhood feelings of safety and possibility.

While my great-grandmother was a prolific quilter, the craft was not passed down. My grandmother knitted, as does my aunt. My mother is a terrific seamstress. My great-grandmother had 13 children and 43 grandchildren, and there’s not a quilter among them.

As much as I loved the soft history her quilts represented, I never wanted to make my own, either. Sewing and I, we didn’t mesh. It was too exacting, too repetitive, too confining, too traditional, too difficult, too. . .boring, frankly. Not the qualities I was looking for in a hobby.

But during a hard winter five years ago, I was feeling untethered and went looking for something to hold on to. I thought about the things in my life I valued most, that brought me the most joy. The quilts, of course.

The writer's fourth project, a Tiny Tile quilt. Pattern by Purl Soho.

The writer’s fourth project, a Tiny Tile quilt. Pattern by Purl Soho. (Photo: Carmen Cheung)

Two weeks later, I walked into a beginner’s quilting class at the Workroom in Toronto with a bag of supplies and a complete lack of confidence. I figured even if it went terribly, at least I’d have something to show for my time. I walked out four weeks later with a finished green-and-orange-striped Amish Bars quilt—green for the earth, orange for the light at magic hour—and a new obsession.

Since that first quilt, which was for my niece, Katie, I’ve made more than a dozen others. They mark the most human of moments. New babies. My paternal grandmother’s difficult move, at 95, into a nursing home. The anniversary of a beloved cottage. The end of my godmother’s chemo treatments. Many have been basted—the process of pinning (or stitching) the top, batting and backing together so you can quilt, or sew, through all three layers—at my mom’s and aunts’ kitchen table, while listening to stories about my great-grandmother’s life.

My inspiration comes from different places: an eye-catching pattern, a juicy colour palette, a story to be sewn into life, a feeling. I am what I think they call a “modern” quilter: I’m more interested in experimenting with new combinations of shapes and colours than in recreating traditional patterns. While my skills and confidence have improved over time, I still have a lot to learn. Colour theory is what I struggle with: Finding the fabric combinations that will give me the effect I want is my biggest challenge.

A pin-basted Pinwheel quilt for a friend’s new baby. Basting is the process of pinning (or stitching) the top, batting and backing together so you can quilt, or sew, through all three layers.

A pin-basted Pinwheel quilt for a friend’s new baby. Basting is the process of pinning (or stitching) the top, batting and backing together so you can quilt, or sew, through all three layers. (Photo: Christina Palassio)

Some quilters make sketches or digital models. I go by eye and feeling. I’ll walk into the fabric store with a general idea and spend hours making iterative fabric choices that I hope aren’t leading me down the wrong path. Maybe I should plan more. But quilting is such a controlled act—I like to leave some elements to chance. It doesn’t always work out, but it’s a wonderful feeling to work for months on a project and still be surprised by the end result.

Let me say: I’m shocked I’m the one who’s continuing this family tradition. I never thought I’d spend entire days hunched over a sewing machine piecing strips of fabric together. (Thank God for podcasts!) But I love it. I love quilting because it sits at the intersection of creativity, comfort and possibility. I love how the kaleidoscopic combinations of colours and textures trigger a festival of fireworks in my brain.

As I build my skills, I’m also learning about different quilting traditions. I’ve developed a particular admiration and respect for the works of African-American women quilters of this century, including the Gee’s Bend quilt makers of Alabama. Another is Rosie Lee Tompkins, whose body of work comprises dozens of striking improvisational quilts that mash up historical and cultural narratives into unforgettable visual and textural landscapes. In her quilts, American flags are sandwiched between Mexican fabrics and tapestries of Jesus. The more I quilt, the more I become fascinated with the idea of quilting as an act of cultural reclamation and narrative building.

Last January, I started my biggest project: a seven-foot-square Lone Star quilt, a traditional pattern that I’d been curious to try for years. I chose a mix of cotton and denim, to give it some weight, and quickly realized that the thickness of the fabric and the size of the quilt meant that it would be nearly impossible to quilt on my home sewing machine. So I decided to hand-quilt it—to sew the layers together by hand. It was my first try at hand-quilting, and I figured it’d take me the whole year.

Let’s call it a prescient decision. As the pandemic panic set in, I found both focus and distraction in the quilt. It was on my lap during those terrifying early days, a comforting constant in a moment of chaos. It was there during the Zoom-hangout frenzy, and stayed there through the Zoom-burnout silence. The project provided more than comfort, keeping my hands busy so I couldn’t doomscroll my nights away. And while it was time-consuming, it was never tedious. The repetitive motion of coaxing needle through cloth is soothing, meditative. Each slow stitch strives to be identical to the last, but each is always slightly different, a march of small gestures that accrete to form a very human whole.

The author’s great- grandmother Rose  Devost made quilts from found fabrics and sold them for $15 each to cover her winter heating bills.

The author’s great-grandmother Rose Devost made quilts from found fabrics and sold them for $15 each to cover her
winter heating bills. (Photo: Carmen Cheung)

Having a project to advance while the world was stalled helped me stay sane. It also stitched me closer to my heritage, and my faraway family. My great-grandmother Rose Devost was a Brayonne woman who lived on a farm in Sainte-Anne-de-Madawaska, New Brunswick. (The Brayon people are a subgroup of Acadians; many live in the sliver of New Brunswick between Quebec and Maine.) Rose made quilts from old shirts, flour sacks and other reclaimed materials, and sold them for $15 each to cover her winter heating bills. She loved quilting and made a name for herself, her home becoming a destination for buyers in the area. She would have been 24 when the 1918 flu pandemic spread in North America. Had she started quilting by then? Probably not—she already had four children and a husband to feed and clothe. Was she afraid? I wonder. It was reassuring, as we grasp our own way through a terrifying time, to feel closer to her through the movement of a needle, through the warp and weft of time—to be reminded that this moment will inevitably give way to another, hopefully better, moment.

I finished my pandemic quilt in October, 10 months after I started it, and brought it to my mom’s house to show her and my aunts. (It was a perfect physical distancing marker.) I am so happy with it. It’s draped over the sofa, where it brings colour and joy to the long days I spend in my tiny living space. I miss being able to work on it every night; I miss the act of bringing it to life. But, looking at it over my computer screen, it helps me focus on hopeful thoughts and propels me to the next bright, human project.

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