So… I’m not really sure how it came to this, but… I made a quilt.
It’s a bit strange because it seems that from the time I’ve gotten a sewing machine up to now, I’ve done a lot of things I wasn’t planning on doing with it. When I first got a sewing machine I thought I’d just be sewing costumes, because I didn’t see much use in spending time sewing practical things I could buy for much less cost and effort. Of course, life happened and I sort of fell away from costume sewing and focused more on garment sewing. But even though that path was somewhat tangential, one thing was certain: I was never going to make a quilt. Granted, all of my older sewing friends assured me that, yes, I would definitely fall to quilting at some point but I remained defiant. I had no interest in sewing many many straight lines in basic quilting cottons. I decried it as boring, and in my youthful ignorance I classified it as an “old people thing.”
Of course, my feelings towards quilting have actually changed quite a bit over the past few years. Partially due to the fact that in the early days of podcasting there weren’t a lot of sewing based podcasts, so I would listen to any sewing related materials I could find. One of my favorites was the Crafty Planner Podcast (no longer in production) because the host interviewed all sorts of makers (both garment sewists and quilters) and had really insightful conversations about the state of the crafting/quilting/making communities her guests engaged in. I gained an appreciation for the intellectual intentionality of quilting that only grew when I visited the quilting museum in Lincoln, Nebraska. It really gave me a sense of how to appreciate the global, historical, and artistic aspects of quilting in a way I hadn’t before, and it definitely raised the practice of quilting well beyond the low estimation I’d gained for quilters from certain other encounters.
Anyway, fast forward to my reading of the Marie Kondo books and attempt at Konmari-ing my closet only to realize that I was holding onto a vast number of graphic t-shirts that I wasn’t wearing because they were too small/old/stained/etc. Of course a lot of these were things that I was loath to get rid of because, well, emotions. I have somewhat discussed this elsewhere on my blog, but one thing I was never really taught how to do was to be ok with getting rid of stuff. It’s a bit problematic, and I’m still trying to really work through how to deal with this, but suffice to say I wasn’t sure how to deal with a bunch of shirts I was never going to wear again but also wasn’t ready to toss in the bin until I found out about the concept of t-shirt quilts. This seemed like a great way to both preserve the memories imbued in the graphics of these shirt designs while also teaching myself a new sewing skill and testing the waters to see if I was, in fact, going to become a hard-core quilter as had been predicted oh so many years prior.
Of course, life continued to happen and working on said quilt was a thing that I kept putting off because other things just seemed so much more important. Realistically it wasn’t on the radar for me to complete it this year either, but cue COVID. Being stuck at home, I delved into reorganizing my sewing space (blog post to come!), which made me realize just how much space these old shirts were taking up. I thought it was about time I just chop them up and get working on this project, so I did. I’ve honestly been working on this quilt in bits and spurts since about mid-May, but I’ve finally finished making my very own skating t-shirt quilt:
These shirts date from my very first regional competition in summer of 1999 (don’t let the giant 2000 fool you – it’s a lie!) through the end of summer competitions in 2007. While I was actively competing in skating for another decade beyond that (and arguably much more successfully as an adult skater than in my youth), these are the competitions that remind me of how I spend my teenage and young adult summers, and the years that I really fell in love with the sport.
Making this quilt was an interesting exercise. I followed a bunch of YouTube tutorials to learn the basics of t-shirt quilting, and used my general sewing know-how to kind of bluff my way through the rest. Cutting up the shirts wasn’t as dramatic as you’d think it might be – it was actually sort of cathartic to take something old and unusable and turn it into something new and intentional. I’d originally thought that working my way through the endless straight seams would have been tedious, but in a weird way it was sort of nice to have some rather mindless sewing to do while I sat and processed my thought about things going on in this country. Interestingly, the most emotionally challenging aspect of this quilt was not repurposing objects containing memories from my past, but rather it was confronting the red, white, and blue color scheme every time I sat down to sew. I chose these colors because they are the colors of the national logo, and thus coordinate with the majority of the designs on the shirts. But it also felt a bit like a giant explosion of USA-ness, which, honestly, I’m not that excited about promoting at the moment. Over the 4th of July weekend I couldn’t even bring myself to go into my sewing space because working on this felt like it would have been celebrating something that, frankly, just didn’t feel like it deserved to be celebrated this year.
My weird emotional funk certainly made the making of this quilt more of a chore than a labor of love. Along with with this I was observing a lot of costumers on Instagram feeling the need to post clarifications that the costumes they were wearing would have been worn by elite classes who in the past would have participated in enslavement or colonization to achieve their wealth and status, and this sort of led me down this long internal spiral of pondering how to properly address, well, anything I did at this point. Did everything I post or make have to acknowledge the inherent systems of racial and social injustice that led these things coming into existence in the first place? Do I need to acknowledge on every post that I’m using cheep t-shirts that were likely made using unfair labor practices, or acknowledge the history of cotton production, or delve into the history of printed cotton designs in particular? Does the fact that I’m trying to prevent a bunch of usable materials from entering landfills by cutting up unwearable shirts and using the designs for this quilt and the unprinted areas for mask linings have any sort of bearing on this endeavor? Or does the fact that I purchased a quilt backing cotton for this project hinder that noble intent? Is everything forever tainted by the histories that are implied through their creation? Or is there some way to exist in this maker space without constantly fretting that every action is actively doing more harm than good?
So, yes, I spiraled. Quite a bit in fact. But I was eventually able to get out of my personal funk by being inspired by other people in the sewing community posting about getting back to the sewing machine and encouraging others to do the same. Seeing Carolyn at Diary of Sewing Fanatic return to sewing after posting about her thoughts and personal history was definitely inspiring, as was following Costuming Drama on Instagram and YouTube, who has become quite vocal in correcting injustices in the world but is also constantly encouraging people to “just do the thing.” This past weekend she and a bunch of other “CosTubers” put together an online event they called “CoCoVid” which I think is a phenomenal resource for anyone who is interested in historical costuming in particular but also sewing in general. And it was also a nice reminder of why I even wanted to start sewing in the first place, and all the things I’d originally wanted to do when I first got a sewing machine but still haven’t. Who’d have thought I’d sew a quilt before I sewed a corset? Certainly not I. The CoCoVid panel on “Inclusion in the Costuming Community” was also particularly insightful, and really helped me come to terms with a lot of my internal quandaries. It really clarified that while I can acknowledge and respect the history of how and why certain things exist (and how that legacy continues today), it doesn’t have to nor is necessarily even helpful to have that be the central thesis of every single blog and Instagram post ever. Do we need to understand, acknowledge, and respect the history of these things? Absolutely. But is there room to participate in these hobbies in a joyful and inclusive way moving forward? This too is a definite yes.
CoCoVid also provided a nice backdrop to “just doing the thing” while I finished the binding on this quilt. The fact that I actually “did the thing” to completion is in itself not exactly a small feat. Creating the quilt top wasn’t terribly strenuous; even at full size stitching the long quarter in seams wasn’t overly taxing for me or my machine. Actually quilting the thing though… not that was a physical feat that my quarantined body could barely manage. What little arm strength I had has dissipated completely over the past few months, yet I somehow wrassled the weight of this thing under the needle (or should I say needles… since it took me 4 tries to find a needle type that didn’t totally shred the thread during the quilting process). I about gave up after quilting two squares, but I somehow found the tenacity to persevere. Of course, after crazy loopy no-pattern free motion quilting the thing, I wanted to be as lazy a sewist as possible, so I went for a machine-bound quilt binding (which I also learned how to do on YouTube). Sadly I left too much fluff at the edges after truing the quilt (I left 3/8″ batting sticking out the edge based on the majority of recommendations from the YouTubes). It caused a lot of the batting to wrap around and stick out from under the back of the binding, which I really wasn’t happy with. So, ultimately, rather than ripping it all off and stitching it all down again (I unpicked about 2cm of binding stitches before I was over it), I ended up trimming the fluff and hand-stitching the back of the binding on the quilt anyway. So much for lazy. I’m sure there is a life lesson in there somewhere but I’m not going to dig around to find it. Ah, well. Anyway, this giant fluff-up at least gave me an excuse to try out my fancy new leather thimble, which has totally blown my mind and changed my life forever. This experience has also totally changed my opinion on thimbles and I am now hardcore #teamthimble.
So, anyway, I’ve done the thing and made the thing and now I have a thing. Or, rather, my mom has a thing because really this was intended as a surprise gift for her and the second she saw it she was like, “it’s mine, right?” It’s ended up being a twin-sized quilt and I can only say thank goodness I came to my senses before trying to make it full sized. When I started this project I’d also pondered working on another t-shirt quilt from some of my college era shirts, but I think this other quilting project may have to wait for a while. I’m not going to say I wouldn’t quilt again, but I’m definitely going to say that this experience has really taught me that deep down I’m just not a quilter. I don’t love the quilting process. I did it, and I learned things, and I still have a lot of appreciation for quilters and the works of art that quilts can be, but the reality is that this quilt is most certainly not that. And while I’m sure a real quilter would find many (many) issues with the craftsmanship of my quilting endeavors, I just don’t have the same interest in learning all the quilting techniques and making all the quilts in the same way I want to learn all the garment construction techniques and make all the clothes. Funnily enough, quilting may have re-ignited my desire to go back to costume sewing, because really, who needs practical clothes in the middle of a pandemic anyway? The utter struggle that was actually quilting this thing also gave me a healthy dose of reality and taught me why real quilters send out their quilt tops to someone with a long-arm who won’t have to fight the forces of gravity and friction while on the free-motion struggle bus that was my experience the past month.
So I’ve definitely learned some things to think about for “next time” (if there is a next time), and I’ve also gained some new skills. Quilting might not be my favorite pastime, but I think this has been a good project to work on the past few months because it has given me the backdrop and headspace to think about all of the other things going on in the world. It’s the sewing project I think I needed as bridge between the aspirations of early pandemic quarantine and the realities of mid-pandemic quarantine. So while I don’t think I’ll focus on quilting moving forward, I can appreciate what making this quilt has done for me in the interim. It has given me the time and ability to go through the act of making, and to think about why I want to do certain things moving forward, and to confront some of the realities of doing so. I can’t say it’s fully helped me get over my COVID quarantine funk (honestly, I’m still trying to convince myself why I need to bother making pants if I have nowhere to wear them), but it has allowed me to work through a few important things without which I don’t think I would be wanting to sew at all moving forward. So while I don’t want to say the sewjo is back in full swing, it’s also not entirely missing either. I might be going through something of an exploratory period of deciding what exactly I want to be making in the near future, but one thing is for certain – it won’t be another quilt.