Claudia Myers column: How I finally became a quilter
I didn’t know anything about quilts except I had heard some women talking about having made quilts as teenagers and entering them into the State Fair.
In 1991, I was thinking about retiring from my career in costume designing. The idea of getting out of the wild and stressful world of dress rehearsals and singers who couldn't find their pants, but were supposed to be out on stage — Right now! — seemed very appealing.
My husband, Tom, and I had just built our dream log house on 20 acres of woods north of Duluth and we had plans to hunker down by the fire and read for the rest of our lives.
However, my friend, Jan, had other ideas. She was convinced that I should become a quilter. Whaaaat? Was she crazy? I wasn't interested in those calico log cabins. I had drapes to make, and trails to cut and a garden to plan.
My friend knows how to get around me. She invited me to a quilt show to meet her visiting cousin from Oregon and I really didn’t feel I could say “no." I didn’t know anything about quilts except I had heard some women talking about having made quilts as teenagers and entering them into the State Fair. A couple said their grandmothers taught them hand piecing when they were 5. I had none of that.
As far as I knew, none of my ancestors had touched patchwork, confining their sewing activities to clothing, and yes, drapes. So, when I walked into the show and saw my first actual "show" quilt, I was surprised. I was stunned. This wasn't what I expected. This was an amazing piece of artwork. Nobody told me quilts could be like that.
I left the show with my basic rotary rulers in one hand and a book of art quilts in the other. I had no idea how to merge the two, but I've never looked back. And I've never been sorry. I went home and made my first quilt. It was really awful. Truly. Beyond “unfortunate."
In talking to other quilters, I have found that most of us started sewing when we were 6-8 years old, and we started with clothes for our dolls. Those little bits of clothing had teeny weeny seams, but we also had teeny weeny fingers. Most of us moved on to making real clothes, which required great poise and bravery to wear out in public: "Why yes, I made this mismatched plaid skirt that keeps riding up around my butt. Why do you ask?"
After clothing our entire families in mismatched plaid, some of us (me in particular) veered off to making costumes, first for our children, then for local theater productions, and then for professional costume houses, who would rent your pieces out until they were rags.
Obviously, people of different height, weight, girth, bust size, neck size and inseam length would be wearing these costumes that you had just made, so they had to be adjustable and made with large seams so they could be let out or taken in, or put up or taken down. When I say "large," I'm talking a 2.5- to 3-inch seam allowance instead of the normal 5/8 inch.
So, what does this have to do with my first quilt, you say? Well, when I scurried home after the quilt show, determined to start my first quilt the next day. I hadn’t a clue about quarter-inch seams, which are one of the quilt police rules in quiltmaking. Mine were four times that wide. I wasn’t making a quilt; I was making a shelter for the homeless.
I knew what colors I wanted to use, and I didn't have any of those. So, off I went shopping at Minnesota Fabrics, where I always shopped for costume fabric. I was thinking burgundy, navy and off-white. I found a navy cotton with a white polka dot; that was a good start. The burgundy was more difficult.
I could only find the shade I wanted in rayon, but, hey, the color was perfect! The off-white was even harder, but there was a really nice upholstery fabric on the sale table that worked pretty well and had some texture to it. Plus, I knew that at home, I had an ivory silk Japanese kimono with a small burgundy and navy print on it that I'd bought for a costume. I could take that apart.
Did someone tell me quilts had to be 100% cotton? How boring is that? Did I wash any of it? Was I supposed to? My art quilt book didn't say so. Boy! the rayon wiggled a lot when I was trying to cut it into strips and the upholstery fabric sort of shredded, but I forged ahead, because I was going to become a quilter!
After a bit of time — OK, a large bit of time — I finished the top and folded it carefully and laid it out in the bay window in our bedroom, where it slowly faded from burgundy and navy to Pepto Bismol pink and mud. It was truly awful. Poor thing. I couldn't finish it; I didn't know how to do the quilting.
To make matters worse, when we were moving back to town, this quilt disappeared. Packed up, misplaced, was kidnapped — I don’t know. Personally, I think it ran away from home. And I don’t blame it one little bit. Poor, poor thing.
Next time: To show or not to show.
Claudia Myers is a former costume designer for The Baltimore Opera, Minnesota Ballet and has taught design and construction at the College of St. Scholastica. She is a national award-winning quilter, author and a local antique dealer, specializing in Persian rugs.