Stories and Storytelling – There’s a Quill in Quilting.

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There are many ways to tell a story but as a writer, I prefer words. Photographers, painters, and sculptors tell a story with their work by artistically expressing whatever they are seeing, feeling, thinking about, or wanting to share.

Interpreted by the beholder there may be more ambiguity than if the story told in words. However,   freedom of expression, in an artistic way by whatever medium, creates a narrative.

Poetry and prose may have diverse interpretations too, especially in English. Obscurity, double entendres, irony, and satire, can have readers and listeners scratching their heads and debating meaning.

Another way to have artistic expression and tell a story is craft. Craft takes many forms. In my Facebook newsfeed, I discovered a Scottish artist making political statements and commenting on the human condition through book sculptures.

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The words read: “Nothing beats a nice cup of tea (or coffee) and a really good BOOK.”

The artist’s story plus the story of the sculptures are in a book available at Book DepositoryThese powerful visual stories began several years ago when an anonymous artist despaired at talk of the death of the book and public libraries!

“One day in March 2011 staff at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh noticed a wonderful paper sculpture left on a table. Carved from paper and mounted on a book, it bore a tag expressing support for the Library’s work. From then until November 2011 nine more mysterious paper sculptures appeared in arts venues throughout Edinburgh, including the National Library of Scotland, the Filmhouse cinema, the National Museum of Scotland and the Scottish Storytelling Centre.”

I’ve written about Yarn (Bombing) Art and local groups Urban Yarn Art and their creation of a Storybook Yarn Art Trail using knitting as an expression of artistry and storytelling skills. This year community house Longbeach Place prepares to turn their garden into a delightful place to retell stories of elves and fairies. When I was teaching this week the props were being prepared:

As mentioned in my last post, my older sister stayed with me this week and as usual she brought her current quilting project. I’ve written before about the wonderful stories found in quilts. Today quilts are pieces of art with quilting a popular craft. However, in earlier times, quilts kept people warm, were used for bedding, or hung as a screen or protection against intruders when communal living was the norm. The majority of people too poor to buy blankets made their own.  If you wanted warmth, the women in your family, made a quilt from old clothing and scraps of cloth.

Cate is a dedicated and talented quilter and I’ve written about her ANZAC block, which is now on an international tour – one of many exhibitions commemorating the centenary of WW1. Cate told the story of my Father’s cousin George who died on active service and is buried in Egypt. The other quilters honoured relatives too, illustrating that quilting, like writing serves to record our stories and keep memories alive.

In the past and in some cultures today, special quilts are made for newborn babies, for aged or sick family members and for those dying or dead. Quilts provide warmth and comfort – physically and emotionally – gifts on special occasions like weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and to emigrants or travellers as reminders of home. The quilts made by African slaves in America were believed to contain secret messages – the patterns providing information and direction to the ‘underground railway’ and  freedom.

My mother made a quilt for our journey to Australia using scraps of material from clothes we’d outgrown or earmarked for the ragbag. If I close my eyes, I see Mum, Cate and myself sitting by the fireside hand sewing the quilt. (My stitches easy to pick, more like tacking!) When I look at or touch the material, I remember the item of clothing and a story is triggered. Historically, traditional quilts were made by hand. The quilt from Scotland in need of repair, not surprising after half a century (and my poor sewing skills), but the emotion it cradles timeless.

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On the night my mother died, the palliative care nurse suggested we put on the bed the beautiful quilt Cate had made  Mum. (I can picture Mum now sitting in her armchair with the quilt over her legs.) The lovely colours and patterns softened the harshness of the white hospital bedclothes, made the clinical environment more homely. That quilt forever entwined with Mum’s life and legacy and the love between her and Cate.

Quilts painstakingly hand sewed in various patterns and styles gave talented women an outlet for their imagination to make intricate patterns and tell stories about family or community through the materials and styles used. There are great quilts, many in America where quilters are a huge community. Immigrants contribute their traditional patterns and skills: the Japanese and Chinese expertise with silk fabrics, the European links with embroidery and design.

Quilts are an important part of our heritage. It’s not surprising that Cate’s latest project involving the making of an international quilt is dominated by American quilters because of the popularity of quilting in the United States.

My sister joined a Facebook page where quilters swap quilt blocks. When I googled hexagon quilting on Facebook it returned  396,000 results in 0.44 seconds!  Cate is in one of three groups that limit membership to a manageable 300. You must apply to join the closed or secret groups and currently the one she is in has 105 members. They make hexagon blocks or hexis to insiders.

They aim to make an international quilt – you make a quilt block and post it to others in the group and they return the favour. This block swapping will result in everyone having enough blocks to make a quilt to use, to hang, to frame, to gift or to enter in exhibitions. In a folder you can choose preferences – some people prefer floral material with pansies, others nominate a particular colour, Cate’s criteria: ‘I’ve never met a hexi I didn’t like!’

She showed me the blocks received already and the ones she will post in return:

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There are parallels between quilting and writing. Quilters and writers both express themselves depending on different perspective, viewpoint, life experience and emotion. They work alone or collaborate as imagination dictates to produce an artistic unique artefact.

  1. From a central idea, a design or pattern for the quilt and a theme or keyword or character for a story – the project begins.
  2. Quilters and writers begin brainstorming. For quilters its shapes, colours, fabrics to use and whether to do appliqué or patchwork. For writers, it’s outlining, collating research and piecing ideas together for a story, the characters’ traits. There is an initial prompt, trigger, idea, burst of enthusiasm, desire to create, a vision of the future.
  3. Organising begins of the blocks whether material or words: what is the desired impact on the viewer or reader, the layout and setting, the personality or substance of material or character, is the desired effect mystery, humour, traditional or innovative, past or present tense, will it engage emotions, be memorable, be valued…
  4. The quilter collects and coordinates fabrics and templates and starts to stitch towards the overall effect. The writer develops the outline and works out the characters and their journey. Always the possibility of change and rearranging.
  5. There will be cutting, trimming, swapping of blocks – cutting and pasting, editing of words.
  6. Layers are organised and final stitching brings the quilt together. Writers move from rough draft to corrections to final edit. A finished quilt, a completed story, both a journey and a gift to the receiver and the creator.

Memorial quilts commemorate lives, increase awareness of a particular event and even raise money for a special cause. Cate’s ANZAC block similar to my poem for the Calais refugees.

Cate's entry
Cate’s entry

Quilting and writing both have a long and unique history. The powerful symbolism of quilt patterns and the power of words to record stories show humanity has more in common than what separates us.

Check your linen cupboard or perhaps your bed and think of the stories that quilt is telling and pick up your pen and write because as this quote doing the rounds of Facebook suggests stories do indeed bring us together and make the world a better place.

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