Sunday, July 3, 2016

Memory Quilts....a story

Most of what I've been doing for the past 18 months has been for publication, so I haven't been able to blog about it.
But this project was from the heart, and done for love, so I want to share its story. It was a series of three memory quilts, done for a trio of siblings who lost their mom to cancer.

I don't even know these kids....except that I do, at least a little....

Making memory quilts--or pillows, or teddy bears--out of the clothes of someone who has died for a grieving relative or friend is something we quilters just do.  It is a natural instinct, really.  Quilts can give the most intimate form of comfort.  So what could evoke the presence of a dear one who has passed on more than a cuddly warm hug made out of the very clothes that hold her memories?

Not everyone is drawn to this, of course.
But as one who lost my brother when we were so young, how I wish I had a quilt of his little boy clothes to hold in my hands 50 years later.  And as one who lost my mother very, very early in my adult life, I would have loved to have just a little throw made from her wrap up in during those harrowing first years of grief after she died....and later, after time had mellowed my memories of her into a deep and peaceful love, to pull the throw out of my cedar chest on her birthday and just smile over the memories. (And to laugh at how awful her taste in clothes was.)

So when my sister Mary told me about how her 14 year old daughter had a new friend whose mom had just died, how sad I was for her.  Not long after, Mary asked if I would consider making a quilt for this young girl out of her mom's clothes. I immediately said yes.

The girl's dad was having real problems so she couldn't live with him. So Cassie was staying in the home of a friend to finish out the school year.  My dad having had some of the same problems, I could guess what that was like too. It gave me all the more reason to embark on this project.

Cassie has a younger brother, Jack, who went to live with their older half brother, who has a young family.  Could I make a quilt for Jack too?  Of course.

As I was just completing the top for Cassie--I made Jack's first--I learned that there is another sibling, Allison, who is in college.  When she learned about the quilts, she wanted one too!  So then there were three.


It started with a duffle bag full of clothes.  I didn't even know their mom's name--Jenny--or see a photo of her until the quilts were well underway.  She kind of revealed herself through those pretty sweaters, the tshirts and sweatshirts related to her Marine husband's interests, those jeans worn out at the knees, the nighties she must have worn when she was so sick at the end of her battle with cancer.
There were some crumbs in the pocket of a polka dot blouse; a few of her hairs were stuck in the collar of a sweater...

But then, thank you Instagram.

As a way to connect with the kids and show them at a distance (they live 1000 miles away) how the quilts were coming along, I started posting project pictures.  And very soon the girls started leaving comments or hearts, so I knew they were out there.  I saw pictures of them and their mom, of the adorable Jack, and of Andy, the older brother with such a kind face.

I didn't want to intrude on them, have no presumption of truly, actually knowing what they are going through....but I thought it would be fun for them to watch the progress of the quilts, and it was fun for me to show them.  Gradually, those three whom I've never met became very real and precious to me.

Quilts have that kind of power!

There were a lot of sweaters.  I posted this picture on Facebook asking my friends to give me suggestions on how to work with them, and as always, they came through with ideas and pictures of their own projects.

As I used different parts of them, I added lightweight fusible knit interfacing to the sections I was going to sew.  That stabilized the knit and all went just fine.  The sweaters turned out to be one of my favorite things to work with.

These are both cotton. Quilted as they are onto polar fleece--after I made each top I then quilted it onto high quality outdoor fleece--sweaters give the most comfortable texture and have a most sumptuous drape.

Where the cables were too thick, I just quilted around them, "in the ditch", so to speak.  The mohair sweater on the right with its pretty silver sequins was really a joy to add to the mix.

For indeed, the mix of fabrics and styles was the biggest challenge to me as a designer.  How to make it all go together, and somehow be just right for each person?


I started with Jack's quilt.
Having raised two boys of my own, and knowing Jack is 9, I tried to make his as boy-like as I could.
And because I am a firm believer that kids love to see their name in print, I started with spelling it out.

And in context.....

I tried to keep a pocket intact on each quilt.
Jenny must have loved these jeans.

I thought it was important to keep that worn out knee in there too.  ;-)

On all of them, the binding is simply the edge of the polar fleece rolled to the front and stitched down.  Simple.

Cassie's quilt came next.
It was kind of mysterious, how the clothes and colors just sorted themselves for her quilt. But mostly, it was the feminine side of Jenny's clothes that came together for Cassie.

I know nothing about the meaning of Iowa in their lives, but this Tshirt is old and well loved and the feeling of it set the tone for Cassie's quilt.  Lace from some of the nightgowns is appliqued on either side of it.

My prayers and hopes for Cassie's father are quilted right in here too.  My dear Uncle Hal had also been a Marine--no matter what, they all are a special breed apart.

Quilting the quilts was easy on my Sweet 16 by HandiQuilter.  How I love that machine.

Spirals...all of them were quilted in free form spirals.  I liked the curves juxtaposed on top of all those straight lined shapes, and it just felt very natural.

Cassie chose white for the color of her quilt's polar fleece backing.  That is so perfect.

Allison's quilt was last, and in feel it is a combination of Jack's and Cassie's I guess.  For hers, I was inspired by the Gee's Bend quilts.

This shows how simple the finishing process was, once the tops were done.  I just pin basted them directly to the polar fleece and then quilted them. It does help to have a big beat up work table.  ;-)

On the left side here, I didn't have enough room to fold in the edge of the fleece for the binding. So that side has a regular quilter's cotton.  But it has just the right colors, doesn't it?

Each quilt is 60" X 72".

They are in the mail now, on their way.
I didn't put a label on them, or sign them, or anything like that.  I told my sister that I hoped Jack and Cassie and Allison eventually would forget who made them, and just have them.  Mary said, "Yes, like they were directly from their mom."

What could be better than that?

This month of quilt making was one of the most meaningful I've ever had. As a designer it was a challenge and a thrill to make everything work; but more importantly, as a mom, a daughter, and a sister, I felt like I was doing my job.
I thank these three for allowing me such intimate access to their mom's memory.  It was a huge honor.