A Still Life – A Story Being Written

Patti gave us the wonderful challenge of “Still Life” for this week’s Lens-Artist Challenge. I know what a still life is, a picture of an apple and a pear and a vase with some dried flowers and maybe a book or two. I’ve seen lots of still life paintings in museums and even tried my hand at one or two with my camera. And of course I’ve moved an inanimate object or two to make a better composition.

Since Patti’s post I’ve been thinking about still life, still living, stilled lives and of course, my life. I’ve been thinking about our Florida rebuild project that feels like a “still life” from where I am sitting 2,000 miles north. And Spring in Michigan that is anything but “still” this April, having had about 6 different kinds of snow in three days. I’ve also been thinking about the quilt that my neighbor Chrissy showed me when I was at her house showing her how to thread her new sewing machine.

She gently unfolded it. It smelled, the batting had wadded and was falling out through holes and tears in the top layer, it was frayed and faded and looked very, very fragile. But it had a story. Chrissy’s grandmother and great-grandmother had made it. Chrissy’s father had grown up using it on his bed and gave it to her after they found it while cleaning out her grandfather’s home after he passed away. I was hooked. I told her I thought I could stabilize it and make it whole again so she could use it in her home. Daughter Bri has already said that she would like it someday.

Truth admission – I’ve never done this before, even though I’ve made many, many quilts. I follow blogger Rhonda Dort who loves to save old quilts she rescues from antique shops and other places so I’ve learned a thing or two from her; I feel confident I can do it. As we were talking I told her about how Ronda covers torn places with lace and asked if she had any old lace from her mom. She said no… but ran upstairs and returned with a bag containing pieces of her mother’s wedding dress and round lace flowers that had adorned it. I told her that they would be perfect if she wanted to integrate this important piece of her mother’s (and father’s) lives with her father’s treasured quilt. Both of us had tears in our eyes at this point, and we were also getting very excited.

It was a tied quilt so I showed Chrissy how to cut the ties off and take out stitching along the edges, take the backing off (it wasn’t bound) so we could save that and told her to clean out all the old stuffing (nasty job). I explained that I would stabilize it so she and her adult daughter could hand sew the lace flowers on and then we would tie it back on it’s backing with new batting.

It didn’t take Chrissy long to complete her work. When she brought it to my home we talked about how fragile it felt. The white muslin squares and some of the print strips were so thin from use and age that we were cautious when we moved it. It is literally falling apart.

The quilt lay on our living room carpet for many days as I thought about it. I knew I needed to stabilize the top and mulled over several options. My first thought was to stabilize it with the iron-on stabilizer used with machine embroidery but that would be horribly time consuming and from experience inconsistent in its adhesion. Besides I was afraid it would effect the softness and drape of the quilt. I also thought about using lawn because it is so light and thin but I don’t think it comes in wide widths so there would be a seam that would show through the very thin quilt top. I finally decided on unbleached muslin with a high thread count and in quilt backing width.

I’m currently hand basting the layers together as I am stabilizing some long seams for delicate machine stitching and securing the edges of holes and tears to the muslin. This has become an act of love as I am becoming acquainted with the quilt’s history. It is no longer a “still life,” but a living breathing entity telling its story, the history of its connections with the people it has shared a life with – also now including me. I have been listening to it and it is telling me what it needs.

Chrissy and I strongly agree that I should maintain the integrity of the quilt except when I need to add something to strengthen and preserve it. There are fabrics that faded to varying degrees and they will stay.

There are two strips that Chrissy and I thought might be plain muslin and wondered why they weren’t colored like the rest. When I explored the seam on the back I discovered they had been blue but faded into cream. There is even a little hole in the top fabric over the seam that allows a little of the original color to show through.

I also notice black dots and wondered what that story was about. They look like splattered ink so I would guess that Chrissy’s father was practicing penmanship or working on the final draft of an essay while sitting on his bed. Chrissy thinks this story fits as she remembers him telling her that his widowed father pushed the kids hard to do well in school.

Those blemishes will all stay as they are, they will not be hidden or taken out because that would silence the story the quilt is telling. This story is also about the people who cared about this quilt and the boy that it kept warm. I can see evidence that it was mended multiple times with different techniques. In some places the colored/printed strips are narrowed a bit and the fabric is drawn up just a little telling me that someone very carefully and neatly mended the seam that had torn along the stitch line. I will be doing the same but because the fabric has thinned so much and has unraveled I will be using a delicate decorative machine stitch that will catch and secure some fabric on each side of the seam and secure it to the unbleached muslin that I am using to stabilize it. These steps using modern techniques will now become a part of this quilt’s history/story.

Most of the quilt is made from grain or flour sacks with very low thread count. This bright floral print, however, is seersucker so maybe a sister had a beautiful summer dress of this fabric and there was a strip left for the quilt. I wonder if any of the other pieces were from clothing fabric.

As I am gently touching this quilt to press, mend and repair, as I am smoothing and shaping it to fit the new muslin, it is also touching me. I am relishing how it is sharing it’s secrets and triggering thoughts of my own grandmother and great-grandmother who made quilts that I now have.

I am thinking of the quilts I have made grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Sometimes family members say they want to put my quilts away to keep forever and I urge them to use the quilts. I hope that some of my quilts will be “loved to pieces” as this quilt has been. I hope that someday someone will mend one of my quilts so that it can continue to give the love that I sewed into it as I chose the perfect fabrics, pieced and quilted it. No quilt should be a “still life.”

18 thoughts on “A Still Life – A Story Being Written

  1. What a story, Pat and it’s so well told. You’re doing a wonderful thing and I think your neighbor and her family are very lucky to have you in their lives. It’s odd that I came here today because I just dug an old quilt out of a bin in a storeroom. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the touching backstory that the quilt here does – at one time there probably was a story but it vanished long ago. My parents retired to North Carolina and one day, my mother visited a quilt museum. On impulse (I suspect) she bought a quilt. It sat on a shelf in her house for years and when she died, I was the one who cleaned out the house. I couldn’t discard it so I’ve had it all these years, never knowing quite what to do with it. There was a scrap of paper pinned to it that said it was made long ago. The paper is lost but I think it was from the 1930s or thereabouts. It’s not a special design and it has a lot of what appears to be ground-in dirt or yellowing. It’s all hand-sewn from what looks like typical cotton clothing fabric. If you have any ideas about what can be done with it – or if you would like to have it! – please let me know. I can send you photos. I have many other projects going on now and frankly, I don’t want to invest a lot of time in cleaning it. It needs to belong to someone who can appreciate it. I hope I haven’t caught you at too busy a time – it would be good to hear your advice. 🙂 Thank you!


  2. The quilt tells a poignant story and you are helping to preserve it. It’s sad that today’s population doesn’t cherish things that are handed down, that have a story and need them to continue the history. What a great thing you are doing. I hope you do another post showing the finished project.


  3. What a beautiful quilt and beautiful story to go with it. Also a beautiful gesture from you to stabilise it for your friend so that can stay beautiful for much longer and add to its story ❤


  4. I am in awe of your skill in quilt restoration…and patience! Your devotion to keeping this quilt a ‘living/active’ legacy in the lives of your friend’s family is touching.
    I agree – quilts should not be a ‘still life’ (unless made specifically for use as a wall hanging, etc)

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