I’ve always loved the game of Hidden Pictures: that corner of the Highlights kids’ magazine where you stare at two nearly identical pictures and try to spot all the differences between them. Stained glass is a little like that game – there’s always more to see than just the picture. There is the picture of course, and then there are the patterns within the picture; the shapes within the shape and the colors within the color. Also, in any given building that has stained glass, there is usually more than one panel, therefore lots of similarities and differences to spot between each of the panels as you make your way to the overall story.
When I was 18, I pulled my first college all-nighter when I decided to make a stained-glass window out of tissue paper. It was a small landscape scene that just barely covered one pane of glass in the dormer at the head of my bed. I started probably sometime around midnight and worked until dawn, meticulously cutting, arranging, and glueing each piece of tissue paper. That was long before I moved to Morocco, before I met Kattie who taught me how to sew, before I bought my sewing machine, and before I discovered the creative and redemptive beauty of quilting.
I love quilting for the same reason I love stained glass and hidden pictures games: zoom in or out, there is always a new layer of the story to explore. With a quilt, the first story is that which is told by the fabric itself: what is it made of? What does it feel like? What are the prints/stripes/colors on the fabric? Do they have a meaning? Where does the fabric come from? The second story is in the way the pieces are cut, arranged, and sewn back together. What is the fundamental unit of the design and how big is it? (What shapes make up the block? The strip?) How does it tesselate? What is the overall effect? What is the final big picture? (This is, of course, the story that everyone sees first.) The third story is told in the “quilting” – specifically, the stitching pattern chosen to sew the three layers together (the top design, backing fabric, and batting in between). While traditional quilts use mostly straight lines for this step, modern quilts may have a different stitch pattern for every block of color.
I’ve been sewing more than usual this last year … perhaps as a form of self-care/therapy during all my health struggles, perhaps as a way of connecting with others since most of the projects were designed as gifts, perhaps as a way to fill all the alone time I seem to have as I get older. Whatever the reason, I’ve been sewing. A lot.
Though the last few months have been going well overall (school, health, friends, etc), this week was rough and my angst levels spiked hard. When that happens, my sewing cupboard tends to explode all over my guest room and sometimes into the living room. Early this week, it was both. Tuesday night’s flurry trailed all the way into Saturday, and the result was this art quilt I have titled “Autobiography”. I won’t go into all the ways in which I see it as autobiographical. Given what I have said already about the three layers of a story represented in a quilt, I will leave you to work most of it out on your own if you are so inclined. However, I will mention a few of the most obvious and less visible elements.
First, the piece is made from six different kinds of fabric: Kikoi (East Africa), shweshwe (South Africa), dashiki (pan-African), wax print (West/Central Africa), American cotton print, and raw silk. Four of those six are distinctly African, two are not. That ratio exactly represents the number of years I have lived in Africa vs. not as of right now.
Second, all of the scraps used in the image are the cut-aways from just about every major project I have done in the last ten years. Somehow, these bits and pieces have followed me around the world. They represent not only where I have been, but what I have created. Even their basic shapes reflect the projects from which they were cut away.
Third, I used raw silk for the backing partly because I happened to have it on hand and the color matched. However, there is a significant metaphor there too. The most valuable fabric is at the back, out of sight, where few think to look. It is the only piece of fabric that is ‘whole’, and it is also the only one on which the quilting design is revealed rather than obscured. That’s all I will say. You may read what you like from the rest.
The pictures below deal the blow-by-blow, starting with the pile of scraps I pulled from the back of my sewing closet.
You may or may not find it beautiful. You may or may not find it sensical. Perhaps it’s emotionally indulgent, ill-conceived, or narcissistic. Perhaps it’s artistic, perhaps it’s poetic. For me now, just as twenty years ago, this work was exercise of faith — a reminder for those ragged days both behind and ahead that the One who spun galaxies out of nothing can still make something meaningful from the scraps of my life.