This morning scrolling through social media I learned of the passing away of hand quilter extraordinaire Elsie Campbell. Her accomplishments in the world of quilting include award winning hand quilter as recently as Road to California (scroll to the bottom), author, and teacher. Elsie’s latest quilt honored her fifty year marriage with her husband, Ken. This, their children and grandchildren are part of her legacy to us. The family has asked that in lieu of flowers donations be made in her memory to the Mennonite Central Committee.
Recently with a group of women I heard something that touched the core of my being in a way that is hard to share however it’s important. Several of these women have/had quilters, or knitters, or crocheters in their family. In and amongst the things passed down are quilts made by grandmothers and great grandmothers in the family. Because the kids don’t want “stuff” the women didn’t know what to do with these quilts. It dawned on me this morning that this stuff holds more than its inherent stuff-ness.
Let’s for a moment set aside the whole myth of using up everything, recycling, blah blah blah that happens in the passing on of quilt story. While there is some truth to it, it’s not the whole truth and misses out on the fact that fabric was often purchased straight out. Or the grain purchased had to do with the fabric the ladies in the house desired. Instead let’s focus elsewhere.
Skills. Cutting. Sewing. Design. Quilting or tying. In the design the quilter would need to work out how much fabric she needs: math and geometry. Let me say that again: math and geometry are essential skills in quilt making. From the design to figuring out how much fabric is needed. Answering lots of if/then questions; if i use half square triangles then I need how much more fabric to make the quilt the size needed. This is critical thinking. At any time in quilt history miscutting fabric is a thing, since going into town isn’t something easy enough to do then how do I compensate for this error? Creative thinking.
Sewing, accurately piecing a quilt is a skill, one that takes time to learn to get an accurate quarter inch seam, or as was often the case a scant quarter inch because accuracy matters and the thread available at the time isn’t what we have now. Also the rotary cutter is a relatively new invention in quilting so each piece had to be cut from some kind of template. Having done this with one quilt, wow that’s not easy work and is hard on the hands.
Quilting. This is a whole skill set of its own. Stitching through the layers to make something that is inherently practical something that is also decorative is a skill. Getting even stitches is a skill particularly when hand stitching through layers of fabric and batting. And let’s not even mention that the batting isn’t what we have today, evenly milled, preferably seamless, with just a perfect hint of polyester to hold it all together allowing us to stitch so many inches apart.
Then there’s the lighting.
Quilting Bees, a gathering of quilters in each others homes to get quilts completed were a time of catching up on what’s going on, to enter into the community and be part of it. To find out the happenings of the families you haven’t seen for months at a time due to weather or tasks or illness. These women were community for one another. This is a building skill. And it’s not always easy.
So back to Elsie. I don’t know that she hand pieced her quilts, I do know that she hand quilted them. I love that she worked toward keeping this skill alive and well in our quilting community. It is I’m certain a skill that will remain forever because someone, somewhere enjoys the quiet meditative aspect of hand quilting, of working toward honing a skill that, should the zombie apocalypse actually happen would help save the world. (I’ve heard Zombies can’t touch a person wrapped in a quilt.
The last time I saw Elsie she was on her way back to the teachers room at Houston carrying far too much in her arms. She and I are about the same height, so you know, short arms and all. I helped her carry things back to the room so she wouldn’t be doing this on her own. I will miss the special touch of her hand quilting skills, skills I will ever respect for they are hard won, complicated and add to the beauty of life.
God speed Elsie.
With deepest respect,