Monday, December 19, 2011

Still Looking for Christmas

Quilt No. 78
September 2011

They re-make movies all the time – so why not quilts? Still Looking for Christmas got its start in the 1980’s - you can tell by the saturated reds and blues and the style of the art work in this one-piece panel. I knew almost zero about quilting at that time, but I did know I wanted to follow these little bears that were clearly enjoying their Christmas preparations.

This panel is intended to be an advent calendar. It came with a tiny bear that I sewed together and stuffed. The bear is to be moved to a different location in the house each day as he “looks” for Christmas. The whole idea really appealed to me as I remembered how, as a child, I too combed through the house prior to Christmas seeking evidence of Santa, and once eating an entire “found” container of Swedish tea ring cookies while my mother was at work. My father, left in charge, hadn’t babysat me often enough to know that I could hide in the lower kitchen cupboard where Mom hid the Christmas cookies.

I really didn’t know what to do with the Bear quilt panel, but I did know I wanted my daughter to have it on her wall. I had taken a beginner’s quilting course during my maternity leave, so at least I knew about adding batting and backing. Beyond that my knowledge got sketchy. I hand quilted around each room in the house, and that was about it. With a super busy three-year-old in the house, who had time for detailed quilting? Next, I went to square it up prior to binding it. Uh oh. It simply could not be done. The scene had been printed onto the fabric very crookedly. It was especially wonky where the lines of the calendar veered off on their own trajectory on the right hand side. As a novice quilter I was baffled as to what I might do. After much anguish, I finally bought some ruffled eyelet lace and sewed it all around the edge. It actually did a pretty good job of disguising the quilt’s lack of straightness. And so it remained for over 20 years, dutifully being displayed in my daughter’s room each year, even after she became an adult returning home for the holidays.

As my quilting skills improved over the years, I came to enjoy the bear quilt less and less. So crooked. So little quilting. So yellow with age. At some point in time, the stuffed bear had gone missing (or perhaps went off to college) and a small stuffed mouse of questionable origin had stepped in to take its place. I politely asked my daughter if we couldn’t retire this quilting embarrassment. My daughter hates to cause me grief or stress, but she was swift with her “No way!” She suggested that maybe I could update it? Brilliant! I immediately ran for my ripper and removed the offending eyelet lace. Then...I folded up the project and stuffed it under some UFO’s on my desk and left it there - for two years, maybe three. Christmases came and went without the bears celebrating it in their beautiful red and green house. Last summer the quilt somehow magically forced its way to the top of the UFO pile. Such is the magic of Christmas and how it continues to operate through-out the year. We usually just fail to notice it.

In the intervening years I had replaced my sewing machine with one I that could machine quilt with much more ease than the old cranky one. Machine quilting looks easy - until you actually try to do it. I’d done small bits of machine quilting here and there. Mostly I was unsatisfied with the results. I started reading articles on it, researching it on the internet, and watching YouTube video how-to’s. This proved to be very time consuming, as any session involving YouTube invariably devolves into endless viewings of cars skidding on ice, feats of dare devilism, concert viewings (The Doors on Ed Sullivan!), and a wallow through nostalgia in the form of Muppets segments or 1960’s cartoons. Skate boarding dogs and The Annoying Orange are also visually addictive. So, staying with the less than thrilling intricacies of machine quilting took more than a dollop of self discipline. Ultimately, I grasped that machine quilting is a skill. It’s like playing the piano, or hitting a tennis ball with the racquet instead of your head – it takes practice. You’ve got to do it over and over until the area of your brain dedicated to machine quilting finally “gets it" and burns it in like a cluster of songs on a CD. In order to improve your machine quilting technique, it’s said that you need to do 20 minutes a day for 30 days. So that’s how the bear quilt came to be renewed and my machine quilting skills finally came to improve.

I removed the old back and tossed it out with the old batting. I washed it, re-sandwiched it with new batting and backing, and set as my goal to do one room a day - or every few days - since real life still had to be part of the equation. A single room took about 45-60 minutes, so I tried to complete one room per session, moving on to the outer areas of the house and yard after the rooms were finished. It was kind of like a construction project where you do your interior decorating before you worry about the landscaping outdoors.

I finally finished the whole thing and even found the missing bear swimming around in a drawer full of notions. I added tiny sleigh bells, and Christmas buttons so that I could fasten on both the mouse and the bear as they patiently waited their turn to look for Christmas. I liked having two Christmas seekers to share the fun. After all, no one wants to be alone at Christmas.

But then, even though I had the experience of 77 finished quilts under my belt, the wonky-printing-on-the-fabric issue brought me to my knees yet again. If I put the binding on all four sides of the quilt, it would only emphasize its crookedness. I’d already decided that cutting the quilt wasn’t an option, I wanted to retain the original panel as a unit. I brooded over what to do – had I learned nothing in the intervening 20 years? In the end I put a series of double-sided holly leaves with tiny pompom berries around the bottom so that there was no straight line to look at. And, it sort of worked, but mostly just in my head. I guess I just like the contorted format after all. Who knows, maybe it wasn’t just a bad day on the fabric printing press back in 1987. Maybe the whole intention was for the bears to live in a world that was wasn’t too rigid. Perhaps that’s the whole point - to just enjoy Christmas and whatever unexpected directions it may bring.

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