Every quilt tells a story

JoJo - photo by Adina SenftIn September 2011, The Wounded Heart, the first book in my Amish Quilt trilogy, will be released. Central to the story, as the trilogy title suggests, is a quilt that my three Amish heroines are making together. When I first pitched the idea to my editor, the first thing she said was, “What a great idea! We should put instructions to make the quilt in the back of the books.”

Which was another great idea. The challenge was, I’d never written quilt instructions before in my life—it’s all I can do to follow them, never mind create them! So I did what any writer would do: I started to research. I found out that there are more than seven thousand sets of copyrighted quilt designs in the Library of Congress. Seven thousand! Clearly, I wasn’t going to be able to review every one to make sure I wasn’t stealing someone’s design.

Well then, what about old designs that are in the public domain? There I had more success. In an example of synchronicity, an exhibit of Amish quilts from the collection of Faith and Stephen Brown had just closed at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, and a book had been published. So I scurried up there and got it–and lo, there was the perfect quilt. The pattern was called “Crosses and Losses,” and it dated from 1895.

I parsed out the pattern on grid paper and found that each block was essentially 16 small squares, some made of triangles, some not. I could do this. I could piece it, and I could tell a reader how to do it. I could even name it: Sunrise Over Green Fields.” The next thing was to write it into the book so that the quilt would have as much meaning to the reader who made it as it does to me—and to my Amish heroines. Here’s the passage that I wrote describing their creative process:

“I like a quilt that means something,” Emma said firmly. “The quilt should say something about the crosses with its lights and darks.”

Since it was to be her quilt, Carrie and Amelia nodded. “There are so many choices, though,” Carrie said. “What can we say with the colors we have?”

Did Englisch women think about these things when they pieced their quilts? Surely they must. The messages in the patterns were half the fun, even if the recipient never knew. The quilter kept her counsel and let her fabric speak for her. Tradition said, for instance, that the center square in a Log Cabin should be red, to signify the fire in the cabin’s hearth. With a Sunshine and Shadow, you started with light colors in the middle, to signify the light of God in the center of life. And the—

Fire. Light. Wait. “Meine freundin, what if we—hmm . . .”

Carrie grinned at Emma. “Uh oh. Amelia’s had a brain wave.”

Amelia began to lay out squares on the table, folding most of them in half to model the triangles of the pattern. Her heart picked up its pace, like a horse sensing it was close to home. “What if we shaded the colors from bottom to top? Look.” The quilt block grew, and she began another. “In each block we can shade the colors from dark to light, which would shade each row from dark to light. The whole pattern would look like a gradual sunrise, you see?”

Emma snatched up the colorful pile of squares. “You mean like this?”

Amelia could hardly contain herself as Emma’s quick eye took in the lay of her squares and triangles and began duplicating it from the other side of the table. This was the part of quilting she loved most—the creation of patterns, the realizing of order from the chaos of bits of memory, all coalescing into a single object of beauty that spoke louder than its individual parts. Something that was utterly practical and yet as unique and lovely as the women who created it.

Carrie fetched a piece of paper and a pencil and sketched the layout as it formed. One time they’d made a new design and tried to rely on memory as they pieced it. That hadn’t turned out so well—especially when Amelia brought in her squares and discovered she’d put the whole thing together backward. After that, Carrie usually made a sketch to guide them later, when the thrill of the initial creation had worn off.

“There.” Carrie ran a critical eye between sketch and table, then handed the paper to Amelia. “Why don’t I make coffee while you look this over? Then if you want to change anything, you can.”

Emma got up and rooted in her carry bag and Amelia’s basket, unobtrusively putting jars on the counter as if she meant to open every one and serve up a feast. Then in the fuss of leaving she would accidentally on purpose forget to put them back in, and Carrie would have some beautiful golden peaches to offer her husband when he came home from Strasburg. By the time the coffee had perked and Carrie had served the cinnamon rolls, applesauce, and Emma’s chocolate whoopie pies, Amelia had made a few tiny changes to the design and added its borders.

“This will be a good one,” she said, tucking it into her basket. “The whole quilt will show the sunrise of our hope in the cross, won’t it?” She caught Carrie’s eye, and she nodded in satisfaction at a good afternoon’s work.

That’s the beauty of writing about something I love. I can share my own experience of creation with women—and characters—who understand.

5 thoughts on “Every quilt tells a story”

  1. A.M. KuskaA.M. Kuska

    I hope the quilt pattern you chose is as beautiful as the one in my head from reading your passage. What an intriguing story you’ve written!

    February 18, 2011
  2. Adina SenftAdina Senft

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

    February 18, 2011

    It is quite a long time since I checked out your blog page, seems I’m missing a lot!!

    I’m most proud of you!

    Kindest regards, BC Rose.

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