notes from a work-in-progress

Anyone expecting to see regular updates on my Euclid’s Orchard quilt and essay must be thinking I am very lazy indeed. And in a way I am. It’s been a long process to figure out how to translate the material I am working on in the form of this essay to actual tangible quilt blocks. I’m not much a seamstress although I’ve been sewing since grade eight when we made aprons and jumpers in Home Economics. I was careless then, in a hurry to finish so I could have an actual made object in my hands, and I’m careless still. I’ve made more than 25 quilts and the sewing has never progressed to the point where anyone looking at them ever comments on the actual stitching. But never mind. I love the process and if you kind of squint when you look at one of my quilts, you might mistake it for something accomplished.

The problem with this quilt is that I am using images from textbooks, many of them graphic representations of particular mathematical theorems or ideas. I’d thought of simply trying to draw them onto white cotton and then embroidering them to highlight the parts that are relevant to the ideas I’m pursuing in my essay. But when I tried to do the drawings, they were lopsided and I knew that every step along the way would compound this problem. And let’s face it: a person who is careless at sewing isn’t going to be any better at embroidery.

I’ve seen quilts with computer-printed images on them so that seemed like a good solution. I thought I could design the blocks on my computer and then take the files somewhere to be printed. That didn’t work. The place I thought would do it, wouldn’t. So then I planned to print them myself, backing cotton with freezer paper which supposedly makes it possible to use it in a printer. But ours is a  a laser printer, a good one, and those won’t work. (They generate too much heat, apparently.) Finally, after some more weighing and pondering, I ordered an ink-jet printer (which seems like the height of self-indulgence) and bought four packages of specially prepared ink jet printable fabric.

Then I looked at my images again and they seemed awfully busy. I wanted one element to travel from one block to another, to provide continuity. But what could that be? Because this is an essay about mathematics and ideas but also about a real orchard, ours, which is fenced with chicken wire, and because one section of the essay is about bees and how they construct their honeycombs in hexagonal cells (which Pappus of Alexandria attributed to “a certain geometrical forethought”), I decided to use a simple model of those cells which echo the pattern of chicken wire. So here’s one block, just printed, the one I chose to accompany the section of the essay which meditates on inheritance. This uses a graphic representation of dominant and recessive phenotypes:



Something else will happen to this block when the entire quilt top is completed — and so think of it  bordered with Moravian blueprint cotton, brought back from Brno two years ago, and maybe embellished with beads and gold thread among those cells. There will be 14 blocks altogether and I hope I have enough of the blueprint for the top. If not, there will have to be more improvisation…

 When I first began to work on this essay, I wrote this little aria, which I think I posted ages ago. But it’s still at the heart of this work I’m doing, so I will conclude with it.

Aria leading to summer

“Yes, but what can I say about the Parthenon – that my own ghost met me, the girl of 23, with all her life to come…” (Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, April 21, 1932) How I felt that as I looked at our photographs of White Pine Island – Brendan and Angie in their little bathing suits, Lily on a log, Forrest rowing the boat away from us, my parents smiling the summer of their 40th wedding anniversary. All the years of our family, the warm days, the smell of pine, the silken texture of dry grass flattened under our towels, taste of lemonade from the River Trails thermos jug, all of them collapsed into an hour, a moment, held in my hands, water falling through my fingers. How do I keep my memories intact, how apart from this, a brief time in the middle of the night, darkness pressed to the window by my desk, myself reflected in glass as I sit in my white nightgown, every cell in my body yearning for those I have loved, still love, though the only one left in the sleeping house is John. Whom I have loved, still love.

Emboldened by Virginia, I think of what I want to say, not what form it must take. There will moments when I embellish, or downright invent; there will be brief arias, phrases of poetry, the instructions for making a quilt, for working out the puzzle of Mendelian genetics.

8 thoughts on “notes from a work-in-progress”

  1. This is a noble quest. My heart is with you. My breath is given across the miles, should it help. If not, open the window and let it blow out among the trees.

  2. Theresa, even to contemplate the meticulous work of making a quilt, let alone one this complex, requires, to my eyes, enormous patience. So “careless” – maybe not so much. Your aria is beautiful. I sat reading it at 8 a.m. on a Toronto Monday morning and felt my heart open to the day. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Beth. I always begin a quilt with the promise to self that I will take my time and do things carefully. (Alas!) But I love the materials in my hands, the weight of them, and all they mean as they come together — so I guess that’s (partly) why I keep trying.

  3. Your aria is just so beautiful and atmospheric. And I love the idea of a physical artefact standing for your essay & all that mathematical background: your printed block looks wonderful, and elegant, as all the best mathematical representations are. (Oh, and that sentence, “All the years of our family…” — just breathtaking.)

    1. Sarah, for years I was terrified of math (I even had regular nightmares about exams and not being able to find the classroom) but I’ve been trying to figure out some simple ideas and yes, you’re right — elegant is the word. There is such beauty in, say, Euclid or Pythagoras, and I wish I’d given myself up to it years ago. (My middle child is a mathematician and part of wanting to learn math now is wanting to understand him as an adult, as a researcher and professor.)

    1. Now the hard part, Brenda (as though the math wasn’t difficult enough…) — arranging the blocks. I decided on 12 finally and have been trying to come up with a pleasing pattern, placing them on Moravian blueprint and some Japanese shibori print. Historical? (Beginning with Euclid, I guess…) Or biographical, to go hand-in-hand with the essay? Hmmm. But when I look at them, I see


      beauty and I know there will be an ideal way to piece them together to make a story (of sorts).

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