The word “archive” is one I think about frequently, as a verb and as a noun. I was curious about its origins so I looked it up.
Early 17th century (in the sense ‘place where records are kept’): from French archives (plural), from Latin archiva, archia, from Greek arkheia ‘public records’, from arkhē ‘government’. The verb dates from the late 19th century.
This morning I was doing the scribbling on old scraps of paper that constitutes quilt designing for me. I draw a square or a rectangle and then I try to figure out how to fill it. Sometimes I have an idea in mind or I have a particular selection of fabric I’d like to use. Sometimes I need to determine how many squares or triangles or strips I need to begin to build a block. Today I thought I was doing something simple. I’ve made 3 very easy quilts as gifts for young women in my family. I often make them while I’m making something a little more complicated. I like going back and forth between the two. I’m already working on a log-cabin pieced with broad strips of cottons and linens with a square of fiery dupioni silk in the centre of each, for the symbolic fire. The log-cabin blocks will be fixed in place not with stitching but with shell buttons of varying sizes and right now I’m quilting free-hand spirals along the sashing between the blocks. But back to the easy quilt. There is nothing nicer on difficult days than piecing a quilt together out of plain squares of cotton. Like this one:
I call it a French quilt because some of the cottons are Souleido and because that’s my Francophone daughter-in-law napping under it at her house (it was a birthday gift to her and my son). I made a smaller one when my granddaughter turned 2—
—and yet another one for my daughter for Christmas last year (though I didn’t keep a photograph of it; more on this in a moment). I like to think of the young women I love sleeping under my quilts. So that’s what I was scribbling on paper this morning, trying to figure out dimensions and also how to get that diagonal grid you see in the French quilt. A person with instructions could figure this out before their coffee cooled but I was tapping my pencil and counting and it simply wouldn’t compute. Would I use 5 different cottons and make the squares 6 inches or would I use 6 and make them 5 inches and what would happen if I didn’t have enough of any one cotton (because I make these using what I have in my fabric trunk). What would happen. Could happen. And thinking about archives at the same time because I was already lamenting that I’d never done the thing that I’d always thought I would do: keep a regular reading journal, keep track of everything I read, and when, and what I thought. I was disappointed in myself beyond words and then, man, I realized that if only I’d done the same thing with the quilts I’ve made over the past 35 years, I’d be able to look up the French quilt and K’s quilt and yes, even A’s because if I was keeping a careful archive of my quilts, I’d have a photograph of hers as well as a good chart and even little scraps of fabrics used. I was not a happy person this morning, trying to make the squares work out on paper before I went to get scissors and my cutting mat. Is it too late to change? I think it might be. I sat with my paper feeling remorse for records not kept, for books not remembered, for the dates and names of peonies planted, roses set into earth, the years of plenty, the years of pests.
And here’s the thing. I’ve always thought of my memory as my reliable archive. So much is stored there and is often readily available. Just to see if I could remember, I wrote a list of the quilts I’ve made: 32. Some have been gifts, some were for us, some were exercises in working out a problem—the one I named A Dark Path, and oh, B’s Euclid’s Orchard quilt which makes the total 33, memory not being as reliable an archive as I thought it would be.
Now this one, 34. In a way it will be an archive, though not a public one, and writing that doesn’t absolve me of the years of careless neglect, the lopsided plans on the backs of envelopes, used as fire-starter as soon as I’d cut the necessary fabric. By process of elimination, you might be able to figure out who this quilt is for. In the next month or so I’ll think of her in every stitch, as I thought of the others, the grid and the route of the needle a charm against winter and the dangers of the world.
GOD shield the house, the fire, the kine,
Every one who dwells herein to-night.
Shield myself and my beloved group,
Preserve us from violence and from harm;
Preserve us from foes this night
(from the Carmina Gadelica)