It’s counter-intuitive, to sew ragged stitches along the raw edges of fabric scraps. Everything I know about sewing (and I am careless enough as it is) tells me to do this differently, to apply the patches of various silks and cottons and linens in the way I’ve always done: sewing the wrong side of the scrap to the body of the quilt and then turning it, ironing it flat, using small regular stitches to quilt the layers together. But this time I am exploring imperfection. Here’s one example I keep in mind as I sew, a boro quilt of ethereal practical beauty:
What is perfection anyway? I think about that when I swim. I am clumsy, awkward, but I swim a kilometer three times a week and it feels wonderful in the moment, and after. My writing is always raggedy-edged, unfinished (in a way), shape-shifting as it goes along. There’ve been times when I was courted by bigger publishers, hoping for a book that would sell. I remember having lunch with one and coming home in great excitement to tell John what suggestions had been made (I’m being careful here!) to turn something I’d already written in something else. I could do this, I said. And he said, Yes, of course you could. But would it make you happy? You’ve already written the book you said you wanted to write. When I thought about it, I realized I had. My happiness with it had been in the process of writing, of following the beautiful thread that led me along roads I’d never known were there, into mazes and out again, not knowing the destination. What had been suggested to me was a trail well-mapped, direct, not exactly full of possibility, but maybe interesting enough. I’d know exactly where I’d arrive before I even began. Did I want that? Even if I could make my sentences as bold and as strong as I could? It turned out I didn’t. I’m curious enough and stubborn enough to want to do things my own way. It’s not that I think everyone should follow this process. I’m really glad that others don’t because in books, as with quilts, I love the huge range of texts and textiles that result from all kinds of approaches and pursuits. I think there’s room for them all.
It’s counter-intuitive, to sew ragged stitches along the raw edges of fabric scraps. But I’ve got these new needles, sharp and true, and it’s a pleasure, though sometimes a nervous-making experience, to run them along and through a small scrap of blue cloth. What will this become? What will I become, making it?
Sashiko is a Japanese term meaning “little stabs”. It’s a running stitch used in embroidery or quilting, a running stitch, useful for structural work: repairing and strengthening clothing and other textiles. I’ve been making quilts over the past year in which I use a running stitch and heavy cotton thread, almost string really, and I love to see the results. I love to feel the results, a very satisfying texture as my needle binds three layers together — the top of the quilt (often a heavy linen I’ve dyed with indigo), the batting (and I mostly use organic cotton for this), and the backing. For the first little bit, my fingers get sore. Over the summer, for example, they are used to weeding, turning taps, hanging laundry out. The needles are often reluctant to pass through the layers easily, though I’ve discovered that there are actually special needles for sashiko, polished steel with fine grooves running their length. I’m going to order some. In the meantime I have some sturdy chenille needles. They’re sharp, with big eyes to hold the heavy thread.
The photograph above is a corner of the quilt I made for my grandson Arthur’s 3rd birthday in October. He was visiting with his parents and brother from Ottawa and so I snuck into his room and put the quilt on his bed while he was having breakfast. When he went into his room, he saw what I’d made him: a single-cloth bedcover with a loose spiral of salmon taking up 2/3s of the top and then 3 constellations outlined in shell buttons across the top 1/3. I used deep blue cotton for the body of the quilt and saffron yellow to border it. With John’s help, I chose constellations visible in our western sky on the night of Arthur’s birth: Cassiopeia, Orion, and Cygnus. Stars and salmon: constants here in our wild corner of the earth. We sent Arthur binoculars for Christmas and he told me on the phone that he’d seen Cassiopeia on Christmas night. We saw Orion on December 29th, on our way home from a party, and it reminded me that we took Arthur on a starry walk, as John once took our children, just before bedtime on the last night of his visit. Orion was stretched out across the sky, the 3 stars of his belt as clear as anything, and Cygnus was flying the Milky Way. I love to think of him sleeping under the quilt that remembers the fish in a nearby creek and the stars that help to guide them home.
A little stab is a good thing to think of this time of year when the months wait to unfold in front of me, the baskets of fabric wait for their moment, and the needles with their generous eyes are willing to carry thread in and out to strengthen the structure.
Yesterday I planted the garlic box, four varieties all tucked in for winter. And today I intended to tidy up and winterize some other parts of the vegetable garden. But somehow the basket of prepared fabric was calling. So this morning I prepared an indigo dye vat on the long cedar bench outside
and have just done the first dip of several different kinds of tied and knotted lengths of cotton and linen. The stuff is oxidizing as I type. The last time I dyed with indigo, the final colour was beautiful but not deep blue.
I’m not enough of a chemist to understand why. I know that the colour comes from many short dips rather than a long sustained time in the vat. And maybe I don’t really care. Today I thought I’d do ten dips of 20 minutes with a 30 minute period of oxidization between dips. We’ll see. Here’s a length of prepared arashi—it means “storm”— and I
have to use a long plastic tub because the pvc pipe that the fabric is wrapped around is too long for my vat. The last time I did this particular technique, the end result was lovely in that the cloth remembered its turns.
I’ve also been penciling salmon shapes onto a vintage linen sheet (a single bed size) and if I have time tomorrow, I’ll wax them and then dip the sheet too. I’ve been wanting to make a quilt using full lengths of fabric rather than patchwork and using a kind of sashiko or functional stitching to bind the layers together. Red thread. So this might be the opportunity if the waxed salmon work out the way I hope they will. Sometimes I find myself filled with an urgency to make things with my hands. Not writing but something solid and durable. I can’t paint, can’t draw very well. But there are other ways to immerse myself in colour and texture and on the doorstep of winter, I’m hoping to do just that.