Friday, October 21, 2011

Grandma's Blues, Part III: My Turn

There seems to be a good deal of groaning out there in blogland about UFOs (unfinished objects) accompanied by strategies of how to conquer this problem. The number of unfinished quilt tops and quilt blocks found in antique shops, on ebay, or at craft fairs attests to the fact that UFOs have always been around. Could it be that we are fighting a losing battle ? Are UFOs a part of life, and maybe, a good part at that ? I have UFOs from my mother and my quilting grandmother, and although I may have no idea what I’m going to do with them, I love possessing them and imagining the possibilities.
An example would be the sixteen blocks my mom made with 5" squares--with an extra one hundred red squares cut out and ready to go.
Oh, Mom! That's pretty flamboyant! A tough call. I’m still waiting for inspiration. Maybe something could be done with the red squares...?
And look at this! My mom cut hundreds of 4 1/2" squares and arranged them by color groups, apparently to take care of leftover fabric in her closet. I can imagine my mom standing over the fabric with smokin' scissors!
As noted before, she was not really a quilter, but she took tailoring classes and sewed a lot of our clothes, consequently resulting in an accumulation of fabric. Once she cut it up, she could condense the mass down. She probably had a plan in mind, but just never got to it—it was an ambitious project. I remember some of the clothes made from these fabrics that date back to the 1970s, including some polyesters. I'm glad polyester went out of style.
A surprise: twelve different blocks with traced cute-sy animals--my mom was not the cute-sy type (me neither). Go figure...Ok, I'll leave these to my grandchildren.
       My grandmother’s blocks and fabrics interest me more. They tickle my imagination and everytime I see someone’s work with vintage blocks on the internet, I pay attention. The fabrics must date from the 1930s to 1950s.
There are two sets of blocks intended for quilts and then there are a few orphan blocks, all hand pieced. I feel somewhat obligated to make two traditional quilts for my two grandchildren, as these would be from their great-great grandmother. On the other hand, the orphan blocks are fair game for experimenting. I'm still ruminating about it.
        I also possessed some fabric and one hand-sewn block with which my grandmother intended to make a quilt. I decided to finish her quilt, which now bears the name “Grandma’s Blues” ( 54"x 72 1/2", 1m36cm x 1m84cm).
The blue centers and the blue background for the wreath were her fabric. The lower left hand block is her hand pieced block. 
In addition, I used fabrics from a dress and a skirt that my mom had made for me. 
My grandmother would've hand quilted this, however, I made the decision to machine quilt after having hand quilted several projects. You have to choose your battles--I wanted more time for hand appliqué.
        The year was 1987 and I was on the threshold of my adventures into art quilting. My grandmother didn’t actually teach me to quilt, however, because of her quilts and her unfinished blocks, she inspired me to quilt. She gave me permission.
       And then, other interesting items await me peacefully on my stash shelves or stowed away in drawers. There are gloves, table linens, and doilies.
I finally found the courage to use some of the most stained doilies in an art piece.
This is a work in progress that has a good deal of hand stitching. A leaf pattern has taken over.
Unfinished projects are a bit like throwing a bottle with a message into the ocean. I think I’ll make some interesting blocks just to leave to my grandchildren. Who knows, maybe they’ll find the message…or maybe someone else will. 

NEWS FLASH: The last two Gadaffi-controlled Libyan cities have been liberated and Libya's dictator, the atrocious Muammar Gadaffi has been killed. We are thankful.
      It would seem that Tunisia's former dictator, that vacuous thug, Ben Ali, is the most intelligent of the dictators. He managed to sneak off and hide in Saudi Arabia with all his stolen money. Egypt's Mubarak is in prison, and now Gadaffi is dead. Yemen's Salah is begging to get out, but he hasn't figured out how to do that and keep all his stolen money and his life. Syria's Assad must be sweating. Things look grim for dictators these days. Not that things are much better in the liberated countries: It's extremely difficult to change a whole system and the persistent economic problems contribute to disorder. 
      Tunisia is in the spotlight again because it will be the first liberated country to have elections for a constitutional congress (a body in charge of creating a new constitution and government) on Sunday, October 23rd. Over 100 parties have sprung up making it difficult to choose when voting. We pray that all goes well.
      And, on a lighter note, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the readers who visit this blog, who leave comments, and/or become "followers". I so appreciate your visits, your thoughts, and the dialogue. This blog is my window on the world and I thank you for stopping by. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Grandma’s Blues, Part II: “ ‘Anonymous’ was a Woman”

A nagging question for quilters and historians, especially women historians, is: Why are there so few signatures on our grandmothers’ quilts—or any other kind of hand work for that matter? Why is it so difficult to trace the women who preceded us? This makes "Grandma's Blues" not just a color, but a melancholy-worthy thought. 
         One of my favorite inherited quilts (albeit, green and not blue) contains my grandmother’s signature, of sorts, and the year it was made. This makes it the only one of her quilts that is signed and dated, to the best of my knowledge.
Was it signed and dated because the occasion was important? I think so, for this block is in the center and she made it for her first child and only son, my dad, born in 1920. His name and birthdate appear in a center block as well. 
         My grandmother loved to read and some of my dad’s fondest childhood memories were of his mother reading to him. This quilt testifies to that past, as it contains images from the Peter Pan story, a book she probably read to him when he was six or seven years old. Better yet, it contains an image of Mother Reading a Story, which does not appear to be connected to the Peter Pan story.
The quilt came to me in poor shape. My mom (a devoted knitter) had understood that this quilt was to be used along with several others. She didn’t quite see its uniqueness.
By undoing several stitches of the lighter green border fabric, I discovered that it was added by my grandmother (possibly in the 1940s or early 1950s) to cover the worn out edges. This suggests that this particular quilt had some sentimental value for her, as she took the time to repair it and then gave it to my folks.
My mom had machine zigzagged the holes that had developed across the top (for quilters, this is like nails on a chalkboard—so sorry). However, thanks to the zigzags, the quilt managed to hold together until it landed in my hands. I picked out the zigzag stitches in the mending process.
Using closely matched fabrics from my stash, I have inserted the newer fabrics into the worn blocks (occasionally taking out the quilting) and sewn down the shreds of fabric to the newer fabric in the worst spots. Consequently, the quilt appears whole again from a distance, but upon closer inspection, the repairs can be seen. As some of the quilting had already disappeared through wear, I will eventually re-quilt it.
The images come from a distant era, the 1920s or earlier. Much of the embroidery had worn away, however the pencil marks remained so I was able to bring the images back to life. Besides Wendy (shown at the beginning), there are pirates, 
the Lost Boys, 
an Indian,
and Nana, the nanny/dog. And Peter?
It seems that this is Peter, an elfish child playing the flute and with a feather in his hat. Other images lend a magical note. There is a mermaid,
an impish elf teasing a cat,
and, of course, Tinkerbell.
While writing this post, I went to my mom's 1930 book: 
Two thoughts: first of all, if memories of Walt Disney's movie color your vision of Peter Pan, then read the original version by J.M. Barrie. It's sophisticated and funny and written with a great deal of depth--obviously written for adults as well as children. In fact, I can't imagine kids understanding the half of it.  Second thought: In a later edition, Wendy lost out when the title became simply Peter Pan. And that's a pity for she is associated with a mothering role, however, Peter Pan will replace her again and again--as if mothers are interchangeable.
        So I would like to hear from you...what about your grandmothers and great-grandmothers? Do you possess any traces of them? What would you have liked to possess? Why didn't they sign and why have they been erased? Are there exceptions to that in your family?

And thinking of my children and grandchildren, I will sew a tag to the back that tells the history of this quilt that includes three generations: I count my mom as her zigzag stitches will remain forever visible.
Update: Created by Ruby Short McKim, this quilt pattern appeared in 1926 in the Kansas City Star newspaper. See: and click on "Peter Pan". Thanks to Michelle of Michelle's Romantic Tangle for drawing this to my attention. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Art of Accumulation

One of the drawbacks of living in a small country is that certain activities cannot be done if you don’t want the whole town mocking you or, by the ricochet effect, mocking your family. Consequently, one of the few things I can complain about is that I’m not allowed to go junking or foraging for castoff items when I leave the safety of home. When my husband sees me eyeing rocks (for my garden) from the car, he says sternly: “Do NOT go take those rocks from that dump.” Ok, ok. 
Then there’s the shop we drive by regularly that has old doors, windows and wrought iron in all stages of decay—very tempting.
However, the owner will inevitably ask ten times the normal price when he sees my pasty white skin and blue eyes that mark me as a foreigner. Even with bargaining, I would still pay a higher price than a Tunisian. This I know from experience and it’s annoying to be swindled.
     There is a silver lining: Tunisians of my husband’s generation—and older—accumulate. That is, they find it difficult to throw out anything because it might be useful…someday. This character trait probably developed during colonization when the colonized population tended to be poor, and continued after independence because of laws regulating currency and tight restrictions on imports. Thus, one could never count on stores to carry regular stocks, especially of imported items. Tunisian currency simply did not (and does not) carry clout on the international money market. This explains why I have a small collection of useless miscellaneous items that includes old radios, fans, and irons.
      TRUE story: a French woman married to a Tunisian neighbor (for semi-rural zones a neighbor is anyone living within a 2-mile radius) decided it was time to clean out their basement, which she could barely get into because of the boxes of accumulated paraphernalia and odds and ends. While her husband was absent on a business trip for several days (obviously, she knew him well), she hauled the boxes to the closest garbage pick-up site on the main road—and was quite pleased with herself.
         Unfortunately for her, the garbage pick-up is not a daily occurrence.  When her husband drove home, he spied the boxes overflowing with his possessions sitting by the side of the road. He screeched to a stop, loaded up the boxes, and returned home with the whole kit and caboodle. His wife could only laugh. Can a leopard change the color of his spots?
         Although I do not have a basement, the garage (and the house, for that matter) contains an accumulation of "stuff" that would delight anyone who likes to repurpose and recycle. So, taking into consideration the look of pain on my husband’s face every time I have attempted to toss out something, I have adopted a new version of “use it or lose it”: it is simply “use it.” And this forces me to be creative. Examples:
Small, hand-woven wool rugs became pillows when they frayed and wore out.  The table is the sink hole from a bathroom marble counter and the feet are a beat-up stool painted black. The hooked rug belonged to my grandmother. 
I was told that these particular flat weave designs are no longer produced, so I am thankful I didn't toss them--could this accumulation character trait be rubbing off on me?
The patio table (shown in a previous post) is made of an old portable radiator and a house step removed during remodeling
The hanging wrought iron pieces with grape leaves are the legs to a small table that fell apart. The legs are attached together with wire. Nests, seashells, and rocks--including foot-shaped rocks that have walked across my path--decorate the table and seem cat-resistant.
         Final thoughts about the art of accumulation: The younger “consumer” generation does not seem to accumulate because laws controlling currency and imports have loosened, allowing a flow of goods into Tunisian markets—to the detriment of the Tunisian economy and to the benefit of corrupt leaders. With the Revolution, Tunisians must face the reality of a faultering economy in which unheard  of shortages now occasionally take place. Items that have always been available in abundance have been disappearing for periods of time from store shelves, such as bottled water, sugar, and pasta. The art of accumulation may take the upper hand again.

Of course, I still have a mountain of “stuff” to work through so I don’t really regret not being able to junk; many a happy hour of creative thinking and play await me. Right now I'm trying to figure out what to do with a bidet removed from the bathroom during remodeling. The makeover could be blog-worthy, so stay tuned...