The Back Story

I grew up in Iowa, among women who sewed like there was no tomorrow. I have early memories of my grandmother at her treadle machine. She made everything for her ten children—even their underwear, which she sewed from old flour sacks. But of course, that was long ago, when most women sewed out of necessity.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, my mother made sure that I had store-bought underwear, but she sewed just about everything else. My aunts sewed all my cousins' clothing. Aunt Mary Jean sewed very fast, driving her machine like a race car driver, and sometimes my cousin Claudia would show up at school in an outfit her mom "whipped up for her" before breakfast. My aunt Arlene sewed very carefully with attention to every fine detail. I still have some of the tiny dresses, embellished with rick-rack and small buttons, that she made for my doll. Her choice of fabric and color was uniquely her own. To this day I think of her when I see a delicate repeat pattern on a certain hue of peachy-pink cotton.

Although I didn't take to sewing with quite the same skill and enthusiasm as my kindred, I did share their love of cloth. We would take trips to the fabric store with no particular project in mind. We would walk among the bolts of fabric in those wonderful stores, feeling the cloth between our fingers. And sure enough (perhaps in an altered mental state after breathing the formaldehyde sizings) we always came home with lots of fabric. Much more than we could use. My sister had so many stacks of material in her attic that, according to her husband, it was providing insulation for their house. But her stash held a story. It was an archive of the transition in textile design throughout the 1960s and 1970s. It documented the emergence of new synthetics and blends. (All this while saving on heating bills!)

Of course, after all the PJs, short sets and pedal pushers, all the Easter dresses, blouses and prom dresses were finished, after the children were grown and gone,  my mother and my aunts, joined by my sister and at least one cousin, all became quilters. A logical destiny, perhaps, for people who collect fabric.

My sister Carol approaches quilting as an an art form and her quilts pop with bold color schemes. When my oldest daughter, Anna, was finishing college, Carol and I were discussing the quilt she planned to make for her as a graduation gift. And that's where I re-enter the story. I volunteered to dye cotton for the project.