Quilting Lessons: Notes from the Scrap Bag of a Writer and Quilterby Janet Catherine Berlo, Janet Berlo
In the middle of a successful academic career art historian Janet Catherine Berlo finds herself literally at a loss for words. A severe case of writer's block forces her to abandon a book manuscript mid-stream; she finds herself quilting instead. Scorning the logic, planning, and order of scholarship and writing, she immerses herself in free-wheeling patterns and vivid colors. For eighteen months she spends all day, every day, quilting. In the midst of what she calls her "quilt madness" Berlo questions why her successful career is momentarily halted at mid-life. This book penetrates to the very heart of women's lives, focusing on their relationships to family and friends, to work, to daily tasks. It is a search for meaning at mid-life, a search for an integration of career and creativity.
“Berlo relates the conflict and pressures of integrating past and present, career and personal life, life goals and daily chores. Her needle-sharp prose seamlessly integrates quilting history, techniques, bits of poetry, and recipes. Her humor is equally sharp.”—Piecework
"Berlo’s writing captures the intensity of the physical and emotional dimensions of the creative impulse . . . Only someone able to step back and observe herself in the midst of confusion could have given us this very personal, often insightful narrative."—Great Plains Quarterly
- UNP - Bison Books
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- 0.34(w) x 8.50(h) x 5.50(d)
Read an Excerpt
Like all women, I worry about loss. Specifically, the loss of my husband. While we don't have a traditional, old-fashioned marriage (I am not financially dependent on him, and we have no children), he is my best friend, my coconspirator. We are both loners. We joke about that: a pair of loners.
Sometimes when he is out longer than I expect or there is a violent thunderstorm during rush hour, I worry that he is dead. While I recognize that this fear is irrational, I also know from talking with other women that it is not uncommon. Women who have children experience these terrors far more often in regard to their children, I suppose. But all my terrors are focused on the loss of one man. I believe that without him I could not breathe.
It frightens me to think of this loss. I worry that I would not survive it. I know from the way I have handled other losses in the past that it is easy for me to lose my bearings. In the face of grief I have experienced crippling anxiety and depression. But for this worst of all possible losses I have a survival plan.
Looking at my quilt books some months ago, I was moved to tears by a quilt made in 1839 by Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell of Kentucky. It is a repeating Lemoyne Star pattern, but it has a central square that is a graveyard with a gate. A path leads into the graveyard from one side of the quilt. In a corner of the central square four cloth caskets are appliquéd in a cluster, each labeled with a name. Two of Elizabeth Mitchell's sons died inthedecade before she made this quilt; two of the caskets bear their names. Other caskets make up an intermittent border on three sides of the quilt, waiting to join those already inside the graveyard. The border of the quilt is a picket fence. The quilt is pieced in browns and beiges, but the pieced stars are vibrant despite their somber tones. They perform a muted dance of hope across the surface of the quilt. This coverlet shows a great deal of wear; did its maker shroud herself in it for many years after her losses?
If my mate should die before me, I will make a mourning quilt. Like Elizabeth Mitchell's quilt, mine will be elaborate and detailed, not one that can be completed in a week or a month. Intricate in pattern and execution, it will be composed of many small pieces to which I must pay close attention as I work. Not being a member of an organized religion, I will have no conventional rituals of mourning to follow. This will be my path out of sorrow.
Will I choose the traditional colors of mourning? I don't know. I like black and use it a lot in my quilts. But Bradley likes yellow. He introduced me to the possibilities of yellow, a color I had long scorned. Perhaps his quilt will explore all its permutations. I should add more yellows to my stash, just in case.
In their oral history of elderly quilters from Texas and New Mexico, The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art, Patricia Cooper and Norma Buford record one widow's reminiscence: "Mr. Thompson and I, we worked side by side all them years. Up till I was sixty-five. He taught me everything I know about building and carpentry. We was more than married; we was partners. When he died, we was in the middle of building this house for ourselves, and after the funeral I come home and put on my overalls and finished this house in thirty days. I never looked up till I was through. I lost fifty-seven pounds during that time. Then I took up quilting." Quirl Thompson Havenhill found useful ways to clear a path through grief. Quilting is my contingency plan for finding my way through sorrow. Other women have grappled with loss in other ways, but a common thread emerges: Our work will help us survive.
It's not surprising that I'm focused on loss right now. My work and Bradley often seem to be the only two things I need in the world. Both have been easy, steady, and rewarding relationships, until the recent fickle desertion of my work. I have always defined myself in relation to my work; having lost this primary relationship, it makes sense that I should worry about the health of the other.
Clearly, my psyche is making backup plans. Oddly enough, it's not seeking solace in friends or family but in a new kind of work, based in color and texture and pattern.
I have been experimenting with the breaking of boundaries, the transformation of patterns, the dynamic play of asymmetry, and the fracturing and spiraling outward of patterns. Not only in the act of quilt making but in the very patterns I have chosenor rather the very patterns that have seized me and compelled me to experiment with themI have been signaling change, transformation, the rupture of predictable pattern on a grand scale.
Sounds like my life at forty.
Today I sat down, resolving to work on my book on Native women and art, which I have neglected for almost a year. I told myself that I would not censor or edit as I wrote. I would simply accept what came forth, without worrying about precisely how it would fit into the book manuscript. What came pouring out was the introduction and framework for this book. I quickly made a list of possible topics for small essays. The first on the list of my topics was "Loss." I promptly scribbled the first draft of the previous essay.
The author of eight previous scholarly tomes, I have been intending for my current project to be different from my other academic writings. Freer, more experimental, more self-revelatory. It is having a difficult and painful gestation. Yet, instead of writing about other women's art, I find I am making my own. It speaks of dizzying color, patterns transformed, new freewheeling forms. I have been acting out with fabric what I need to do in my life.
I telephone Kate Anderson, a St. Louis artist I have known for years. We are not close friends, but when we talk, we are always on the same wavelength.
"Kate, do you think of your art making as play?" I ask her without preamble. I think I know what the answer will be and prepare to settle in for a satisfying discussion of playfulness in our work.
"No, it's not play," she says adamantly, surprising me. "I have another friend who's always exclaiming `Oh, I envy you! You must have so much fun in your studio!' It drives me nuts."
"If it's not play, what is it?" I ask.
"It's passion," she declares. "It's physically arduous, but soothing too. I think that people call it `play' because they only know how to talk about it in childlike terms. They don't have a vocabulary for adult passion for work. But when I'm in the studio, I feel like I tap into an elemental part of myself. I enter another zone. It's almost meditative."
"I know exactly what you mean," I tell her. "I feel that too."
Neither of us is religious, nor are we New-Agey, so we know what we don't mean by this vocabulary, which skirts dangerous territory.
"It only takes a few minutes of working with the fabric and I'm there," I begin.
"Yes!" she interrupts. "It's in the touch. I connect instantaneously. As soon as I touch my materials, I begin to feel soothed."
"What about the design process?" I ask her. "Isn't that like play?"
Kate and her husband collaborate on big painted constructions. Combining driftwood and colored wooden elements, the works look like three-dimensional wooden quilts. There are always lots of unfinished pieces strewn about the Andersons' studio. I have observed them sitting in their easy chairs, in front of their work-in-progress. Coffee cups in hand, they have endless, subtle discussions about shade and pattern, rhythm and repetition.
"Well, we experiment with the placement of forms. There's a lot of moving pieces around like jigsaw puzzles ... I guess it is play!"
Kate chuckles, seeming startled at this insight. "Oh, my God! It's a whole series of unfinished jigsaw puzzles we're playing with!"
I too play with my puzzle pieces of soft fabric spread out on the carpet. Working hard at this play, I have been teaching myself to make a way to the next part of my life, to break out of the predictable and tired patterns of the past. I have leapt readily into the nonverbal, nonlinear, kinetic world of quilt making, for it has nourished some part of me that was starving. Yet now, in these pages, I am moved to articulate how that process has been transforming my life.
The quilt maker inside emerged when I was in rebellion against the small, loud, controlling part of me who demanded that I finish an unfinished book. In the twelve months since then, I have completed seven large quilts and have made another dozen small pieced projects like table runners and place mats.
The book's hulking presence rebukes me every day. In addition to the unfinished book, I have a half-dozen pieced quilt tops that I have not sandwiched and finished up, and many pieced squares that will make their way into another half-dozen quilts.
When the time is right.
As all quilt makers know, piecing and quilting is a great unfinished business.
In my unfinished book on Native American women's arts, one of the chapters I did complete concerns the insights that myth offers concerning the role of the Indian woman as artist. The Lakota and the Iroquois, for example, have legends in which a spirit woman doing weaving or quillwork is hampered from finishing her work. Yet this is a good thing, according to these stories. For if such women finish their work, the world will come to an end. These Native American stories express a glorious version of the maxim "women's work is never done." But how wonderful that the work in question is not cooking, cleaning, or child care! It is art making.
I like it: Women's unfinished arts allow for the continuation of life as we know it.
Many quilters know for a fact that the world will come to an end before they manage to complete all their half-done projects. An informal poll of my two older sisters reveals that Judith has six quilts and four other projects unfinished. B. J. has twelve unfinished projects, as well as a backlog of two dozen more that have been started only in her imagination. She also has the world's largest fabric stash. Like the Sioux woman of legend, she could sit and quilt until the end of the world without using it all up.
B. J. talks about the comfort of having more than enough fabric.
"I know I'll never be bored. And if I'm snowed in during a New Hampshire blizzard, I'm not trapped."
I think that for many quilters, my sister included, who may not have richness, extravagance, and abundance in other aspects of their lives, there is something deeply satisfying about this sort of "material" abundance and the many unfinished projects that go along with it.
Old quilt squares, those small fragments of the past, are oddly moving. They are remnants of other women's hopes and aspirations, glimpses of the colors and patterns that inspired gluttony and hope, a link with our female ancestors. Judging by the number to be had at flea markets and quilt fairs, it is clear that this unfinished business has been going on for a long time.
Last fall I took a class on finishing techniques at In Stitches, my favorite St. Louis quilt shop. Ellen, our teacher, encouraged us to buy a large box of five gross stainless-steel safety pins. I did an approximate computation in my head and then spoke out loud.
"Five times 144?" I asked, puzzled. "That's over 700 pins! Why in the world would I need over 700 pins?"
"It's 720 pins," Ellen said firmly. "And be sure they are stainless. You don't want rust on your quilt."
"How would the quilt get rusty in the time between sandwiching the layers and quilting the top?" another student asked.
Ellen laughed. "You'd be surprised. You put it aside for a few weeks. And then you start another quilt. Or maybe family life takes over your time. Sometimes the quilt will sit for a few monthsor even a few yearsbefore you get the opportunity to quilt it."
A mere three months into Quilt Madness, I laughed at the thought that I would ever have more than one or two unfinished quilts. I bought a small box of pins, and then another, and another. Six weeks later I bought two more. Now I am ready for that damn box of 720 pins.
Why is unfinished business okay in quilting but not in writing?
I was hosting one of my favorite scholarly sisters, Diane Bell, who had come to my university to give a lecture on Aboriginal Australian women's life and art. As we sat in my back yard, drinking tea, I complained to her about my languishing book.
"It's just such a loud rebuke in my head, Diane. All I hear is `Unfinished!' `Unfinished!' It's driving me crazy!"
"Don't let it do that. I began a book in the 1970s. It didn't want to be finished either. I put it aside. Wrote three other books, I did," she tells me matter-of-factly in her broad Australian accent.
"That book didn't want to be finished then. It took almost twenty years of working on other things before that manuscript wanted to be finished.
"And I matured so much as a scholar in those years," she confides, brushing her wild mane of gray-brown hair back from her face. "When I picked it up again, I framed the discussion much more intelligently than I would have two decades before."
I have to have faith that what I have put down will be picked up again. As I brood about my unfinished book, I take solace in the fact that sometimes pieced work is long in the making. Every quilt book I look at and every quilt show I attend lately gives me solace in this regard.
Nebraska quilt maker Juliamae Duerfeldt started an appliquéd gladiola quilt in 1946. Forty-two years later, in 1988, she finished it. Genevieve Zurn pieced a Grandmother's Flower Garden Quilt top composed of over two thousand hexagons when she was a nine-year-old girl, in 1928. She quilted it in 1975. New York needle artist Edith Almann started a Yo-Yo Quilt in 1934 at the age of seven. She finished it in 1987, at sixty-one. It has 5,856 little gathered yo-yos in it, so perhaps she can be forgiven.
But can I be?
I abandoned my book at a time when it seemed like it had at least that many disparate facts, subtopics, and intellectual threads hanging from it. I had thoroughly researched what had been written in one hundred years worth of the anthropological literature on Native American women. I had wrestled with theoretical and methodological writings that had arisen from the feminist reexamination of women's lives over the last four decades, as well as the postmodern critiques of anthropology, feminism, colonialism, and art. I had interviewed contemporary artists and worked in Native communities. Why was I suddenly paralyzed?
Perhaps I should pack it away, like an unfinished quilt, secure in the knowledge that the time will come to finally piece it together.
Standing in front of an appliquéd Flower Garden Quilt at a Kansas City quilt show last week, I was eavesdropping on two older spectators.
The elegant silver-haired one turned to her sidekick and said in exasperation, "You know, I really must finish my Flower Garden Quilt some time. I started the blasted thing in 1939!"
Her friend gave a knowing nod.
When I began this book, I played with the idea of titling some of the essays with the names of quilt blocks: Delectable Mountains, Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, Nine Patch. But since I was intending to write about the creative process in general and my own writing problems in particular, I knew that not all the essays would be so titled. After all, I wanted to write about writer's block. I typed the title Writer's Block on the computer screen and then began to laugh.
Writer's Block as a quilt square!
What would Writer's Block look like in the Crazy Quilt of my life? Is it just a blank muslin square? After all, Writer's Block is the absence of words, ideas, marks on the page. But it is certainly not a blank square in my case! For me, Writer's Block has been the most complex, convoluted square of all. Perhaps it is one of the twenty-two-inch blocks that comprise the huge green Serendipity Quilt that I made this past winter for my own bedroom. Writer's Block is absence of words, but fullness of fabric and color and pattern. Asymmetry. Nonlinearity. All the things my lopsided, rational, linear brain had been denied the past few years.
For the first months of my quilt-making apprenticeship, I worked relentlessly, putting in much longer hours than I ever had on my academic work. I was aware of a great hunger for vivid color, for the pleasing interplay of patterns. I didn't always make finished quilts. Sometimes I just experimented: a block of Bear's Paw pattern in reds and rich navy blues; three blocks of Courthouse Steps in blacks and vibrant purples.
Later I became more reflective about the process. Clearly I was teaching myself a new way of working. Ten months of my own daily quilting lessons made it possible for me to view the rest of my life in better perspective. What exactly are the preliminary quilting lessons of my apprenticeship?
Try to care less about the finished product and have more enjoyment of the process. In writing, all too often the writer is consumed with the idea of the finished product: the book, the poem, the article in an academic journal. In quilting, we find the finished product beautiful, and we may take great pride in our achievements, but we only do it because we enjoy the process. No one who doesn't enjoy cutting up fabric into little pieces and sewing them back together again has ever been successful at making pieced quilts!
It is crucial to accept the messiness of the process. At my writing desk, I always harbor the illusion that if only I could clear out the disorder, I could more easily work on the book. As a result, I often spend the two or three most productive hours of my morning answering letters, filing the endless stack of photocopies that threaten to take over, or reading just one more article. And so I squander my precious energy, trying to "get to" the work instead of just doing it.
In my quilt studio, I always have three or four projects in active production. (This doesn't include those that are half cut out or half pieced and put away for a few months.) The window seat might be piled high with the yardage and scraps of the Navajo Star Map Quilt that I've been laying out. The reds, blacks, and whites lie there intertwined. Next to them are the color choices I am mulling over for Diane Bell's place mats: It might take a few days of passing by the stack to determine if those colors are electric enough to shine in the same room with that vibrant woman. On the cutting table is a basket of two-inch strips from the green Log Cabins I've been making. Coiled in the corner by the iron is the binding for yet another project. Yet when I come to the cutting board in the morning and prepare to work, I don't feel the need to organize, or clear out, or clean up. As long as there is space enough to measure and cut, I simply begin work, amid the festive disorder.
If one road is blocked, try another. I am just in the beginning stages of trying a new way of working on my book. Since the old way of sitting at a desk and working at a computer for five to seven hours a day no longer works, I am trying a more patchwork approach. I take small pieces of it with me, so that I can integrate a half-hour's worth of writing into the living room, especially when the afternoon sun is shining through the back window. I am trying to write spontaneously rather than to rely so much on the framework of the scholarly literature, the footnote, the quotation. This is more like a Serendipity Quilt than a measured, patterned square.
If a subsection of a chapter is not unfolding logically, I lay the pages out on the floor, in the same area where I lay out quilts in process. It works equally well for the mapping out of complex ideas. The overall design will often emerge. Paragraphs and pages can be shifted around, cut up and pasted, until they look right.
Be patient until the right path emerges. When I begin work on a new quilt, I feel a great sense of excitement and experimentation. First, I choose the fabric. This is a long process, and one I carry around in my head and in my purse. Some of the fabrics will come from my stash. Little strips of these chosen fabrics pinned to a file card lurk at the bottom of my large shoulder bag, in case I find myself in the vicinity of a fabric store.
When I have assembled an ample range of fabrics, I make a few practice blocks. Sometimes it is clear right away that a certain pattern or a certain conjunction of fabrics will not work for the idea I have in mind. It would never occur to me (or to any other quilter, I hope) to throw away those trial blocks or to be angry that they didn't come out right the first time. I put them aside for later use. These blocks may prove to be the inspiration for another quilt next week or next year, or one of them may become the center portion of a pillow for a quick gift.
Why then am I so pragmatic and stingy about my writing? If the ideas won't flow, I get angry. If my mind is sluggish and won't produce complex thought, I castigate myself. I panic, grow melodramatic: I will NEVER write again!
In contrast, as a quilter, I know that there are days to begin a complex Pineapple patch and then there are days to do simple rotary cutting of strips for a Log Cabin Quilt. Both are satisfying. Each has its own rhythms. And some days, of course, all one can do is get in the car and drive to the fabric store. In that safe haven, one can walk down the aisles in a daze, imbibing color and pattern. Looking for something to jump-start the brain. Sometimes all it takes is a fat quarter-yard of the right Nancy Crow fabric.
In the final stages of preparing this manuscript, I discovered that there is, in fact, a pattern called Writer's Block. Judy Martin illustrates it in her Ultimate Book of Quilt Block Patterns. It is not a pattern I would intuitively have chosen to depict my malady. But the more I looked at it, the more it fit.
Martin illustrates a pinwheel in gray stripes against a black eight-pointed star. When I began to picture the pinwheel endlessly spinning in the breeze, it seemed an increasingly appropriate pattern. That's how the scholarly lobe of my brain has felt these last few months: containing only a rickety plastic pinwheel, spinning aimlessly, powering nothing and going nowhere.
Meet the Author
Janet Catherine Berlo, a professor of art history at the University of Rochester who specializes in Native American art, is also a creative writer and quilter. Her many books include Wild By Design: Two Hundred Years of Innovation and Artistry in American Quilts, Spirit Beings and Sun Dancers: Black Hawk’s Vision of the Lakota World, and Native North American Art (with coauthor Ruth Phillips).
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