Hampshire Life: Confessions of a quilter

  • Madelyn Young, quilts at her home in Hatfield. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Now my days are spent endlessly searching for that next fat quarter fix, that new Fons and Porter pattern so brilliant, so complicated, that mastering it will send me towards that elusive quilter's high that all of us dream of but few achieve,” writes Madelyn Young, working at her Hatfield home here and on opposite page. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Detail of Virginia Star, c. 1840. Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield. Courtesy Hancock Shaker Village/Michael Fredericks Photo

  • Virginia Star, c. 1840. Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield. Courtesy Hancock Shaker Village/Michael Fredericks Photo

  • Detail of Embroidered Redwork Quilt, c. 1920. Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield. Courtesy Hancock Shaker Village/Michael Fredericks Photo

  • Embroidered Redwork Quilt, c. 1920. Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield. Courtesy Hancock Shaker Village/Michael Fredericks Photo

  • Detail of Ocean Waves, c. 1890. Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield. Courtesy Hancock Shaker Village/Michael Fredericks Photo

  • Ocean Waves, c. 1890. Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield. Courtesy Hancock Shaker Village/Michael Fredericks Photo

  • Detail of Luck Star, c. 1810. Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield. Courtesy Hancock Shaker Village/Michael Fredericks Photo

  • Luck Star, c. 1810. Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield. Courtesy Hancock Shaker Village/Michael Fredericks Photo

  • Detail of Cactus Rose, c. 1860. Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield. Courtesy Hancock Shaker Village/Michael Fredericks Photo

  • Cactus Rose, c. 1860. Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield. Courtesy Hancock Shaker Village/Michael Fredericks Photo

  • Detail of Whig Rose, c. 1850. Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield. Courtesy Hancock Shaker Village/Michael Fredericks Photo

  • Whig Rose, c. 1850. Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield. Courtesy Hancock Shaker Village/Michael Fredericks Photo

  • Old Fashioned Star c.1880. Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield. Courtesy Hancock Shaker Village/Michael Fredericks Photo

  • Old Fashioned Star c.1880. Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield. Courtesy Hancock Shaker Village/Michael Fredericks Photo

  • Old Fashioned Star c.1880. Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield. Courtesy Hancock Shaker Village/Michael Fredericks Photo

  • Madelyn Young, quilts at her home in Hatfield. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Madelyn Young, quilts at her home in Hatfield. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A quilt Madelyn Young had been working on at her home in Hatfield. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A quilt Madelyn Young had been working on at her home in Hatfield. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Madelyn Young, quilts at her home in Hatfield. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Madelyn Young, quilts at her home in Hatfield. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pieces of material Madelyn Young will incorporate into a quilt she is working on at her home in Hatfield. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Quilts made by Madelyn Young. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Making the quilt tops is much more fun than doing all the hand sewing required to quilt the layers together and add the binding. Finishing work drags on for weeks and it is easy to lose interest and get distracted,” writes Young. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Madelyn Young irons parts of a quilt she is working on at her home in Hatfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A quilt Madelyn Young had been working on at her home in Hatfield. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A quilt made by Madelyn Young. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Above left, Young's favorite quilt — the first one she made and now sleeps under. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Patterns Madelyn Young uses for her quilts. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A quilt Madelyn Young had been working on at her home in Hatfield. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A quilt Madelyn Young had been working on at her home in Hatfield. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Madelyn Young, quilts at her home in Hatfield. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For Hampshire Life
Published: 4/4/2019 3:32:21 PM

I approached quilting the same way I approach everything in life: voraciously. Obsessively engage in it — whether it’s a relationship, new job, library book, community garden plot — then reach a saturation point and abruptly walk away without looking back. Then I search for the next shiny object. Look at that! That looks like fun.

That’s how it all started, innocently enough, the day I found a quilting book on the free table in the community room of my apartment complex. Tired of knitting, I decided to give quilting a try. How hard can it be? I thumbed through the book, selected a pattern, bought some fabric and just like that, my world came crashing down around me. Now my days are spent endlessly searching for that next fat quarter fix, that new Fons and Porter pattern so brilliant, so complicated, that mastering it will send me towards that elusive quilter’s high that all of us dream of but few achieve.

The initial pattern I chose was a Double Irish Chain. Partly because of my Scots-Irish ancestry and partly because the entire quilt is made with one simple shape, a 2½-inch square, this seemed easier than the patterns with multiple shapes. Using a pair of scissors I found in a kitchen drawer, I cut the nearly 1000 squares out one at a time. Following the pattern, I sewed the squares together with my trusty Singer featherweight, a gift from my mother the year I turned 12. Not owning an iron, I stretched cotton batting and quilt backing fabric over my little kitchen table and smoothed out the wrinkles as best I could. Next, I used a needle and thread to quilt the three layers together, sewing around the shapes, a process I have since learned is called “quilting in a ditch.” No pins, no hoop, no frame, no thimble, just classical music on NPR and a compulsion to see this project through to the end. Three months, $150, two boxes of bandages and a tube of arthritis rub later, I spread that fabulous purple quilt over me and felt the rush — my first quilter’s high!

I have made over 35 quilts in the three years since then and this is still my favorite. It is the quilt I sleep under every night, even if it means cranking up the AC.

Later I learned, from an elderly cousin, that my great-grandmother, Gertrude, used the same pattern for some of her quilts. Perhaps it is our shared ancestry? Or maybe she, too, was drawn to the one simple shape. I often picture her sitting in the evening with her sewing in her lap, squinting in the soft candlelight, making tiny, perfect, even stitches, one after another. When she finally puts away her sewing and goes upstairs to bed, she pulls the wedding quilt she made as a hopeful young girl over herself and my great-grandfather Frank. Young girls in my great-grandmother’s day were encouraged to practice sewing by making 10-12 quilt tops which, upon the girl getting engaged, would be turned into quilts to be used during the marriage. One special quilt would become the wedding quilt for the marriage bed.

This is my third year of quilting. This year, I promised myself, I will finish all those abandoned quilt projects in various stages of completion. I will find a way to make something out of all those orphan blocks and scraps. I will whittle down my fabric stash and not buy another piece of fabric until it is all used. Like all of my resolutions, this one never made it past the first week of January. Having The Yellow Quilt Shop less than a mile from my Hatfield apartment doesn’t help. It’s like being a recovering alcoholic living next door to Cheers!

My seams don’t always meet at the corner, but with practice, my quilts are getting better. People tell me that they don’t see any mistakes when they look at my quilts, while it’s the mistakes that jump right out at me. My years as a gardener conditioned me to see the weeds, to see what’s wrong or what needs fixing. Perhaps I should learn to see the garden.

The Amish, so I’ve heard, deliberately make mistakes when making quilts because only God is perfect. The Japanese have a concept of wabi sabi, of embracing imperfection. I guess any excuse is better than none, but for me, my favorite excuse for making less than perfect quilts is something my late sister, Allison, told me: “mistakes prove it was made by hand.”

Now I have more of the tools (and tricks) of the trade. Lowly kitchen scissors have been upstaged by rotary cutters and mats. A steam iron and ironing board to press the seams as they are sewn — who would have known this would make such a difference?

Templates for all those shapes that looked too difficult, square up rulers to make sure that a 6½ inch block really measures 6½ inches. It’s amazing how a tiny error in a few blocks gets multiplied into a huge problem as blocks are sewed together. Measure twice, cut once — like they say on “This Old House.”

My fabric pairings are more appealing now that I have learned that Civil War reproduction fabrics really don’t go with batiks. Deciding on a style and color palette helps eliminate those impulse purchases that clog the inventory. There is a nice selection of reproduction fabrics at my quilt shop, so I know that if I choose any of the fabrics in this section they will all go together in a quilt.

There’s always the option of making a scrap string quilt with all the odd bits. I made a really wild string quilt once when a neighbor gave me a bunch of fabric scraps she had collected over the years. Orange and raspberry and teal (oh my!) coupled with florals and stripes and polka dots. It was amazing! I couldn’t wait to get rid of it, though, because it made me dizzy to look at it. My cousin snatched it up for her granddaughter, who absolutely loved it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Sometimes my quilt tops languish for months while I play with other patterns and fabrics. Making the quilt tops is much more fun than doing all the hand sewing required to quilt the layers together and add the binding. Finishing work drags on for weeks and it is easy to lose interest and get distracted. So many quilts, so little time.

Lately I find myself encouraging Annika, my 9-year-old niece, to learn to craft. I wish I could have learned quilting at my great-grandmother’s knee instead of from a book off the free table. So many skills have slipped away from us through time; I feel it is my duty to pass along whatever skills I have managed to learn. Well that, and also the three sewing machines, two dozen quilting books and a fabric inventory that completely fills a closet, and three of those big, ugly plastic storage bins that I have to hide under the daybed. Oh, and also the stack of finished quilts and the pile of quilt tops waiting for batting, backs and bindings. Not to mention the shoebox filled with thread and the packets of needles and the quilt pins, basting pins, straight pins and the partial bolt of Wonder Under fusible bond.

I dream of someday making a beautiful Baltimore Album Quilt, of creating an amazing Storm at Sea table runner, of a luscious Log Cabin lap quilt tossed casually over a chair and a Mille Fleur tapestry to hang on my bedroom wall. The possibilities are endless, which can be quite disconcerting. My mantra, when in a fabric store, is focus — ohm — focus.

In my heart of hearts, I harbor a secret desire to create that one perfect quilt before I die. Museum quality, this quilt will be passed along through the generations of my family and will be admired, used for warmth and decoration, coveted by everyone who has the pleasure of sleeping under it. My legacy quilt. Who knows? At some future episode of “Antiques Roadshow,” this quilt might be pronounced a national treasure. Stranger things have happened.

Rules for quilters

1. Perfection is highly overrated. Proudly be a good-enough quilter, especially after age 65.

2. If you give someone a quilt and they tell you it clashes with the couch, tell them to buy a new couch.

3. Make quilts! It helps to keep dementia at bay. Leave them to someone in your will so it will be their problem.

4. All colors go together. See: wildflower meadow.

5. Life is short. Spend it doing something you love, and always sleep under a quilt. If you die in your sleep, at least you will go out in style!

Madelyn Young was formerly a senior gardener at Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area in Virginia. She studied horticulture at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and American studies as a Frances Perkins scholar at Mount Holyoke.




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