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On Hand Quilting.

I was offered the opportunity to talk about my work and hand quilting at the Front Range Modern Quilt Guild last weekend. It was a fantastic experience for me, as I’ve never really talked about my quilts and my process in person to an audience of more than a few people. The chance to show not only what I do but how I do it was an excellent experience, one that I hope to repeat in the future.

It also forced to me do a lot of thinking about not just about what I do and how I do it but why I do it.

The how is relatively easy to explain now, as I’ve mulled over it a lot in the last few months. You, dear reader, can take a gander at this video my friend Juli Jackson generously put together for me to see how I make those stitches. In the three years that I’ve hand quilted, I’ve logged probably close to 1000 hours of hand quilting. It has become an automatic motion, familiar and comforting. I don’t think about it at all when I sit down to quit.

As you can see, it’s not a typical western style hand stitch (Sarah Filke has a great video on how to do that on YouTube). While there is a rocking motion involved, I’m using more of both of my hands to make the stitch. The dominant hand, my right, determines the length of the stitch on top of the quilt and moves the needle through the quilt sandwich. The non-dominant hand manipulates the fabric and determines the length of the stitch on the bottom. You can see that I tend to go past where I actually want the needle to be and pull it back. I’m working on changing this, as it tends to actually be quite more fatiguing on the hands and arms than it needs to be.

The stitches I make are longer than the spaces between the stitches. This is a hallmark of the sashiko stitch that I taught myself when I first started. The result is a more dominant stitch on top of the quilt and small dots on the back of the quilt with large spaces in between. In the video, I’m using a large needle, thick thread and am quilting through a heavily pieced top, wool batting and a muslin back. I’ve also decided, though much trial and error, that loosely placing the quilt in a hoop is actually a much better way to manage the fabric and my time than quilting without one.

The why, however, has many answers.

The time it takes me to quilt a quilt is significant and it marks that time for me. One of my quilts recounts to me the time in my life that I spent quilting it, taking me back to those details easily forgotten in the present day. It brings back the people I spent time with, the places I have lived and loved, the difficulties and the lessons learned. Hand quilting helps me see where I have come from.

It reminds me that my creative work is a slow, on-going process that doesn’t need to be done for the sake of getting something done. It is not a race but a meandering stroll. It is meant to be revealed in, savored, enjoyed.

It forces me to accept that perfection is unattainable and that moving forward is better than dwelling in the imperfections. There is beauty in each and every single stitch, even when they aren’t all straight or even. I can strive for good craft but perfection is something that isn’t useful for me.

As someone who isn’t particularly inclined to mark making with traditional methods, my stitches are the marks my hand makes.

I also hand quilt my quilts because it helps me direct my anxiety into something productive. It engages the resulting Obsessive Compulsive behavior that I have used all of my life to cope with it. The repetitive motion has become woven into my muscle memory and is a mindless yet engaging way to spend time that would otherwise be idle. By channeling that otherwise destructive and previously crippling behavior into something productive, I take all of the Really Bad Shit and make something I actually want to put out into the world.

Here’s the thing: I have accepted the reality that I will never be the finest hand quilter in the world. I make stitches that are my own, a culmination of my own trial and error. I won’t be making the 10-13 stitches per inch that traditional hand quilters’ tend to use as the mark of “good” hand quilting. My goal is make something that is solely my own, to put original work out into the world that isn’t dependent on an pre-established notion of “good” and “bad”.

4 Comments

  1. Loved watching the video and reading the analysis of how, why and to what degree you please us all by not being anything but yourself, perfect as you can be!
    Thank you.
    Frederick

  2. Oh this is wonderful! So many of your ‘whys’ I can relate to as applied to both hand quilting and also my slow, long term EPP projects. Amen to your last point regarding ‘imperfection’ too. I like to think my work is perfectly handmade and for that to be the case I have to have enjoyed the process as well as the result.

    • Shelby Marie

      Thank you again, Karen. I think handwork in this day in age of mass production, constant stimulation and rushing is really important. It is an ongoing reminder that there is but one finish line in our lives and racing towards it does not lend well to enjoying the time we do have. Embracing imperfection is such an important part of accepting not just the work we make but ourselves and our lives.

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