I have been asked to write a story about struggling to learn a skill that in no way comes naturally to me. Just a story? When I could write a set of encyclopedias? I am such a klutz. I’m the girl who used to run through the house, the big old house where I grew up, banging knees and shins on every piece of furniture possible. My legs were two skinny sticks mottled with purple, blue, and green. Colorful knobbiness, that was me. Not pretty, when I wore shorts in the summer. It was the emblem of how I could never stop.
Another example of my extreme klutziness was my left hand. In more recent years it might have been classified as a disability, but back then it was just the klutz in me. If I happened to be carrying a cup or glass in my left hand, sometimes I’d just drop it. As years went by, I finally noticed that the fingers of that hand just opened by themselves, couldn’t maintain a fist or closed position. That’s why I never tried to do anything much with gymnastics and never could play a musical instrument.
Many tears later, and much money wasted on failed piano lessons, I began to resign myself to having only one useful hand. After all, I couldn’t even use one to button things. Shed a few tears over that, too, but at least I was never given the disability label. “Klutz” was all right, then. Still, it would have been nice if the neurologist had come up with an explanation. It’s hard to go through life feeling physically inadequate and not knowing the cause.
The point of all of this is that, despite not knowing the reason what caused it, I am kind of resigned to having a physical limitation, the cause of which should have been diagnosed. Moreover, I know it is invisible about 98 or 99% of the time. Nobody knows if I don’t say anything, unless I need something buttoned.
All this means that when selecting a skill that doesn’t come naturally to me, I don’t think buttoning sleeves or playing music counts, because there’s a legitimate barrier to doing those things. The struggle I’m going to tell you about is, however, related to the black-and-blue legs that were my trademark.
You see, I am an odd duck. I like to lie around and do almost nothing except for reading a mystery or watching a good movie. Otherwise, I like to race around like I’m trying to catch up with tomorrow. I think that might be the potential type of energy (stay at rest if you are at rest) and kinetic energy (keep moving if you’re already in motion). Maybe somebody in physics or some other science can explain it better. My problem is boundaries, as the obstacle course with the furniture showed early on in my life. Don’t move a muscle or fly off in all directions, not much in between.
Balance would be nice and I fully recognize the merits of both concentration and movement. There are moments, though, when I get desperate. You see, I like to do things, make things, create things. Lots of things. The process of making is a real high for me. I especially like making things out of colors and flavors and am able to spend hours on tasks that require me to focus. Time just melts away, poof!, ceases to exist, until I come up for air. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi definitely had me in mind when he wrote his books on creativity and flow. He saved me from thinking I was a candidate for the modern equivalent to the looney bin.
The skill that does not come easy at all to me now should make a lot of sense. Because of my ‘maker’ attitude (the term ‘maker’ has actually gotten popular in recent years), I was drawn to quilting. After all, sewing and sewing well had been part of the lives of my great grandmother, grandmother, and mother. I knew it could be part of my life as well. I hoped it could. I really enjoyed, still enjoy, seeing how things can be born from my hands. Another writer, Peter Korn (from Maine) also seems to have had me in mind when he wrote. Why We Make Things and Why It Matters was a revelation for me, one I needed. I have this constant urge to make things. (In another century, I probably would have made fourteen or fifteen children…)
Fast forward to my finding the perfect instructor and the perfect quilt shop, perfectly near my house. I knew it was going to be an adventure! Designs and hues and many fancy or plain stitches, I was all in. I was going to get the hang of quilting and soon would have a few quilts hanging on walls or slung across a bed, all beautiful and bright.
Excited because I could do most everything with my right hand and foot, I sat down at the table in front of the sewing machine, new and fancy. Confidence high, because no complex manipulations of parts would be needed for poor left hand.
Oops, not so fast. You can’t sew what you haven’t cut. Damn! Out must come the cutting mat and the rotary cutter, and don’t forget the instructions about how wide and long each fabric piece needs to be before they can all be articulated into one wondrous design. Hopefully you have done a decent job with calculating numbers and amounts of material. Not so hard, actually, since I’m quite fast at doing fractions in my head.
I know I have to read the pattern, and very carefully. I accept the fact that I must place the special ruler exactly where it needs to be in order to cut accurately, then I must hold it firmly while running the rotary blade through the fabric. Darn hard My hand always wants to zip from close to my body upward, in a northerly direction, cutting the fibers in a fast and furious motion.
Doesn’t work, as any quilter can tell you. It wasn’t an issue with my mother, who held only very sharp scissors in her right hand and carefully followed the black lines on the tissue paper patterns. Even an eighth of an inch outside the lines was careless. But then, Mom was never the type to color outside the lines or to substitute ingredients in recipes. Not my mother’s daughter, I scrawled all over and chose the crayons I liked rather than the right ones for sky and trees and cows.
Slow down! A voice from somewhere, not my mother’s, grandmother’s, or great grandmother’s. They’re long gone. They never used a rotary cutter, either. However, they were so precise in what they did with cloth and thread that it was creepy. It was agonizing to watch the shears severing the fabric like the surgeon opens the belly of a patient. Hours on end, and I had running to do.
I feel intimidated. There’s a book called Running With Scissors. I haven’t read it, but I get the running part, as you know. Now I was going to run with a needle and hoped not to get hurt.
Ouch! The first cuts were not great. The fabric pieces tried their best to fit together, but the edges rebelled. Heaven forbid the points should match up… my flying geese were flying in too many directions. My log cabin blocks leaned precariously. The simple puss-in-the-corner block started yowling and hissing at me, asking to be treated better. I won’t say what the wheel of fortune block, the Dresden plate, and the drunkard’s path blocks cried, but they did.
Quilting is many things. The first thing is accuracy. You know, the old saying, ‘measure twice, cut once’? Well, I kind of did, but I used my own saying, which was more like ‘measure once, cut twice’. I have decided that I’m allergic to some straight lines and to numbers on rulers. Not all straight lines of course, and not to all rulers, but still. I’m better now, but nevertheless must really struggle to slow down the almost-useless hand that anchors the long ruler as best it can. This is an infinite challenge because I am required to keep an eye on the round blade that moves up and out away from me. If I take my eye off it, the blade veers off to the right and I’m in trouble again. I refuse to spend all that money on an expensive machine that programs the cutting of all the shapes, though.
I need to interject here about choice of fabrics. Quilting is not like sewing clothing. You make combinations nobody would be caught dead wearing but which dance perfectly in a quilt, on the bed. I refused to accept that fact of life for a long time. The fabrics I tried to combine looked perfect when lined up next to one another, because you could have a pretty flower and select perfect greens, yellows, pinks to match… Which is precisely the problem. Things don’t match in quilting. They’re not meant to match. Instead, they must ‘work together ’. They must ‘play nicely’. That’s a whole different ball game. I learned that from my instructor.
And so I had lovely color combinations that, once cut out and stitched, turned to mud. No exaggeration. My mood would pour out onto the quilt top and look like it had been put in a blender, tipped out, then spread around. Yeah, that bad. Those blues I loved? The azure, cerulean, indigo, Prussian, teal, aquamarine blues I’d known were stunning together ended up a deep sea nightmare. Nothing anybody would be able to stand looking at. Creativity competition? Me, zero. The others in the class: home runs.
I kept fighting, because I truly have always wanted to be a maker. I just never learned how a person trains eyes and hands properly. My instructor is really good, but she must have had to bite her tongue more than once with me. Slow down, slow… ‘Slow down, Lady Jane. Do you always have to run through the house like that?’ Yes, I did, it seems. My instructor is not my mother, but she is her echo. I don’t disagree.
You can’t run through quilting, no matter how much quilting maven Eleanor Burns - who has built a fine, very lucrative career off it - says it’s possible to make a quilt in a day. She’s lying, I know that now. Even a month is pushing it, and that’s for lap size. King size? Not ever going to be in my repertoire. Fortunately, I don’t know any kings who need quilts.
Let’s look at another part of this impossible skill I’m trying to master. Let’s say that I got some expert advice on fabric selection and have opted for a pattern that is not complicated. Let’s say there’s no real rush because I have four months to finish this project so I can give it to my daughter for Christmas. Let’s also say I’ve been monitored as the cutting was being done, even. That means I’m ready! Machine and I are going to start sewing at last. The race is on!
Famous last words.
Stop being so kinetic, I tell myself. You come from a long line of very accomplished seamstresses. You can do this. Just focus. Except my amazing ability to focus mostly works when I’m reading or watching a movie, like I said earlier. It’s not something I’ve managed well with quilting. I have to focus when looking at seams and measuring where the machine foot should be placed in order to get all those pretty little stitches to line up in a perfectly straight line. Straight lines are always hard to find.
In fact, I’m afraid I don’ t know what a perfectly straight line looks like. Never thought I needed one. Just keep running as if what’s in front of you is an obstacle course. You’ll cross the finish line somehow…
Instructor comes to supervise. I told you already she’s very good. She explains again where to lift the foot and where the fabric goes, aligned with the inside mark on the right side of the foot. That should create an accurate quarter inch seam. Now don’t step too hard on the peddle and hopefully you haven’t set the lever for sewing speed at the highest notch just so the stitching will be fast.
I agree to shift the sewing machine into a lower gear. (Some things just happen automatically… ) My eyes focus on that inner right line and I’m confident this will go as it should. Deep breath. And… we’re off!
Lesson one. Slow down.
Lesson two. Slow down some more.
Lesson three. Stop.
Is your seam a quarter of an inch? (You mean I have to measure it? I prefer eyeballing.) Seam looks pretty good, but don’t take your eye off it. Don’t pull or push the fabric as it moves beneath the sewing foot. Things won’t lie flat if you do.
I did. Things didn’t lie flat. Do I blame the pushing or the pulling? Is it that kinetic versus potential energy thing I’ve got going? Trying to force the fabric to behave like I do? This might be the death of me, I whine to myself, worried that my dream of becoming a quilter will never ever come to fruition, but not quite ready to give up. I am always in such a hurry. This eight-year-old inside my body and head is a maniac.
My instructor is so patient. She doesn’t look at me cross-eyed and she doesn’t swear. She sits down in my chair to illustrate proper position, speed, touch. It all looks so simple. If I were one for worn-out clichés, I’d say magic happens when she stitches. Other people in the classes have seemed to master the techniques, they understand the process. Me? I’m in too much of a hurry. Then the darn bobbin runs out. (I use other words to describe it, but not out loud.)
Each machine has its own rules for winding bobbins. I hate doing the winding. It slows down the sewing and in the case of this machine, a decent make of Singer (my one at home is an expensive Necchi, but doesn’t obey me any better because of the price), I have to take the thread out of the needle to do the winding. Once that’s done, the bobbin needs to be reinserted in its holder in the machine base, while the horror of threading the needle again has to be faced. Threading takes forever.
Probably my vision isn’t as good as it should be. My left hand is no help either, when trying to get thread in needle to catch bobbin thread below and pull it up. Still, I’m thankful this is no longer a piano I’m struggling with.
Now everything is ready again. I’ve checked to see that the fabric pieces are correctly placed, ready for seaming. No getting out the tiny seam ripper whom I first named Jolene because I knew a tarantula with that name, but later changed to Genevieve because I thought the first name might offend her. Whatever her name, she truly is my best friend. We are off again!
I will spare you the remaining details. Blood, Sweat, and Tears sang to me quietly as I struggled with everything around me. They saved me when threads from above and threads from below wandered into the wrong realms and either burst or mangled everything. They kept me from looking cross-eyed at my patient instructor when I wanted her to give up on me and mine. They helped me cross that Great Divide between no way impossible and there I did it.
My quilt is done. You can’t see it because there’s no photo included here, but trust me, it’s done. Even with a photo, you wouldn’t be able to see all the details that spark it to life - the colors, shapes, perfect seems, the blood, sweat, and tears. You wouldn’t detect the voices of all the women in my past, even those who never met me, who never gave up on me.
You won’t see what stubbornness and a good teacher can do to help balance those two types of energy and stitch together a very happy patchwork life.