I have just finished making an enormous quilt for a friend--a patient and trusting friend who simply let me make a quilt I wanted to make and who hasn't asked about when she'll have it to keep her warm on these cool northern nights. It's ninety inches square and contains 1345 pieces--most of those tiny triangles. Last weekend I did most of the work of putting it together, but because the blocks sit on point, you construct it diagonally, from the top left hand corner to the bottom right hand corner. So the number of blocks in each row grow to well over 90 inches and then--thank goodness--shrink again. Since my work surface is a desk and an ironing board, getting this Tree of Life quilt together was a challenge. I had been jubilant when I finished my last block, and then almost came to ground because the setting triangles and the borders would require some tricky cutting--I even called the dining room table into service, and simply forged ahead. Then on Saturday, I began constructing the rows and then attaching each row to the next one.
When you do this, you are mostly dealing with the back of the quilt, and you are not simply sewing rows of quilt blocks together. I trim the threads on the back of each block and give it another pressing so that the seams are turned in the right direction and will nudge cleanly up to those of the next block. Each row is then carefully pressed. As you start to sew the rows together, you need to keep track of the direction each seam has been pressed so you can press its neighbour in the next row in the opposite direction. The care you put into the back of a quilt top matters: it will quilt more or less squarely and evenly if you have done your due diligence on the back, but being careful can be tedious. It's a matter of constant self-discipline. Between pressing the seams and squaring the edges of the quilt, the last step, merely attaching the red top and bottom borders, took three hours.
Yet you are not making any creative decisions that require thought. Getting a quilt top to lie nice and flat is a mostly a matter of directing your hands to be careful. So my mind wandered to the characters in Soul Weather and I figured out how to make Dana--a nice enough guy, but a little flat--into a more complex character. Or at least I got farther along in the process. I thought about some tree poems I'm working on, occasionally looking out the window while I stretched my back, curious about what the elms are up to this year. Have you noticed? They haven't turned yellow and then quickly shed their leaves, but hung on to them while they turned bronzy. What's that all about? Then again, what we don't know about senescence would make an entire forest.
But I also thought about making, about whether all my fussing about stray threads and matching seams had a point, knowing all along that it did. Maybe it was just my stiff back that was asking questions. And I thought about why making matters so much to me, why I think makers--paper makers, knitters, quilters, spinners, weavers, carpenters, potters, glass blowers, jewellers, writers, musicians, filmmakers, visual artists, cooks, gardeners, stonemasons--are so much more satisfied with their lives than...consumers. Because that's the choice. You make the sweater, choosing the wool to go with the pattern, doing the magic to get it to fit properly, (I'm still very poor at this), knitting every stitch, finding the perfect buttons, blocking the pieces into the right shapes and sewing them together, and then doing the finishing. Or you go to the mall. None of us is going to make everything, but some of us choose what we make, what gives us joy to see it growing under our fingers--a pot or a quilt or a poem. I think makers revel in this delight, that they have a certain self-respect and autonomy because they are makers. Now I can't make a well-fitting sweater to save my soul, but I can knit beautiful, remarkable, well-fitting socks, and as I have doubtless said far too many times "When the end times come, my people will have warm feet." I guess that's what I mean by autonomy: I have a skill that both gives me beautiferous socks but that also gives me a certain freedom and independence.
And then, about the time I was adding the longest row of blocks and struggling to manage all this fabric at a little desk, I thought about other ways in which we make our lives. I thought, frankly, about Bill, who came by at each stage to admire and encourage. And I thought about a quotation from Erich Fromm in the "Brainpickings" blog that arrives in my email each Sunday morning. Fromm argues that we don't magically (and by pure chance) find the love of our life, but that we learn to love them. I might suggest (as if I could improve on Fromm) that part of our attraction comes from our sense that we have already, in the course of our lives, learned some of the lessons necessary to love this person. Bill and I celebrated our fifteenth anniversary last August after having been challenged last fall with his serious health issue and a long convalescence that, perhaps ironically, brought us even closer together. So as I'm pinning on the next row in the quilt, I come to the conclusion that we have made our love and our life. And that a lot of that making takes place not on the glorious face of the quilt, but on its back side. But that careful, considered craftsmanship that we have both practiced through the years to put together something wondrous matters. (Goodness: I'm using a lot of underlining. Why don't I tell you how I really feel?) Just as getting my quilt to be its best self requires self-discipline and endless acts of carefulness, so making a relationship requires discipline and care.
Then, as I was coming to that final, manageable bottom right corner, I thought about all the other important things we make and how craftsmanship and careful attention are crucial. We make friends. We make families. We make love and babies. Maybe part of my devotion to craftsmanship and making has to do with metaphor or synecdoche: how the care we put into a mitten or a stew is really just a reminder of the care we need to put into our relationships and our lives. And how, a lot of the time, we put that delicate care into the back, where it's not exactly seen, but where it is foundational.