The Need to Craft
In 2015, I went through my lowest mental moment.
It had been a rough year in grad school: qualifying exams, first major research trip, first fellowship cycle, and dissertation proposal all just spiraled together to create a total existential storm in my brain.
After putting a lot of work into my mental health, I entered 2016 in a much better place, but I knew I needed to do something. Something that wasn’t related to graduate school. Something that was both productive and satisfying and that didn’t bear the weight of my personal hopes and expectations.
I needed a hobby.
I fretted about what to do for a while. Reading, which had always been my go-to escape, was no longer filling that void, since so much of my time was otherwise occupied with words, both consuming and producing. Sitting down to read fiction, even the really craptastic kind, just didn’t inspire the desired and expected effect. Reading was at once too active and too passive an activity to fill this need. TV and podcasts were too passive. Too. Passive. I needed to move my hands, do something productive. Maybe I needed to make something.
In college, I very much enjoyed crafting. One of my favorite things to do was to make crafts and goodies for people in my sorority. My favorite of these craftivities was making letter shirts. This process involved finding cute fabrics, tracing the letters, cutting them out, ironing the letters onto t-shirts, and then puffy-painting or sewing the letters on the t-shirt.
But in grad school, my need for sorority puffy letter shirts, or handmade t-shirts of any kind, was at an all-time low.
So I stalled.
I tried adult coloring books. For a time that filled that need, to a point. Coloring was really good for shutting the brain down, when I needed quiet. But it didn’t satisfy my need to create.
I tried knitting. It seemed to have a pretty steep learning curve–so many different stitches and it takes a while to see a result–and the results at first are, sorry to say, rather boring. And limited to a rather circumscribed group of crafts. Yarn also just didn’t do it for me. It didn’t fill me with joy.
Then, I remembered that fabric acquisition was by far one of my favorite steps of crafting in college. What could I do with a whole mess of fabric? What could I do that would permit me to acquire MORE fabric?
It hit me suddenly and all at once: I would make a quilt.
Did I have a sewing machine or any previous sewing experience?
Did that deter me?
Choose my own adventure quilting
I remember looking up a wikiHow on “how to put together a quilt,” just to get the basic gist. I needed to make a quilt top, a quilt bottom, and get a layer of batting (the fluffy stuff that goes in between the quilting cotton to make the quilt warm), sandwich them together, and then bind the edges. In classic me fashion, I immediately decided to go to Joann’s and get some fabric and to make a quilt that I would hand sew in its entirety.
I had no idea what I needed. I was probably like a contestant from Supermarket Sweep in the Joanns. I came home with a ridiculous amount of fabric, some thread, batting, fabric scissors, some needles, a self-healing mat, and a rotary cutter.
Since I was doing it by hand, I wasn’t super invested in making a fancily pieced quilt, a simple patchwork would do. I didn’t want to follow a pattern, because I typically don’t like, and am not always good at, following directions (this says something about me, I think, and I can’t tell if it’s good or bad).
Ultimately though, my choice to not use a pattern was because I wanted to test my creative juices, and not just follow someone’s instructions, and risk it becoming a frustrating exercise when it did not turn out exactly as imagined or if I found the instructions wanting. That would be the exact opposite effect of what I was going for. Hobbies should be fun and enjoyable and rewarding.
So I cut all of my fabric into 4 in. by 4 in. squares. All of it, every fabric that I bought, regardless if I thought it was going to go in the quilt. (This was a mistake, I still have a bunch of fabric that is essentially useless unless it needs to be a 4×4 square or smaller.) I loved figuring out how to balance the colors and patterns worked with one another. It felt like a puzzle and I was hooked.
I slowly sewed the rows together, by hand, learning as I go, my stitches becoming progressively neater as I pieced the quilt. I shared on Instagram that I was making a quilt and learned I needed to press my seams from a friend, something I wouldn’t have thought of doing on my own. As I sewed, I learned.
Every time I make a quilt now, I feel like I spend more and more time pressing my seams and I always think about young-quilter me who didn’t even know it was a thing I should do.
It was exactly what I needed as a craft at that time. It let me make something, my brain resetting as I sewed, watching the rows come together, the rows becoming the quilt top. I was thrilled with the result of the quilt top–I thought it was so pretty and I was afraid that I would ruin it in the next steps.
I basted the three layers together, the backing, the batting, and then the top. It was time to quilt. Now, this is a controversial opinion, but I don’t think you can say you quilt unless you actually do the quilting, the sewing of the layers together. These days a lot of people sew their quilt tops, then send it to a longarmer to finish. Those are piecers, not quilters. (I kid, I kid.)
I didn’t fully appreciate the quilting process until several quilts later. For my first quilt, I used the same thread that I used for the piecing to do the quilting. For my second quilt, I decided to use colored bold hand-quilting thread. Eventually, the quilting became my favorite part. It wasn’t until my fifth and sixth quilts that I realized how I liked to do hand quilting…with embroidery floss. I like a nice bold line, and there’s so much fun to be had adding this detail.
After finishing the quilting, it’s time to do the binding. Now, the binding is definitely the area where my hesitancy to look up how to do things and follow instructions worked to my disadvantage. I did my best to figure it out, but the way my brain “solved” the problem was not the best way to bind the quilt. I don’t think I properly learned how to do the binding until like the last 3 or 4 quilts or projects. I made it a lot harder for myself. I don’t mind how my early quilts’ binding turned out from a stylistic pov, but damn–it’s a lot easier now that I know how to do it for real.
The Result: A Quilter for Life
My first quilt really does represent a lot about my personal style, even if it’s not how I would do it today.
It’s primarily pink, white, and grey, one of my favorite color combos. (It reminds me of my cat, Livia, too.) It is floral and doesn’t shy away from patterns. Some of the prints are watercolor, another typical favorite of mine. It has a textured white-on-white fabric, another Charlotte-standard. Lastly, one of the prints has what I like to call the bougie-Paris aesthetic; watercolor, flowers, and antique postal text, that says Paris.
I’m a sucker for anything French, Paris, or evocative of things that make me think of France in springtime. Were I to do it over again, the binding would not be this old school Charlotte style of binding, but the correct way. I also would totally have a crap-ton of colored embroidery all up in that bitch.
It, like all my quilts, is imperfect. Regardless if a quilt has misaligned seams or uneven stitches, or even in some cases a messed up pattern, it is still beautiful and whole. I had a grad school mantra “perfection is the enemy of the good” and I never really believed it until I began quilting. I love and cherish (most) mistakes on my final quilts. Quilting helped me focus my energies–both positive and negative–into a productive and enjoyable pursuit.
I didn’t know it when I finished this quilt, but this hobby would save me and my mental health time and time again. A few months after I completed it, my mom died. I had started a quilt for my sister before mom died, and it is with that quilt, and the quilt for my other sibling, that I focused my grief for my mom and the family that we had been before. These quilts were a work of love for my siblings, and for my mom. Into each quilt I am able to put into concrete form the love I have for the person it is meant for.* However, it also reminds me of the love and confidence I should have for myself. The quilts that I have made, imperfect though they are, remind me of what I am capable of doing while making something beautiful for those that mean the most to me.
*(FYI: if I’ve made you or your kid a quilt or a craft, there’s a good chance you’re in my top tier of important and loved people. If I haven’t made you a quilt/craft yet and you think you’re in my top tier, calm down, these bitches take time.)
To date, I’ve made 9 quilts with several more in progress. For my own fun, I’ve put together a catalog of sorts of my quilting projects with pix and eventually commentary.