Inspiration Interlude: “Quilts: Unfinished Stories with New Endings”

February 12, 2010 at 7:30 pm Leave a comment

Tuesday to Wednesday, we wound up with an official blizzard that dropped another 22″ of snow on us in a little over 24 hours.  Of course, the 25″ that fell Friday to Saturday hadn’t had a chance to melt yet.  So I ended up with another day off work, a bit of snow-blindness, and a chance to finally pore over the book I bought with some of my Christmas money.

Quilts by Gyleen X. Fitzgerald

"Quilts: Unfinished Stories with New Endings" by Gyleen X. Fitzgerald

As I’ve posted before, I was fortunate enough to hear Gyleen Fitzgerald speak at our November guild meeting, giving her lecture about the project that grew into her 2008 book.  “Quilts:  Unfinished Stories with New Endings” is about finishing vintage blocks and tops from the first half of the twentieth century using modern fabrics and techniques.  Gyleen and her friends amassed a collection of unfinished blocks and tops from antique stores, yard sales, and gifts from family members of deceased quilters, and turned them into finished, useful quilts using contemporary fabrics from her stash.

This is not a typical quilt book in any way, which is a large part of what I like so much about it.  I have an entire bookcase of quilt books, many of them following the same formula of technique-project, technique-project.  There are certainly many good uses for these formulaic books, and for the new quilter who wants to look at a picture and make that quilt, they’re perfect.  Gyleen’s book is more a quilt lifestyle book:  part scrapbook, part storybook, part coffee table book.  While patterns and instructions are provided for ten of the quilts, they comprise only the last quarter of the book.  Everything that comes before is the meditation, celebration, and inspiration that make this work such a jewel.

The book itself is gorgeous:  hardbound, with a dust jacket, in an oversize format that really allows the photography to shine.  Following a brief introduction to the project, there are three main sections to the book.  The first, “Untold Stories,” is a series of fictional letters that Gyleen composed, creating plausible backstories and personae for the unknown makers of the vintage blocks.  These are presented in a scrapbook-style format, made breathtakingly real by their pairing with actual vintage photographs from her own and her friends’ family collections.  This technique succeeds in creating a connection between the modern quilter and the women who anonymously made these pieces and left them behind, unfinished.  Gyleen Fitzgerald’s letters remind us that quilters have always quilted for many of the same reasons:  to celebrate births and marriages, to fulfill the creative urge, to take part in community.

The second section, “The Journey to Finishing,” gives the story behind the decisions she made in turning each top or block collection into a finished quilt.  It’s a peek into her thought processes that I found absolutely fascinating.  An attractive, successful finished quilt sometimes seems inevitable:  of course that’s the perfect background fabric, naturally that border completes it.  Here, Gyleen shares the reasoning behind the choices she made, both in the practical considerations inherent in working with vintage textiles such as managing fraying and inconsistent block sizes, and also in the designs themselves, from layout and fabric choices to borders, quilting, and binding.  I find this type of discussion far more helpful in my own quilting than any specific set of instructions ever could be, because it focuses on problem solving:  this is what I faced, this is what I considered, this is what I chose to do.  The quilts are beautiful, but they weren’t inevitable:  they were the result of a deliberate set of choices, which could have diverged at several points.

The final section, “New Beginnings,” introduces patterns and instructions for ten quilts, five of which (I believe) were made from scratch using the same patterns that were found in the vintage textiles.  This was an aspect of the project that was discussed overtly in the lecture, when she displayed her entirely contemporary (and usually smaller) iterations of the traditional block designs side-by-side with the vintage inspirations.  Other than the cover picture, in which the two Spider Hexagon quilts are shown together, this parallel is not highlighted in the book (and although one Spider Hexagon quilt is in soft, country, Fig Tree Quilts-type colors, and the other is on a black background with a graphic Kaffe Fassett border, they are both made with vintage blocks.)  Then again, as the focus of the book is the vintage textile project, I understand the choice not to emphasize the secondary project of “remaking” the quilts.

This section of the book also contains the most traditional “quilt book” photography, with square-on full portraits of the featured quilts.  The rest of the book contains the more styled photography reminiscent of high-quality country living magazines, in which the quilts are draped over fences, chairs, and clotheslines; I admit that, despite the beauty of the photographs as art, I was initially frustrated by my inability to see the entire quilt in many of the pictures.  However, the shots in this final section, combined with the fact that each quilt appears multiple times throughout the book, soon dispelled that concern.

Suffice to say, I love this book, and heartily recommend it.  It is a wonderful book to pore over, and lends itself well to revisiting on multiple occasions when different moods might steer the reader to study the photographs on one instance, linger over the letters on another, learn how to handle vintage textiles on a third, and study construction details on a fourth.  It is not a textbook on textile preservation, or an introduction to piecing, nor was it meant to be.  Rather, it is one quilter’s journey through a project she felt called to, with triumphant results.

Please visit Gyleen Fitzgerald’s website for books, patterns, hand-dyed products, workshops, haiku, and more!  www.colourfulstitches.com

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