My First Quilt

August 27, 2010 at 5:16 pm 3 comments

WOW.  I got to meet Rachel Pellman!!!

To explain why this was such a big deal to me, we have to go back in time.  WAY back, to before I made my very first quilt, to approximately 1986.  I have sewn for as long as I can remember:  my mom bought a Bernina when I was a toddler, and I grew up watching her make wonderful clothes for herself, me, and my sisters.  I have fond memories of spending time at the Stretch & Sew store in La Grange, Illinois while she selected patterns and fabrics, and I must have just absorbed a fascination for sewing through example and osmosis.  I was given access to my mother’s scrap bin, and by the time I was seven, I had petitioned successfully to be allowed to learn to use the sewing machine.  I made little blankets, pillows, tote bags, bean bags, and eventually some stuffed animals and simple clothes.  But I was always looking for new projects and new outlets for my interest in fabric and sewing.

I was fortunate that my childhood and adolescence coincided with the quilt revival of the late 70’s and early 80’s.  The back-to-nature movement blended fairly seamlessly into the interest in Colonial life surrounding the Bicentennial, bringing the American craft of quilting to the forefront of society’s consciousness again for the first time since before World War II.  (For a really good explanation of this sociological phenomenon, with lots of dreamy quilt pictures, watch the documentary, The Great American Quilt Revival.)  My mom bought a handful of the quilt books that were released and promoted during this time; the ones I specifically remember as being the most influential on me were Lap Quilting with Georgia Bonesteel, the original edition of  The Complete Book of Machine Quilting by Robbie and Tony Fanning, and The World of Amish Quilts by Rachel Pellman.  This last title was the book that made me want to make a quilt.

World of Amish Quilts

I don’t know what it was that specifically spoke to me about these quilts:  the graphic geometrics, the unusual color combinations, the blend of beauty and utility.  By this point, we had moved to Pennsylvania and lived in a rural area with a significant Mennonite population.  I was familiar with the Plain people I’d see in their horse-drawn buggies, the women wearing their distinctive dresses and bonnets, and I saw the quilts displayed for sale in various local craft stores and tourist traps.  But those quilts were much more contemporary, made for the market, in the same colors that were endemic throughout housewares departments everywhere:  remember those mauves and French blues, burgundies and hunter greens, all in fussy little floral calicoes?  The striking “dark quilts” that were featured in Rachel Pellman’s book were nowhere to be seen.  So, the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I decided to make my own “Amish” quilt.

My First Quilt:  "Amish" Bear's Paw

My First Quilt: "Amish" Bear's Paw, 1986

Now, of course, I approached this project as a fairly typical fifteen-year-old.  While I had the interest and discipline to design my own quilt based on what I had seen in the book, I had absolutely no intention of making it in a traditional fashion.  For one thing, I hated hand sewing.  For another, I was an impatient teenager:  I wanted it done already!  Therefore, I blended what I had learned from the Fannings’ book on machine quilting with the Amish designs.  I would use the sewing machine for every square inch of this project, no matter what.  And as I had tried a couple quilt blocks out of Georgia Bonesteel’s book, and knew how long they took to make, I decided my quilt wasn’t going to have 12, or 16, or 20 blocks.  It would have FOUR.  And they’d be BIG.

Prairie Points

Little Mess on the Prairie: the result of my attempt to attach prairie points with a purple machine zigzag and some HUGE hand whipstitching

In fairness to my adolescent self, I did do some things well.  I designed and drafted my own quilt, rather than relying on a published pattern.  I researched the process, and I stuck with it until it was done.  However, I also did a lot of things I shouldn’t have.  I’m pretty sure the whole thing has 5/8″ seam allowances, because I was an apparel sewer.  I used a weird, twill-weave, cotton/poly blend for the top, because that’s what JoAnn Fabrics had in the colors I wanted.  The batting is polyester; I’m not sure I knew anything else existed, and it has bearded hopelessly.  I machine quilted fearlessly, but also somewhat recklessly; there are a LOT of puckers on the back, and I wasn’t ripping out or redoing anything.  The binding is really interesting, as I was not going to bother with the laborious process of mitering corners, and the hand sewing on my prairie point edging looks like Frankenstein’s sutures.  But at the end of it all, I had a quilt entirely of my own making on my bed.

80s fabrics

OMG 80s fabrics! Country bears and pindots: could it get any more stereotypical?

I went on to make five more bed-size quilts before I graduated high school, as well as a crib quilt and a whole stack of placemats as trial pieces for various techniques that are mostly still in use at my parents’ house.  I couldn’t really quilt during college or dental school, although I did coordinate the making of a friendship quilt wall hanging for my sorority chapter during my senior year; I’d bought a second-hand Kenmore sewing machine out of a guy’s car the previous summer, which is a story for another day.  But quilting never really left my blood, and once I had free time, floor space, and an income, I picked it right back up, but now with the patience and (hopefully) maturity that I’d lacked in a younger decade.  And ooh, rotary cutters had happened while I was gone!

It’s possible that with my lifelong interests in fabric and needlework, I would have found quilting — or it would have found me — inevitably.  But Rachel Pellman’s book put me on that path during a very impressionable, creative, and inquisitive period of my life.

And I welcomed the opportunity to thank her in person.


Entry filed under: Quilt Guild. Tags: , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Barbara Colvin  |  August 27, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    I also had a Kenmore as my first machine of my own.
    I want to hear your “out of the guy’s car story on your blog soon!

  • […] I never really considered until a few years ago, because I’ve never been much for hand sewing. When I started quilting in my teens I wanted to do everything by machine out of impatience, and when I picked it back up about ten […]

  • 3. 2013 Challenge Quilt — Solids! | Sarah Loves Fabric  |  March 2, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    […] by it, two things happened. First, she reminded me that the first quilts I fell in love with, the quilts that inspired me to start quilting, and indeed my first several quilts, were all made of solid fabrics. And second, she gave me a bag […]


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