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A Stitch in Time

An old-school quilting bee see this city girl with needle in hand.
Sunday Mar 26, 2006.     By Jennifer Wennig
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Quilting away, or trying to.
It's hardly a novel question, but one worth asking: If you could go back to your teenage days, what would you do differently? I'll spare you the mundane details, but after mulling it over for a few days, I concluded that I should have spent less time plotting where to meet after the football game, talking about what to wear and keeping track of who liked whom this week.

Oddly enough, my most significant if-I-had-only realization relates to the very thing I'm doing right now: chronicling my city-girl-goes-country adventures. The seeds of my curiosity about country life may very well have been sewn during family visits to my paternal great grandmother's farm in Berks County, Pa. We called her Mammy. Unfortunately, being a bit of a bratty teen, I didn't take enough interest in learning from her.

In my defense, there was an unfortunate incident involving a runaway cow which added to my arsenal of reasons for not wanting to visit "the farm people." There was also an unnerving three-legged dog that hobbled about.

Mammy was usually in the farmhouse when we visited. She was likely to be whipping up some Pennsylvania Dutch recipe I was certain not to like, puttering about the house or simply rocking in her chair. While I don't have a crisp memory of watching Mammy quilt, every chair in her home was warmed by a wonderful handmade quilt (happily, two of those quilts were passed down to me).

My dad tells me Mammy and her friends would gather at the church for quilting sessions. "A quilting bee," I clarify. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find a group at Mammy's old church. But a quick Google search brought me to the Berks Quilters Guild, which meets monthly in another Berks County church.

A month later I was on my way to meet the modern-day quilting ladies of Berks County. As I drove the less than one hour distance from my hometown to Mammy's, I thought about how dreadfully long this journey seemed as a kid. "But it's so boring," my sister and I would inevitably whine. Boring? Mammy and her grown children could have taught me how to milk a cow, grow plants and vegetables, bake, sew, quilt and goodness knows what else. On this rather chilly night, 81 Guild members and two guests (including me) were present. The evening was devoted to a show-and-tell of mostly utilitarian quilts: quilts for warding off chills, soothing away winter sniffles and swaddling little ones. I was awed by the creativity and craftsmanship, but even more impressed by the zeal and dedication with which these women approach their art.

While show-and-tell continued, Mary, my talented, kind and thankfully patient Guild partner, gave me a lesson in appliqué. She had already prepared a cut fabric square and pinned down several hearts to form a circle. The idea was to sew, by hand, the hearts to the fabric then join this with others to form a quilt. I thought about the sewing machine John gave me a couple of years ago...whose primary function is as a dust collector.

After working on my hand sewing skills, I collected a few instructional sheets. With a couple of friends about to turn into mothers later this year, I decided to attempt an "easy 3-in-1 baby quilt."

Back home, I head to Jo-Ann Fabrics with my instruction sheet in hand (without a specific purpose, I'm liable to walk out with an unsightly wicker something or other).

I gleefully see a dummy-proof area labeled "quilting." This is good. Since I don't know if I'm quilting for a boy or girl, I pick out a pale yellow fabric and two toile fabrics, one pinkish, one blue (all 100 percent cotton). For backing I find a multi-hue patchwork-type material that I'll try and pass off as my own creation (shhh). After some help selecting batting (thick, soft filler that gets sewn in between the fabric) suitable for a baby quilt, I add a measuring/cutting mat and a rolling fabric cutter to my shopping basket and proceed to checkout.

My Jo-Ann Fabrics bag of goodies sits idly on my sewing table for a couple of weeks.

If only Mammy was around today to spend an afternoon prodding me along. If only the teenager in me would have embraced what she could have taught me. The past isn't ours to change, but I can pay homage to her memory and to that which brought her joy by completing what I set out to do. No more procrastinating.

I set up my cutting mat, dusted off and threaded the machine. John, with his artistic and architectural bent, proved quite helpful in measuring and uniformly cutting the pieces as prescribed. I arranged and pinned the cut pieces in three different patterns of the yellow, pink and blue fabrics.

Once at the machine, I stumble a bit. I've hired a teacher and hope to have my quilts done in a few weeks. I promise to share a photo. I'm still working on that appliqué square Mary started for me. It's delicate work that requires patience. Mary, I'm trying.

I bet Mammy is having a good laugh watching me fumble about doing what she did with ease. "City girl," I can hear her say. City girls can quilt, she'll see. And let's hope the children and grandchildren in my future will too.

Traffic Jammed: Attention all you closeted would-be quilters. Believe it or not, Chicago (okay, it's actually Rosemont) is set to host the fourth annual International Quilt Festival, April 7-9. The event features more than 1,100 quilts, textiles and wearable art on display. You can take a class and shop until you drop for fabrics and sewing supplies. Visit for additional details. See you there.


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