The Quilt Whisperer

The Quilt Whisperer

Tacy Gray

When she unfolds a quilt, it’s more like she’s opening a storybook. 

Sandy Sutton has been collecting and studying antique quilts longer that I’ve been alive. Her extra bedroom is a library, stuffed wall to wall with quilted stories, some written more than a hundred years ago. Her obsession has made her more than a just quilt collector. She reads the stitches like words on a page. They whisper their secrets. 

And last week, during the Flying Geese Quilt Guild meeting, she shared some of these secrets. 

When I look at a quilt, I see designs cut from fabric and stitched in place, but Sandy sees the person or people who made the quilt. She can see their skills improve as they worked on a quilt for months … or even years. Knowing what she knows about dyes from the era, she can practically see backward through time. What is now bubblegum pink looks bright turkey red to Sandy. And the yellowish green was once the color of Christmas.   

One large album quilt was made by a sewing group for the minister of their Dutch Reform church in New York. According to the label, it was finished in 1853. Each quilter contributed a unique block: trees, flying birds, a patriotic coat of arms, the church building, and even the sewing group’s logo – a pair of scissors … a classic choice, probably even back then. 

One quilt was only laid out when the minister came to visit. Another, judging by the missing borders, was made for a bed with its left side tucked against the wall.

The world was different back then. Without sewing machines in common use, projects lasted longer. But that didn’t stop quilters from threading their own personal touches into the fabric. Each stitch was as important as the people who ended up with the quilts. Putting that last stitch into the binding and spreading the finished quilt across the bed is a feeling that I’ll probably never really know. 

Though, my first quilt might come close. 

When I was fourteen, my school offered a Quilting 101 class. Jackpot, right? I’d finally get a break from archery and debate ... or whatever class normally had me dragging my feet. My project was to create a small sampler quilt, but that quilt taught me more than most of my other classes combined. (Exaggeration? Probably.) 

I learned how to hand piece, draw my sew lines with a sandpaper board, and backstitch to keep knots out of the corners. I learned about color theory and pattern balance. I also learned, despite the shaking head of my teacher, that when my finger was sore from pushing a needle for hours, a sewing machine works wonders. And when it was finally finished — 2 years after I started — that pink and purple sampler said more about me than anything I’d written in a journal or whispered to a girlfriend during homeroom.

Now, I’m not delusional. I know that the Sandy Suttons of 2150 probably won’t put my pink and purple sampler quilt into the trunk of their flying cars and study it with their futuristic quilting guilds (though, I do wonder how my bubblegum colors will fade). But if they do, the stitches will tell quite a story. My story. But also the story of the people who taught me how to quilt, along with their teachers — on and on stretching backward through time. 

Now my eyes work a little more like Sandy’s.

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