What binds us together

By Lise Funderburg

December 1996

For me, quilting began as a private obsession, shared only with the owners of my neighborhood fabric store. I quilted on rainy weekends and whenever I was on a tight work deadline and had no business doing something else. If I got stuck — couldn’t figure out how to miter comers or calculate the most efficient way to cut my material — I trundled up to the fabric store, project in hand, looking for help and, sometimes, tough love.

As much as I like making quilts, I love choosing the fabric that goes into them. I have amassed, over time, a substantial collection of yardage, most of it purchased with no designated purpose. People who look in my closet (where the ratio of raw fabric to wardrobe is ever shifting in favor of the former) don’t seem to understand. They pause, then ask if there are 12-step programs for fabricoholics. They’re only half joking.

But a year ago I found people who do get it, who know what a triumph it is to find a turquoise cowrie-shell print from the Ivory Coast or that half yard of an incredible vintage pattern. I joined my local quilting guild.

For my $20 annual membership fee, I knew I’d at least get a discount at my fabric store and maybe a little guidance from those with more experience. What I didn’t know was that those 20 bucks would thrust me into a completely new, tremendously diverse, ultra-feel-good world.

At the monthly guild meetings, I am always eager for the show-and-tell portion of the program. Women amble to the front of the rented recreation hall carrying everything from king-size coverlets to quilted stereo covers. Volunteers hold up the quilt as its creator tells us what’s important to know. With the stereo cover, we learn that its backing was a bandanna her husband brought home from a Who concert in the 1970s. With the lush, kingsize coverlet, we learn, the challenge was to cut off-grain the African prints that were used. Every last display meets with oohs and aahs — lovely, indiscriminate boosterism that makes my eyes well up.

At my first show-and-tell, an older white woman displayed a wall hanging she’d made. Exquisitely executed, it featured a quilted and appliqued Santa in a room decorated for Christmas. Her traditional style and traditional colors were applauded by another woman, African American and a couple of decades younger, whose quilts are substantially more flamboyant (a recent effort featured a plastic lizard). “You go, girl,” the younger one cheered as the Santa-maker headed back to her chair.

Like those two women, I come to the meetings to enjoy the camaraderie, to learn from others and to spend a few hours indulging in a simple pleasure. After new and old business is covered, the formal meeting gives way to informal circles of chatter and catch-up. In one corner, some detail of technique –machine quilting, perhaps, or how to assemble a certain type of patch — is demonstrated. Sometimes there’s a group project. Once we all took quilt tops that had been donated to a newborns-at-risk project and finished them by tying them together with layers of batting and backing. “Sometimes their parents bury them wrapped in these blankets,” the project organizer told us.

Mothers and daughters attend meetings together. Little girls bring along sewing kits and button boxes to amuse themselves; adult daughters revel in sharing time with their moms. I sat across from one such couple and noticed that the daughter wasn’t sewing. “She’s more comfortable holding a pen than a needle,” her mother said proudly and with a laugh. So I ask the daughter why she comes. “I love her,” she says, nodding toward her mother. “I just enjoy being with her.”

I love this. It’s so good-hearted, so sincere, so supportive, so … nice. I love that the 70 women who show up for each meeting are more of a demographic jumble than I encounter anywhere else.

In our work-dominated lives, with no children to lead us into new social territory, my husband and I have a circle that’s disturbingly homogeneous — not in race, religion or sexual orientation, but in age, interests, politics and aesthetics. I hardly notice this sameness until those times when I happen to step outside of it. At my guild meetings, I take that step and find that, despite the jumble, I have something in common with everyone there. At 37, I’m one of the youngest, with half a century separating my birthday from several others’. We are black, white and Latina; Protestant, Jewish, Sikh and Muslim; officegoers and stay-at-homers; childless, childful; single, divorced, widowed, married, gay, straight, and on and on. But we all love to quilt, and so, once a month, that common thread binds us all to each other.