Thursday, November 12, 2009

Weddings Present. . . .

A major life event took place in our family last weekend--Emily, our oldest child, got married. And quilting is a part of this story. She and her fiance had decided on an eighteenth century wedding, since as National Park Rangers at Salem and Minuteman they spend most of their lives in the eighteenth century. Emily planned to make her own dress and those of the female attendants and, as she pointed out to me last January, the petticoats in the 18th c. were quilted. Out of some overblown feeling of maternal responsibility--or just a momentary streak of masochism--I agreed to hand quilt the front panel and got reluctant agreement that machine quilting would be acceptable on the back. (I did point out that she was not hand stitching the seams of her dress.)

Emily asked if I could model the quilting design on a petticoat owned by Abigail Adams from the textile collection at the Peabody Essex Museum. And as I studied the quilting on the original and then worked at drafting the design into one that would fit on the length of silk for Emily's dress, that web of connection with the past began to become real in my hands. Abigail Adams was a strong, capable, and loving woman, and I wondered when she wore this petticoat. Since it was made of silk, it certainly was chosen for an elegant occasion--perhaps a major event when John Adams was ambassador to England or perhaps she wore it for his inauguration. And Emily, who wore the updated version of the petticoat last weekend, has become a strong, capable, loving woman as well. And what of the unknown quilter who must have spent days with this petticoat, sewing tiny stitches. Did she laugh while she sewed? Or was she just trying to get one more petticoat done so she could feed her family that week? A cliche, perhaps, but that may be just the point, and that web developed many strands as I sat, recovering from foot surgery in June, stitching a petticoat that belonged to me and to Emily and to Abigail and to someone whose name I will never know.

In the original each of the swooping circles contained a different flower or leaf pattern. I decided on three different ones in the front and then a repeat of them all on the back in machine quilting. Emily loved the sunflower-like one on the original so I put that in the center. The design can be seen a bit better on the back, a cotton hand-dyed by the Lunns.

The second swoop I changed from a stylized generic leaf to look more like an oak leaf since I like the symbolism, and the swoop on the left was filled with a horn-of-plenty type of design.
Click on the image to make it bigger.

I made a deal with my obsessively perfectionist self that this was not to be an occasion of lamenting and self-deprecation. A master hand quilter was not making this petticoat, but just an adequate one, although my quilting did improve a lot by the end.
I looked forward to the machine quilting, where I felt a bit more competent, but I had not quilted a large expanse of silk before, and as that beautiful fabric slid under the machine needle, unfortunately not always in the direction I wanted it to, I limited myself to one four-letter word per session and kept sewing. I did take out some of the most egregious slips, but here was learning that I know I will use again, as my hands adjusted to the different feel of the fabric. The finished machine quilted side:
By the end of August my quilting was done and the two pieces were safely shipped to Emily for her to put together. The finished petticoat:

And here is the petticoat on the bride next to her new husband surrounded by the other members of their wedding party. Emily made her dress as well as the other two dresses.

Thank you, Emily, for giving me the opportunity to participate in your wedding in such a deeply meaningful way.

But is this art? I know the art police will immediately agree that it was not. It was, of course, not an entirely original design, and, worst of all, it was meant to be (gasp!) used, not hung on a wall. I might even tend to agree with them since this is far removed from the type of quilting I am doing now. But yet something in me feels that there was more than just a skill that was happening as I was making all those swoops come out the way I wanted them to. I will concede that I cannot claim mastery here, but I am still thinking about the art issue.


MJE said...

Congratulations go out to you and Emily. Your quilting looks wonderful and never say you are not a hand quilter. What an accomplishment and this will be a heirloom to pass along to the next generation.

Madalene Axford Murphy said...

Thank you for your kind words, Mary Jane. There must be something of a hand quilter in me because I loved the meditative aspect of it and the contact with the thread and fabric.

Anya said...

Pictures do not do your work justice. The petticoat was absolutely exquisite in person and I'm sure the dress was as well! Congratulations to all of you.

hungeryjack said...

Nice post - Abigail Adams ..Keep Posting

Abigail Adams