Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Whole Quilting/Mental Health Thing, Vol. I

The Whole Quilting/Mental Health Thing, Vol. I
DATE: 01/24/2006 09:41:46 PM

From the original "Friendster" version of State of the Craft.

Alright, it's time to talk about the quilting/mental health connection, so listen up. Or, if you're uncomfortable with this kind of thing, skip the entry. No worries.

OK, still with me? Alright, if you are reading this, you probably already know that I have encounters with Clinical Depression every few years. Well, that's how I came to quilt.

My first definite episode of Depression began in the summer of 1994. I was stuck in Kansas, had no schedule to keep me focused, and didn't have a clue what was happening, and things quickly spriraled out of control. Within less than two months, I developed symptoms of anorexia (losing 35 pounds off of what was already, at the time, a fairly slim frame) and a full-blown case of agoraphobia that was to stick with me for the next five years. At that point, as a happier alternative to offing myself, I flew back to Oregon to, basically, put myself back in the care of my parents for a while.

To make a long story short, it all worked out. I started eating again, we got my meds sorted out, and if I still had trouble going more than 25 miles or so, at least I was OK leaving the house. In the meantime, I was spending a lot of time around my parents, helping Dad with yardwork and whatnot and -- here's the tie-in -- watching my Mom work on a quilt. The yardwork was nice, but I found the quilting completely fascinating.

The quilt Mom was working on was like the ones I talked about last week in the sense that it was a single image composed of hundreds of small "two-inch squares." A two-inch square is, duh, a little piece of fabric that is two inches by two inches. This can get confusing, though, because a quarter inch on each side of the piece disappears when it gets sewn to its neighboring pieces. That quarter inch is called the "seam allowance," and because of the seam allowance, a two-inch square only measures 1 1/2 inches by 1 1/2 inches in the actual quilt.

Like Robert Silvers (or better, David Hockney) creating a photomosaic... Like Seurat painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte (well, kinda).... Mom would place these little squares together so that they were each interesting in their own right, blended with their immediate neighbors in interesting ways, and added up to an overall composite image. I probably wouldn't have chosen a big heart as the overall image, but then I wasn't doing the work. The completed quilt is pretty stunning even if you aren't much into big hearts, and it won several judges' and audience choice awards in local shows.

But I digress. The point is, Mom had hundreds of these two-inch squares sorted in little stacks, like -- pick your metaphor -- paint on a palette, or like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. And it was just really, really interesting to watch her -- stick with your chosen metaphor, please -- use them to paint the image on the felt canvas she was using to lay out the quilt, or try to assemble the puzzle with jigsaw pieces that hadn't been made to go together. Like any jerk watching a solitare game, I began to make "helpful suggestions." Most were not helpful, of course, but it was always interesting to hear back why they weren't. The number of variables that determined whether a given square belonged where it did was pretty amazing.

In a thinly-veiled attempt to get me out of her face, Mom cut me a piece of felt, gave me a stack of reject squares, and suggested that I try a little layout. Who could resist? ...well, I suppose lots of people could resist, but I was hooked, and had nothing but time on my hands, and nothing to lose. So, I made this little placemat-sized design, with greens, blues, and purples arranged in a checkerboard pattern of color value. When I announced that I wanted to put it together, Mom looked pained -- later, I realized that she expected that she would have to put it together for me. But no: I wanted to learn the whole process.

For the life of me, I can't remember WHY I wanted to learn the whole process. It may be that, having recently spent two years completing a master's thesis, I was desparate to create something of actual value. Or, if that's too cynical, maybe I wanted to see something good (or, at least, purty) come out of what was otherwise turning out to be a real washout of a summer. Whatever. I learned the basics of running a sewing machine, and pieced that puppy together. I learned how to "tie" -- a cruder, faster method than actual quilting of putting the three layers of your piece together. And voila! I had made a quilt!

to be continued

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