The story of my first quilt is not just a story about a quilt noob trying to figure out how the heck you sew a seam from Point A to Point B in a straight line without a laser guidance system (though it is that too). It is also the story of how quilting turned me into a writer, brought me here to Generation Q, and pretty much changed my whole life for the better. Except for the steam burns I still get on my stomach all the time when I’m pressing seams. Those suck.
In the summer of 2008, I was staying at home with a 5-year-old and an 18-month-old, while also working part-time from home as an assistant editor at a local magazine. I was itching for something new to occupy my hands and brain, and somehow I latched onto sewing. At first, I was going to make clothes, imagining that I could customize patterns to fit my oddly-shaped frame (Humpty Dumpty—we’ve discussed this). I made a wrap skirt. It didn’t fit. I decided to try quilting because both my mom and sister are quilters and, as far as I could tell, quilting didn’t involve trying to make an enormous egg look like it has a waistline. (It does, but not until you get to the more advanced stuff.)
At first, I did what I usually do when trying to learn something new: I spend ten minutes on the internet and then jump in with my eyes closed. First I tried cutting my squares by using a fabric marker and an old metal ruler and cutting them out with scissors. This is not that far removed from how my mom learned to quilt and yet at the time it clearly wasn’t working well and I still look back on it like, “Ah the days of my youthful ignorance!” Then somehow I figured out, probably after another ten-minute session online, that a rotary cutter would solve all my problems, but I still hadn’t noticed anybody mentioning an acrylic ruler anywhere so I kept trying to use the thin, old metal one. And once I did finally get an acrylic ruler, I couldn’t figure out how to keep it from sliding around all over the place and the notion that I could cut fabric into strips and then sub-cut those strips into the pieces I needed never occurred to me.
Still, I managed to cut the fabric and sew it back together in the rough shape of a four-patch quilt. At the same time as I was doing all this Frankenstein’s lab stuff in the space I stole out of our den/playroom for my sewing area, I was also writing about it online. I had wanted to be a writer all my life, and I was doing plenty of writing at the aforementioned publication where I worked, but my most secret desire was to be a humor writer, and for years I had myself convinced that was an ignoble goal, not truly worthy of serious pursuit. When I decided to start blogging about my sewing adventures, I never for a moment thought anyone anywhere would ever read it. So I gave it a smart-aleck name (The Bitchy Stitcher) and just wrote without thinking about how I should really be more serious and write reviews of boring novels written by middle-aged men instead of making fun of my fat, inept self and my QVC sewing machine. Within just a few weeks, I had readers. Two, I think. But still. And they thought I was funny. That’s a pretty heady thing for a closeted humorist, and it was enough to make me keep going. For the first time in my life I was writing in my own voice, and I liked the way it sounded.
When I finished the quilt top, I photographed it so I could show it off on the blog and it wasn’t until I was composing the post that I noticed I had sewn on the last two rows completely backwards. An easy mistake to make, I know now, and pretty common for a newbie. But I refused to rip it part and fix it. Mostly because I’m lazy, but also because it seemed like a perfect way to memorialize my inept journey. As I wrote in that same post: “This quilt, should it prove to become one, will belong to Number One Daughter. I hope its glaring misalignment will serve as a lesson for her: Never give up, even when all evidence shows that you really, really should.”
I sent the top to my sister, who manages a quilt shop in Tennessee, to have one of the longarmers there quilt it for me. When I got it back, I was faced with the horrible truth that every new quilter eventually learns: quilts do not bind themselves. Now, my sister did offer to do it for me when I expressed some trepidation, but I refused because I have this pathological need to do stuff by myself, like a 40-year-old toddler. (NO! ME DO IT!) By this time, I even had a book to help me, and its instructions were very clear and helpful—right up to the point where you do the hand sewing. Every book I looked at, every website, had detailed information and clearly illustrated steps, and then would say, “Hand stitch the binding to the back of your quilt,” and just leave it at that! I could not for the life of me figure out how you make that stitch. I tried and ripped and tried and cursed until finally, in a big ol’ snit, I dragged the darn thing over to the sewing machine and sewed it down in a very wavy line. If I could have found a way to slam the needle down on every stitch, like slamming a door in indignation, I so would have done it. It wasn’t pretty, but it was bound. It wasn’t just bound; it was restrained. Leashed. If I could have put a ball gag on it, I would have, I swear.
I found the experience of binding a quilt for the first time so frustrating, that I wrote about it as a mock tutorial on my blog. While I had been funny on the blog before, this was my first formal effort at satirizing not just the process of quilting but also the resources I had found so wanting. It was the kind of thing I had always wanted to write, though I had often thought it might be about politics or social topics, and not quilting. But, hey, I went with it. People started linking to it all over the place and suddenly I had hundreds of readers instead of two. And then one of them suggested I send it into a quilt magazine called Quilter’s Home to see if they might want to publish it.
Not only did the editors, Jake and Melissa, want it, they also wanted more, more, more and suddenly I was getting published as a real honest-to-Eleanor (I don’t take the Lord’s name in vain—I take famous quilters’ names in vain) humorist. My byline appeared in every issue of QH thereafter, sometimes more than once, fulfilling my lifelong dream. When QH was sent to that great magazine rack in the sky, and Jake and Melissa decided to start GenQ, they took me right along with them. (They claimed I had no choice, but I would have gone along anyway. Shhh. Don’t tell.) And here I am, about to see my name on the masthead of our first print issue as well as on my next humor piece. My blog readers now number in the thousands and my readers have become like family, helping me through personal crises and cheering me through personal victories. I’ve turned out to be a pretty good quilter, too, and quilting brings me an awful lot of joy (when I’m not injuring myself). And that first quilt brought me here.
So, Number One Daughter, that quilt with its glaring misalignment has another lesson for you: Keep sewing those crooked seams. Eventually, they’ll lead you right where you’re supposed to be.