Life is like a Patchwork Quilt: Life lessons from quilts

‘You need to learn to quilt!’ a friend of mine suggested.

Our family planned to move to the USA for several years, and I worried about being isolated, at home with my three very young children. So I asked my craft group how I could meet others when we arrived there.

Having no idea what a quilt was, I soon found myself enrolling in a class with other equally silly stitchers—and so began a brand new hobby.

Twenty-four years later, I’m still quilting. I’m reluctant to tell you, though, that I’ve only recently finished some of the projects I began way back then. Now that my children are adults and I am no longer the full-time family taxi-driver, I am getting much more time to quilt. So I finish quilts in weeks rather than decades.

As I quilt, I learn about life.2016-05-11 15.43.47

Patchwork quilts are put together like a sandwich—with a bottom or backing fabric, a filling called wadding or batting, and a quilt top which is made up of lots of patches stitched together to form a whole cloth.

Quilting is the process of stitching through all three layers to keep them together. A ‘quilter’ is a generic term for anyone who does patchwork and/or quilting.

Patchwork-quilt tops are made up of different patches of all sorts of colours, shapes, sizes and textures.

Some pieces are bright and colourful. But the colours would lose their appeal if there were no contrasts. It would be like going to a party where everybody screamed for attention and nobody was happy to take notice. If life were full of only bright colours, we would be exhausted.

So in most quilts, there are neutrals. In a fabric shop they often appear bland and uninteresting; hardly noticeable. But they are the aspects of a quilt that make it work. They are like the quiet, faithful friends who keep up with what’s going on and know exactly when an encouraging or informative phone call is needed. They are the ones who often work in the background, seeing to the important stuff, even though nobody notices that it’s done—until it no longer gets done!

Quilters intentionally add pieces which are dark. Though we might not choose them as our main focus colours, they bring striking contrast to enhance all the other colours. All of us have dark chapters of our lives. We can’t chop them out without leaving gaping holes. Sometimes we can cherish them and stitch them tenderly into the fabric of our lives. Or sometimes we might even need to add a different patch, just like we mend the worn-out knees of a favourite pair of jeans. But every stitch and every patch adds more texture, depth and character.

Once we’ve made our patchwork-quilt top, we select our backing. Our backing supports everything we’ve put together in the patchwork top. It’s not usually particularly glamorous, and we often take it for granted. But without the backing, the seams of the quilt top may fray or be pulled or torn apart. It’s like the support structures we build around our lives. It’s like our friends and family, our community, our church and especially our faith.

In between the patchwork top and the backing, we sandwich the wadding. Usually I use cotton, but I’ve seen wadding made from old blankets, clothes, rags and even newspaper—anything that will add warmth to the quilt. This is like the added extras that give an extra dimension to our lives—the aspects that perhaps nobody else will ever see: the books we read to broaden our experience and understanding of others, the courses we attend, or the advice from our parents, grandparents and elders in our community. The more we put into it, the warmer it can become.

The actual quilting process is the stitching together through the sandwich of the three layers: the top, the wadding and the backing. This can be quick or slow, decorative or plain, stitched, tied or even glued. But it’s the important process that holds the quilt together. I’ve seen some quilts that have been put together poorly: After the first wash the top, wadding and backing separate, and the quilt ends up resembling an old beanbag.

Life requires some effort to keep everything together too. Good communication and some systems of order are necessary for all of the layers of life to work together and to add stability … otherwise chaos rules.

Finally, there is the binding that goes all the way around the edge.This is my favourite part—possibly because I know then that the quilt is nearly finished. I always hem the binding by hand and make every stitch with love.  Sometimes the binding on quilts becomes a little rough around the edges from wear, so we need to make the choice of putting the quilt away for safekeeping, or reinforcing it and using it again.

The third quilt I ever made had a huge mistake in it—huge to me, anyway. So it sat, unfinished, in a cupboard for fifteen years. One day I realised that all quilts, perfect or not, can keep somebody warm. I finished the quilt and gave it to a dear aunt as she was recovering from a stroke. For the next few years, for the rest of her life, she kept it on her bed as her prized possession. And not even I could see the mistake!

I learnt that we can hold on to our mistakes and allow them to clutter our lives. Or we can forgive ourselves, get on with doing what needs to be done and in the process become a blessing to others.

In the words (almost) of Forrest Gump: ‘Life is like a patchwork quilt. You never know what you’re going to get.’ But if it’s stitched together with love, even the rough patches and mistakes can keep you warm.



Originally published in The Lutheran2013, March edition.

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