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.

The As You Go Quilt Romance: A Quilt Adventure in Tatters

2012Ruth&Norm2 - Copy (2)Ted and Mae’s plan was already in tatters—and Ted hadn’t even begun the first step. By 22:10 he was supposed to have secured the quilt—folded like a road map under his left arm—and strolled into the darkened corridor. But it was already 22:25. South Wing was still lit up and the last of the nurses on the late-shift were only just leaving, almost half-an-hour late.

In a lot of ways it would have been more logical for Mae to make her way to Ted’s room, instead of the other way round. Her night vision was better and so was her health. But Ted’s rapport with the nurses in the rest home was more likely to get him out of trouble if he was discovered.

In Room 3 East, Mae waited…and waited.

She had purchased a new night-gown for the occasion. And she made sure she was wearing a tiny bit of the pink lipstick Ted said he liked, that first day she’d felt alive again— the first time in forty-four years that a gentleman had been kind to her, or had taken any notice of her at all.

Their friendship blossomed almost from the beginning – when Ted first noticed her ‘gardening’ in the courtyard shared by the South and East wings.

‘You’d better not let Fred catch you stealing his flowers,’ he said.

‘Oh, I’m planting, not stealing. See?’ Mae held up a tiny trowel and a packet of poppy seeds.

But the next day, and the next day… and the next, Ted noticed her doing the same thing, though in a different place each morning. It was a week before he realised that she was indeed ‘planting’— but the poppy seed packet was a cover-up for the pills she refused to swallow.

While the nurses thought she was sweet, if a little eccentric, Ted found her delightful. The more he got to know her, the more he liked her. They discovered a mutual love of gardening, history and reading.

Before long, they were sharing all of their meals and spending much of each day sitting together in the garden or, on rainy days, in the sunniest spots by the windows. Ted read aloud while Mae stitched.

Two weeks ago, Ted proposed an after-hours rendezvous. Mae responded that she was ‘a bit-old-fashioned that way.’

‘Well marry me, then,’ he said.

‘Okay, I will. Thank you for asking.’

Ted announced it to his family the next day. They could not have been happier for him. It was good that he was here, well cared for and with great medical facilities nearby, in case his heart skipped a beat again. Best of all, he was close enough that his daughter and the grand-kids could walk there to visit.

Yet he hadn’t really settled. Until recently.

They had noticed something about him was different. There was a new spark; something that had been missing since their mum died … it must be Mae.

But Mae’s son Eric, ever-protective of his inheritance, threatened to stop her from seeing her two grandchildren if she went ahead with the marriage.

Mae’s sweet demeanour always disappeared after conversations with Eric. This conversation was rowdier than usual – heard all the way down the corridor. Ted fully expected Mae to stay in her room for days afterwards.

Yet she surprised Ted the next morning by greeting him at the breakfast table and announcing, ‘I had forty-four years of being bossed around by his father. I’m bothered if I’m going to be bossed around by him.’ Then she whispered, ‘Let’s not allow anything to get in our way. I have an idea.’

Ted leaned over and listened as Mae revealed her plan. ‘Whether or not it’s true is a bit contentious,’ Mae explained, ‘but the story goes that during the time of slavery in America, women stitched secret codes into quilts to guide the slaves to safety. I’ve decided to sew a quilt so you can find me in the middle of the night.’

Mae couldn’t sit still. She sat on the edge of her bed. Then she sat in her arm-chair. She turned her main light on and off and on again. She smoothed out every wrinkle on her bed, pressed and re-pressed the folds of her quilt, and adjusted the pillows… again.

Nurse Rosie noticed the light going on and off and went in to check that Mae was okay. Mae made up a story about needing to mark the page in the book she was reading, climbed into bed and asked Nurse Rosie to turn the light off, please.

‘Dear ol’ thing,’ Nurse Rosie said to the other nurse when she returned to the desk. ‘I saw her doing some embroidery the other night – the most unusual stitches I’ve ever seen. Said she was making a ‘quilt-as-you-go’ quilt. I’ve seen some of her other work – very intricate and detailed. This was more ‘folksy’. You know, thick wool, coarse and lumpy stitches. Not my cup of tea. But each to her own, I s’pose.’

It was now 22:45 and still, no Ted. It was unlikely he would be able to make it in the next half hour because the nurses tended to do another round between 22:50 and 23:10.

A tear dropped from Mae’s face onto her pillow. She had not cried for twenty years.

A scream shattered the silence of West Wing. Three nurses rushed to Room 3. One turned on the lights. Another raised the security alarm. They found Mrs Campbell attacking an intruder who was now cowering under cover of a grey-brown quilt.

A nurse yanked off the quilt.

‘Mr Collins! What on earth…?’

Another nurse steered Mrs Campbell to an armchair as nurses, guards and available staff appeared at the doorway. Nurse Rosie arrived last – just in time to see a security guard manoeuvring Ted out of the room, and carrying the quilt.

‘Hold on,’ said Nurse Rosie. ‘I recognise that quilt. What are you doing with it?’

‘I…I can explain,’ said Ted, but not quickly enough to stop Nurse Rosie from grabbing the quilt and returning it to Mae in 3 East.

‘Oh dear,’ said Mae as spread the quilt out on her bed. Then, out of her sewing basket, she took a hand-drawn map. Mae traced the map with her finger; then matched it, block by block, against the stitches on the quilt.

‘Oh no!’ she said. ‘It’s all my fault. Here! Block 3D. I’ve turned it left instead of right. He’s gone to the right room in the wrong wing!’