Anne was a nurse, and worked as one of the first airline stewardesses, back when uniformed nurses did the job (really, it's true: the airlines wanted to make people feel safe, although if I was doing something for the first time, and was told it required a nurse to be present, I don't know if I'd find that reassuring).She later worked on a cruise line. Her estate sale was full of textile souvenirs from around the world. I added sections of a cloth globe, and sewed it all onto a dark blue KLM Dutch airlines blanket (which Anne must have taken home from work).
I had great fun doing this - sewing an Egyptian camel under an apron labeled Madeira, juxtapositioning an English flag near a South American mola, having an Egyptian figure point the way for a variety of dolls and international textile figures.
But this could also be titled "A Bad Use of Great Materials", because, let's face it, the composition is awful, I should have edited down the materials available...I want to go back and deconstruct the whole thing, then put it back together with the skills and understanding that I've gained by making pieces like this.
I've read that in China, at that site where they've found so many buried clay figures - soldiers all in different poses, horses, archers - that the people in charge have left a great deal of the site unexplored. They want to wait until new technology becomes available, so they can do the best possible job of preserving these artistic masterpieces.
To a much lesser degree, I face the same quandary: when I find incredible old handmade lace, should I save it until my skills improve? Should I really cut apart this 90 year old dress? My cousin is a costume designer, who knows a great deal more than I do, so if there's any question that I might possibly be vandalizing a treasure, I ask her first. Almost always my materials are stained, too weak to be saved, or torn - not wanted by museums.
But I've found that after careful planning, I just have to make that first cut. If I'm too timid, too in awe of the material, the result will be rubbish.
Will I cut this one up and re-do it? Only if I'm magically granted another lifetime.
Yes, there are a few more biography quilts, but we'll just chalk those up to early mistakes and leave them in storage,OK? This is the last one worth sharing: Frances. My sister, Claire, was in charge of the church yard sale up in her small Maine town, and I was visiting. Claire told me that the pieces belonged to one of their oldest members, Frances. No more information, so I improvised.
Back home in NJ, I used woolen scraps to create a dark patchwork background, then arranged the white pieces to form a vaguely female figure. It was all pinned in place on my work wall when my son and his friend (then teenagers) came galloping through. I stopped them to ask their thoughts: Could they tell what is was? Was this too literal? My son has always been a great critic, and he said he could see a female figure, and thought the small closed purse represented her genitalia. And his friend? "uh...we don't talk about stuff like that at my house.."
So after making Anonymous Old Lady, I made several other biography quilts. At one garage sale, I met Edna's daughter. Edna had died, the house was being sold, and I remember her daughter as being very eager to tell me all about her mom. About how she and her mom and her grandmother quilted, and knitted together, how her mom made hooked rugs, and how beautiful she was. I don't remember if she gave me a photo that day, or sent it later, but the wedding photo was the only indication of her dad, Al. When I got home, I took all the stuff I had purchased and pinned it up on my work wall.
Autumn-colored towels, crocheted doilies, unfinished quilt squares and crocheted sections, 2 small knotted seat cushions, a small knotted rug and a sewing box of items to hunt through.
After the usual washing, I dyed the crochet to fit better with the gold colors (which I saw used in her house). I cut the towels into squares and stitched them together into a patchwork, then sewed Edna's quilt sections and crocheted sections over the patchwork (I do like to think she'd be pleased to know they were used). The mostly-black hooked rug is in the center, partially obscured by more dyed crochet and the photo (which I printed on cloth). How did I get the curved top? There's a wooden bar across the top, and a piece of strong piano wire bent into a loop, slipped through the rounded sleeve on back, and fitted into 2 holes drilled into the wooden bar.
One note: Since the women of this family seemed to be front-and-center, I clipped Al out of the wedding photo...and sewed him peeking out on the left side. The title of this one is "Edna's Maternal line, and Al".
The lid from a bottle of Miss Clairol hair dye was found in the sewing box. Sorry, Edna - your secret is out.
It was a very hot day and this garage sale did NOT look promising: black plastic garbage bags on the driveway. But I peeked inside one and glimpsed a treasure-trove of crochet! Spools of thread, crochet hooks, marvelous bits and pieces and I soon had an armload. I approached the woman in charge: "oh, just give me $5 for it all."
It turns out that the old lady renting the upstairs apartment had died, and this woman (with a small child) was trying to clean it out. These plastic bags held a whole lifetime of handwork, being sold for almost nothing.
Usually, when I found crochet and lace, I washed it and sorted it out according to type - into the box of Large Tablecloths or Damask Napkins? Small Round Crochet or Table Runners? But I just couldn't disperse her work. So I tried one of my first experiments with Procion Reactive Dyes, and sewed this piece to honor her memory. The only key to her identity is a small photo locket sewn just above the crochet hooks.
This piece led to a whole series of what I came to call Biogrphy Quilts. When I went to garage sales (and especially estate sales) I started asking "who made this? What can you tell me about her?" When possible, I would use the pieces bought at that garage sale and any information to create a stitched biography of that woman.