The Art of Stopping

Nothing’s taught me more about stopping than needlework, and particularly my new love — quilting.

When I look at projects I’ve finished, I can tell my mood-of-the-day by looking at the stitching. When I’m upset or tense, my grip the needle is too tight. My crochet needle will squeak because the yarn is choking the shaft. My needlepoint stitches look like uneven hillocks of wild grass, instead of a well-tended golf lawn.

When the world gets out of control, I try to control my artwork by muscling it into submission, literally, with both hands.

Art as Foe

COVID-19 brought out my inner Laura Ingalls Wilder pioneer girl. The desire to prove I could bake, sew, grow things, and raise poultry seized my brain. So, I decided to make friends with the sewing machine gathering dust in my spare bedroom/work-from-home-office. [Note: My condo homeowners association won’t allow chicken-raising so I bought a pair of parakeets. Which of course I absolutely will not consume, but they’re doing very well, thank you.]

I’ve always wanted to say I could quilt, and believe me, I had plenty of free time after work to learn while social distancing. I found a couple great video series that reminded me what a wonderful heritage quilting has in this country. My pinterest board of quilt blocks included styles from historical Amish and Black traditions.

It didn’t help I was stitching face masks, which were unobtainable if you remember at the start of coronavirus craziness. The phrase “first line of defense” was top of my brain. The only masks I had were a few hardware store dust masks. I was frantic.

It got so intense, I even bought an athletic headband to keep the sweat out of my eyes when I sewed.

Kinder, Gentler Workflow

Once I started on the quilt — which was three months ago — I had a stern talk with myself. Which I knew from experience was God saying, let me help you with this.

Slow down, Beth. Don’t force this. Let this quilt emerge. Take time to have fun.

–Voice of God

So I cut and pieced and sewed. I ripped a few seams out but in the end, decided to give myself a lot of leeway. Because I realized nine times out of 10, no one who ever looked at it would see the mistakes.

I would know they were there. But I could also see the learning progression as seams got straighter, as stitches were more even, as I learned how to press seams between appointments with the machine. I had a relationship and a building story with each quadrant of the quilt.

Needlework as Memory Keeper

Edge of quilt showing binding seam, on a fabric cutting board with a rotary cutter
Yeah, that seam skates around a bit.

As I enter the homestretch with this quilt — binding the edges — I found myself back in battle mode. I nearly ripped out the first edge I did last night. But instead I put it down, turned off the machine, and retired to the back porch to listen to a podcast.

This morning I looked again, and couldn’t figure out why I thought it was bad. Sure my needle slipped out of line a few times. But this morning, with better light, I saw I had mistakenly put the wrong color bobbin thread into the machine. So I was sewing with two different colors. But…whoa…that meant I had a dark color on the bottom, on the dark backing, and a light color on top, where I’m stitching on white.

By stopping, by waiting a day I stumbled on useful sewing technique.

So now I will have a quilt, which is destined to be a wall hanging because I kept it small. I didn’t want to put a lot of money in fabric if I really screwed it up, at the time I planned the piece. I will hand-sew a label on the back and call it my “COVID quilt.”

I’ll remember how imperfections taught me something. I will remember how a scourge of the pandemic helped me listen to God.

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