Straight Stitches, Good Habits
Come sit down at the kitchen table and take a breather. Maybe you’re tired today. That’s okay, we all get that way. As I’m working on my dad’s quilt today, I couldn’t help but think about making my very first quilt. What a sweet memory that is…
It was summertime. My less formal grandma Bethany, was the grandma who taught me how to quilt. She sat at her sewing machine which was positioned in front of her two bedroom windows that looked out onto her and my grandpa’s garden and I sat on a little chair beside her. The windows were always open in the summer and a light breeze would roll in while the sewing machine – and my grandma – hummed along. It was a peaceful and slow place; manageable. And the very best place to learn a skill. My grandma gave little thought to coddling my self-esteem.
She knew that if I learned to do something well, my self-esteem would take care of itself. Her no-nonsense way of teaching was wrapped in deep love that never showed itself in a new toy or in appeasing praise.
My grandma always used the scraps she rendered from Smart Style, a mill she worked at for 30 years; she used their leftover fabrics (with their permission) and her own leftovers (from the clothes she made for herself and others). Nothing went to waste when my grandma was around! On this day though, it was time for me to make my first quilt and I was going to get NEW fabric. She and I took the morning (away from my brother and my cousins) to go to Fashion Fabrics in Asheboro, the most nearby city with a fabric store. I was so excited.
In her car, on the way there, she told me to decide on the design I would hand quilt, so I could then choose two colors that I liked that went along with my theme. When we arrived and got out of the car, I held her hand and we went inside. In those days, fabric stores weren’t like they are now. There was no air conditioning and the smell of formaldehyde, which was once prevalent in fabrics, made my eyes burn. The colors were so beautiful, all lined up in bright rows and my grandma knew her way around in there. I remember looking at all the colors as she stood with her hands folded in front of her, pocketbook hanging from her arm, waiting for me to choose. She and I had agreed in the car that Sunshine would be my theme, and so the soft orange and the bright yellow gingham to which I was gently directed was clearly my best choice. We bought batting and a few yards of eyelet lace for the edge – rather than binding (As I look back, I can just imagine my grandma covering her mouth to giggle at me for choosing lace, as I never saw lace on a single thing she ever made - except my aunt’s wedding dress) and then we went home to begin sewing my quilt. Her steadfastness for doing things perfectly was annoying when I was little, but as I look now, over hand stitches she made 40 years ago, I marvel at the exactness of length and space in each stitch and I’m amazed. I strive to do the same, and I bet that makes her cover her mouth and giggle from Heaven saying to someone watching with her, “she finally understands”.
At my grandma’s instruction, I laid the yellow fabric – wrong side up - out first, then laid the batting on top of that and lastly laid the second piece of orange fabric on top of that – wrong side down - (no piecing in this quilt, it was for the sole purpose of learning to “quilt”), and had my quilt sandwich. I tacked the three pieces together, then borrowed a trash can lid from my grandpa’s shed and drew two suns – each with a different “ray”, onto the fabric. I was ready to start.
I already knew the stitches should be spaced perfectly and that the thread and the space should be the same length; she had shown me how to do that previously. I was a most confident nine year old. I threaded my needle and made the first stitch. I was happy – just yappin’ and laughin’ and watching out the window as my cousin and my brother played in the yard. My grandma called me out on my lazy attempt at sewing and watching out the windows at the boys playing a couple of times. She told me to pay attention and that my stitches better be straight or she’d tear’em out. Undaunted, and unbelieving I should also say, I kept on my own way convinced it just wasn’t that hard to get a straight stitch. After about a half hour of stitching my way, my otherwise sweet grandma stood up from her machine and went to get a biscuit from the kitchen. When she returned, she hovered over me for an intense 15 or 20 seconds and then, seemingly out of nowhere, produced a pair of tiny sewing scissors from her pocket (I think it was her pocket), and gently but quickly snipped at one of my crooked stitches and then pulled the entire two feet of thread smoothly from my sunshine quilt and said lovingly, “I told you them stitches had to be straight”. And she walked around me and back to her sewing machine, I cried. I was embarrassed. I was mad. I got homesick. But I looked over and saw the undisturbedness on her face and it soothed me, in spite of my sadness, and I stayed silent. I re-threaded my needle and began again (I didn’t have a choice about beginning again). And daggone if my stitches weren’t straight! ...ALL the way around both those suns when I was done. And my grandma patted me on the back (she wasn’t a big hugger) and said “There ya go.”
I learned that day the true meaning of the old cliché “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right”, which by the way is something she used to say. Though I haven’t always applied that lesson like I should have in life, I know it’s there.
What makes us refuse to do the right thing when we know – with certainty – that doing the right thing would make our lives easier, better? I think we’re addicted to the shortcut. The shortcut rules our lives. Online banking. Processed food. Email instead of letter writing. One-cup-of-coffee-at-a-time rather than a pot of coffee. The list goes on and on and gets more expensive. Our shortcut lives can lead to lying instead of truth, seething instead of confronting, worrying instead of praying…and if these are the routes we take, our kids learn it from us. More is caught than taught.
When I was home a few weeks ago, my aunt Joyce presented me with a quilt that my grandma had made decades ago. I was teary-eyed when I took it from her as she was when she handed it to me. There we were, her with her mom and me with my grandma, remembering her ways and her works. It was especially good for me as I never actually received a quilt from my grandma because she went home to be with Jesus before I got married, and the deal was that we all got a quilt when we got married. So, this was mine. Meticulous stitching, perfectly matched points, ideal binding…it was all I remembered her work to be. I also got a box full of scraps she had cut out when she was still alive and I showed them to one of MY granddaughters. Time moves on…I’ll make a quilt for Abigail from these very scraps her great-great grandmother cut out to use. My west coast granddaughter plays now, with that sunshine quilt I made with that same great-great grandma. What a gift.
We get so busy just getting things done that we forget quality matters. But it does. The way we perform a task or complete a project is a reflection of ourselves, of how much we care about what we’re doing. How we finish up is the lasting impression we will leave. And we have to ask ourselves of our tasks, before our thread gets snipped, is this the result I want? Just “doing our best” is too often a cop-out I think. Catching your breath at the kitchen table is good, but being able to breathe better out in the world is better. Just for today, don’t allow “Good Enough” to push “Well Done” out of the way. Take your time on your most daunting task and see yourself in its wake feeling enthusiastic instead of exhausted and proud of yourself rather than justifying yourself. Don’t give anyone the power to snip your thread.
See you next time.