May 1. Today’s the day that you’ll finally be able to read Rachel May’s epic 400-page book An American Quilt. Do yourself a favor and suggest this book for your book group or quilting bee because it’s the perfect read to discuss with quilters and bibliophiles alike.
The breadth and details in this book are as fascinating as the true story that forms the skeleton of the book. May delves into the history and background of not only an unfinished quilt made from fabrics from the 1830s but also the household of the couple who made it. It’s a tangled web indeed that spans from New England to the Caribbean as well as the historical backdrop of both white and slave family life during the era, the slave trade, trade routes between the agrarian south and the industrialized north and everyday details of 19th century life.
An American Quilt is a work of creative non-fiction, which is not a genre I’ve explored before so it’s worth explaining if it’s unfamiliar to you as well. May uses a bountiful supply of letters, photos, ephemera, the quilt itself and historical records from New England to the Caribbean to piece together the story with painstaking detail. Overlaid on the story of the quilt, however, is May’s own story as she takes us along as she pieces it all together. She describes her own journey of finding parts of the story and how she imagines the characters must have felt or interacted. Weaving together the facts she discovers, May also suggests possible context when she doesn’t have documentation to make the story more coherent.
May’s device of taking us on her journey to research the story of the quilt makes An American Quilt an intimate read. You’re there in the room as she delicately handles the quilt and reads the words “Seaman,” “Barbados,” and “casks” on the papers used for piecing the quilt. You go with her to Charleston where she combs through the files of the Historical Society to find more information of the characters we meet in the story. You sip coffee with her in Havana as she searches for information on the slaves she’s researching. For me, this is what brings so much life to An American Quilt. There are two parallel stories unfolding as you read. May also takes you on occasional “field trips” to give the reader historical context on how fabric was dyed at the time, how Rhode Island and Charleston, South Carolina became so closely linked in trade, what medicine was like for slaves, how rum production was linked to the slave trade and how the legal system treated slaves for example.
Reading An American Quilt reframes the way many of us will see historical quilts moving forward as not just the quaint product of the maker but as also having an additional complex backstory of the lives, culture and commerce that were part of the production of the cloth and the making of the quilt itself.
In the quilting industry if you say the word “Houston” everyone knows what you’re talking about. It’s a marathon annual event at the end of October stretching until the first week of November at the George R Brown Convention Center (known as “The GRB” among some in the shipping industry) that covers both wholesale and retail shows. Quilt shop owners, magazine editors, bloggers, fabric and notions companies, sewing machine manufacturers and 62,000 quilters from around the world gather annually in Houston to see new products, new fabric and learn new techniques every year. Those of us who have been attending this event for over a decade instantly recognize the inside of the convention center when we see photos of it.
So it was with mixed emotions that I spotted this photo of Houstonians displaced by the flooding of Harvey seated, some wrapped in towels, inside the GRB. You may have sat in those chairs before yourself. But chances are that you sat in them while having fun in a class or because your legs were tired from walking the show. You may have sat in those chairs eating lunch or waiting to meet a friend. It all looks so different now seeing those people, and sadly many more who are likely to come later in the week looking for shelter, enduring such hardship in a place many of us associate with fun. The director of FEMA said this morning that it will take years to rebuild Houston after the damage wrought by the brutal storm with the sweet name.
Although it’s only Sunday, the meteorologists are already forecasting that Houston will likely be inundated with another two feet of rain by Friday. It’s hard for those of us who have spent so much time in this city to imagine how it will fare the coming week and how much suffering its people will endure in the coming years as a result of Harvey. I for one will be looking at those chairs differently from now on and I hope the quilting industry will figure out an initiative to donate to the Red Cross or other organizations that will be supporting those whose lives have been affected by this storm.
As I was looking as pictures of the flooding, one of my favorite lines from the Bible in Hebrews came to mind. “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” I will uncharacteristically suggest that you not make quilts to donate because what these people really need is money for food and rebuilding their homes. Donating things instead of money can create problems in a crisis like this, so monetary donations are the most useful right now. If you feel really moved to make a quilt, perhaps make a raffle quilt to auction in your community and donate the proceeds to the Red Cross or local groups who will be serving those affected.
Prayers to you Houston. May the forecast improve, the relief be quick and monetary donations be generous.
[photo: Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle]
I’m really happy for Sue Spargo. I’ve never met her but she was able to do something that many artists, including us, would love to do: she was able to have a beautiful, hard-cover coffee table book of her work published by Martingale. Martingale gave me a copy of Stitches to Savor at International Quilt Market and asked if I’d review it. We only review books we like but we were delighted to be able to share this book with Craft Nectar readers.
There are no patterns or instructions in this beautifully photographed book but there is an endless amount of inspiration. With 200 photos of Sue’s work, you get a chance to focus on the details and composition of her work, which is hard to do in a pattern book. The detail photographs also allow the reader to see how Sue mixes cotton and wools, as well as hand work and machine techniques so effortlessly.
Not everyone is able to do handwork or enjoys it but this book makes you want to try something new. From the tiniest bead to the perfectly placed French knot, this book is beyond just eye candy. It’s a book to inspire. It’s a book for daydreaming and encouraging the reader to see new possibilities for familiar materials. You don’t flip through this book. You linger because there’s just so much to see. Regardless of your style of quilting, there will be something in this book that catches your eye and gets you thinking. If you’re thinking about a holiday gift for your favorite needleworker, this is the book you’re looking for.
I hope Stitches to Savor becomes the blockbuster hit of 2015 because the quality of both the work featured and the production of the book warrant it.