Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 21, 2012

Old Quilts

While wandering through an antique shop some years back, I found a small stack of great old patches for a quilt that someone had painstakingly sewn, but never put together. I bought these, then some new fabric for borders and a backing, and stitched away. As I worked, I noticed that the old fabric pulled. As I kept on, full-fledged rips appeared.

I mentioned this to a friend who’s a seamstress and had given me some advice. Now she said, “Oh, yeah, that would happen. The old and new cloth won’t really go together, and the fresh stitching will stress the old. But anyway, it’s about the process.”

Um, no, I thought. I wanted a quilt. Something to put on a bed. But sometimes the process is what we get. Sore hands, soft curses over the sewing machine, and a quilt that’s sort of pretty though it’s left folded and untouched. Or stories we thought might astonish, but that stay mostly in our rooms.


As a writing instructor, my job is to encourage people to write more and vividly and deep. Maybe something of theirs will be found between covers down the line. None of us know. I’m also friends with writers who watch each other’s backs. Sometimes there are celebrations. Often there are disappointments. Always, I’m grateful for our conversations, and the ways we help each other to look more carefully at what’s under our hands or in rich and complicated pasts.

These include childhoods in which we played a lot of games that had finishing lines, or winners and losers. We couldn’t help taking these in as metaphors for life. But looking back, it’s the playing, friends, and family I remember, not when I crossed the lines or who won what.  And when I look at my life as a writer, the people are what matter, too. Most of us keep setting goals of books to finish and publish if we can. But getting there means trying to see more steadily and widely, which is a good in itself, one that usually happens on paths that don’t lead in a straight line to glory. We’re not the grownups we thought grownups were back when we were children. We’re more confused. We keep making mistakes. We learn that some things we thought were possible aren’t, and that some things we believed were impossible are possible after all.

Maybe we don’t belt out songs in the grocery store, as I heard a child tucked in a shopping cart do yesterday. I’m not going to wear red ornament-sized earrings like a woman in another aisle, bells jingling under her gray curls. The most I could manage was to take a breath when another shopper nearly tripped me in a dash to the dairy case. Hey, we all want butter. But if we’re lucky, the sense of hope and mystery we had when we were little doesn’t entirely fade away.

Writers work by ourselves, but we draw from each other’s courage. No matter whether we write science fiction, edgy novels, nostalgic essays, picture books, anything at all, when we’re facing the page we’re at least sometimes facing ourselves, and that’s never easy. Some of us are hugely ambitious, and some of us are happy for a small audience. All of us strive to balance a drive to keep going with the ability to cherish where we are.

Stitching those old quilt squares, I was trying to finish something beautiful that someone else had started, then put away, for reasons I’ll never know. I’m sorry that my work didn’t turn out as I’d hoped, giving an unknown woman a space her work deserved. I’m not looking for neglected projects under any more tables at antique shops, but I won’t stop looking for unfinished stories.  Like people who’ve been sewing through the centuries, almost always without their names attached to their work, we can’t know what part of what we leave is going to matter. Some of us will keep pricking our fingers, making stitches whether or not they hold. Some of us will keep blowing on candles, watching flames waver.



  1. Love this post, Jeannine. And although it’s a somewhat different topic, when viewed through a certain slant of light, it’s akin to the one I put up today about how my writing almost stopped over the past year or so. I’ve written a few poems and a single picture book manuscript, but otherwise, there’s been a lot of fallow and a lack of enthusiasm and/or staying power on my part.

    • I love looking through a certain slant of light with you, Kelly. And I love that you’re feeling ready to get back to the computer. We need your wisdom.

  2. Thank you for your beautiful, wise words, and generous heart. ♥

    • Thank you so much, my wise and generous friend.

  3. Lovely!

  4. Oh Jeannine,
    Today is a gray, mucky day like many other days recently, and your piece is like opening the trunk and finding a bright, square of fabric that calls out to be picked up immediately–this makes me feel happy to be a writer, to continue the struggle, to be grateful for my writing friends, (and other friends, too, to be sure) to maintain courage–in your own way you are the woman in the supermarket with the bright red earrings–your writing IS bright red earrings!! Well no–way more subtle–but with the same effect. Thank you!

    • Thanks for the sweet words, Amy. I do think I might have some shiny and jingling earrings tucked in the back of the jewelry box…

  5. The best line, the one I’m writing down to keep forever: “We’re not the grownups we thought grownups were back when we were children.” We *are* more confused, but so were they and sometimes that confusion, the mistakes they made, showed like fabric going against the grain.

    What I love best about this piece–and there is so much to love!–is the quilt you made. Those squares were meant to be a crazy quilt, stitched together with no fabric in-between the squares fastened with different embroidery stitches to show off the quilter’s skill: turkey tracks, daisy chain, and so on. But you went against the convention and made a quilt that suited your needs. You turned that quilt on its head, made it work, and it’s gorgeous! Like your writing.

    • Candice, that’s a lovely idea, the mistakes like fabric against the grain. And thanks for the quilt compliment, though I can’t help wishing I knew how to make turkey tracks. How cool. Even if it still didn’t make me the grownup of my childhood.

  6. My mother once sent me an unfinished quilt she’d started a long while back. It had a catawampus pattern, with no rhyme or reason to her selection of fabrics. That was the sort of thing she gave as gifts.

    I boxed it carefully, stored in my linen closet for many years. But at some point, I released it into the wilds of our local Goodwill store, certain that someone would love it more than I did, would find a way to complete it and perhaps create a little bit of warmth out of its thin cotton shell.

    • What a great word — catawampus pattern (and I was pretty giddy with Candice’s “turkey tracks” embroidery) and what a great story. It’s nice to hear about someone from the other side of the Goodwill store, offering up goods to the rightful finder. You do want to rescue the strays of the world, but it’s nice to think sometimes they weren’t desperate, but just looking for a better home.

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