Hands and Hearts — A Quilt From the Whole Family

Do you remember this piece? I made it in April as a “sketch,” just something to try forming shapes and colors and lines into a picture in appliqué. It’s a representation of a Claddagh ring. The traditional Irish symbol represents love (heart,) loyalty (crown,) and friendship (hands.)

The pretty heart in the middle was printed like that from fabric I bought eleven years ago. I drew the hands and crown from the basic Claddagh ring symbol. And then I encircled it with a ring of batik. It is all on a black Kona cotton background.

At the time I wasn’t sure what I’d do with it, or if I would do anything more. I considered the possibility of creating a small wedding gift for Son and his fiancée. But I didn’t have a plan.


Then about a month before the wedding, I started hankering to make that gift. I thought it would be meaningful to represent the closest family members in a personal way. Including Jim and me, our daughters’ families, and the bride’s parents and sibs’ families, there are 20 of us. Because there were already hands in it, I wanted to use a handprint from each. That required swift help from the bride’s family, as well as from our daughter who lives far away.

I asked for a photo of each family member’s hand, on a piece of white copy paper with all the edges showing. That would allow me to standardize the sizes to scale them as needed. Either hand, left or right, would do just fine. Here is my hand.

I cropped the images to standardize size around the paper, and Jim cleaned them all up to create a good outline for each, and to remove the wrists. (OW!)

He and I agreed on a size as compared to the hands in the Claddagh ring, and as they would appear on my monitor, and we re-scaled them all to that. I flipped each image and then traced each hand as it appeared on my monitor (basically as a light box) onto a separate piece of fusible web.

I’d already decided to use a different fabric for each of the family units (Jim and me, bride’s parents, older daughter and family, etc.) There were six different families, and six different fabrics used for the hands.

Besides manipulating the hand images, there also was the matter of the Claddagh ring. First, the pretty pink heart in the center somehow picked up a minor stain. Second, it was appliquéd on a relatively small piece of fabric. I wasn’t sure how big the quilt would be, but knew I needed more than the 15″ or so that the ring was on. Also, I thought the green batik ring by itself was a little stark, and I wanted to add leaves around it to create a wreath. Ultimately, I redid the Claddagh ring completely on a new background, large enough to contain whatever else came next.

I zigzagged the ring with leaves and the other components of the Claddagh symbol down to the background before dealing with the 20 hands. Then I began arranging the hands. Jim had already done a mock-up in Photoshop for me, so I had a pretty good plan to use. I put the parents’ and siblings’ hands in the first ring around the Claddagh, and then organized the sibs’ partners and children in the outer ring.

Here are a few pictures of the process as it developed. One of the families has seven members, so distributing those hands in a balanced way led many of the other decisions. Also, the tiny hands were paired with larger ones. Even when all the hands were in place, there were gaps that looked awkward. I filled them with more hearts cut from the same fabric as the center heart. Finally, I drew Celtic knots to add to the corners. Click on any picture to open the gallery. 

I knew that I wouldn’t stitch all the hands down with the domestic machine, as I was afraid that manipulating the fabric so much would loosen the adhesive and make the whole piece look worn and tired. Instead, I did raw-edge appliqué around the hands and across the palms when I quilted.

Besides the appliqué-quilting on the hands, I also did a small free-hand design within the black background, and once I got it off the frame, I went back to the domestic machine to zigzag the Celtic knots into submission.

Rather than applying a basic double-fold binding, I faced it with black to give the edge a smoother finish. When it was all done, I used a black Pigma pen on the muslin backing to write the names on each of the hands, and complete the labeling with the name of the quilt, the bride and groom, and the wedding date. Again, click either photo to open the gallery and see larger. 

I love that the quilt comes from the contribution of all the family members, and that Jim worked so closely with me on its design. The style is unique, maybe even quirky, certainly bordering on folk art. It’s also very personal, just as intended.


My running list of finishes for the year:
1. Fierce Little Bear
2. VA hospital quilt
3. VA hospital quilt
4. Charlotte’s Kitty
5. The Old School House
6. Georgia’s graduation quilt
7. Where Are the Birds? (landscape tree quilt)
8. ¡Fiesta!
9. Hands and Hearts
10. Shirt



35 thoughts on “Hands and Hearts — A Quilt From the Whole Family

  1. Pingback: Creative Juice #105 | ARHtistic License

  2. Elizabeth E.

    Melanie, this is beautiful! I love how you wove the symbolism of hands around the central motif, bringing the two families together in a visual way. I also have a hand banner (we made ours into leaves on a tree) that hung at every extended family reunion until we stopped having them. Each hand is so personal, and so individual. And of course, I love that back!

    (I don’t often return to posts I’ve read, so if you want me to see your response, can you email me?)

  3. KerryCan

    This is amazing, Melanie–the idea, the design, the execution! It will be a family heirloom, for sure. And I might be like your d-i-l and more intrigued by the back than the front!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks, Kerry. I really like the back, too. When Jim and I talked about how to hang it, we considered adding a sleeve. But that would cover far too much, including a hand or two. So we XXed that option off the list quickly. Thanks for taking a look.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thank you, Joanna. I was surprised as I worked with the images how different each of the hands was. Pretty soon I could tell who each was just by looking. The names will make it personal, I think. Thanks.

  4. Sue

    When I finally visited Ireland, in the early 1990s, with my husband, parents and two children, I purchased a gold Claddagh ring near Galway and have worn it on my left hand along with my plain gold wedding band ever since. It is a treasured symbol to me. I love how you incorporated it into this lovely personal family piece, and I am pretty sure your son and daughter-in-law will cherish it. It is beautiful and evocative. Well done!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      My daughters received matching rings as gifts when they were in their teens. I didn’t know what the symbolism was until recently. My hope is that the meaning will grow for Son and DIL over time. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. audrey

    Wow! What a fantastic quilt. Love how unique and personal it is! Great job pulling it all together–those hearts really make it shine.:)

  6. katechiconi

    The hands are such a great idea, and thank you for the explanation of how you kept them all scaled appropriately – it would never have occurred to me, and it’s a tip I shall file away for my own use some time. It’s a beautiful, clever, personal and imaginative quilt. Bravo!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, Jim helped work out the system but really it was easy. Once we had photos, it really didn’t matter if they were a little crooked. The cropping didn’t need to be exact, just close. Thanks for your kind comments.

  7. knitnkwilt

    I enjoyed the description of your designing process. Love the idea of a color for each family so you didn’t have to group them together but could distribute the colors.

  8. Cjh

    This is beautiful! The back is fabulous- such creativity and love in evidence here! I think I like the leafy ring and all the jewel-bright colors best… or is it the quilting? The family details and quilting showing on the back? … hmmm…. I’m just sorry I can’t see it in person because photos are usually only about half as great as the actual quilt.

  9. TextileRanger

    I love how you filled in those gaps with hearts, and I especially like how the back relates to the front, but has such a different look, and shows off the quilting!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks, Gwen. I was so glad I thought of filling with the hearts. It really turned it for me from being a good-idea-medium-execution to Yeah!! 🙂 It was interesting when the couple opened the gift at the rehearsal dinner. My daughter-in-law spent far more time looking at the back than the front. ❤

      1. TextileRanger

        Glad you liked it! I thought that as a physicist, you might say something like, “Yes, but galaxies never spiral to the left from our point of view in the Northern Hemisphere,” or something. 🙂 (That is how I am when artists show dragonflies with their wings attached UNDER their abdomens instead of on their backs, things like that.) Glad you saw the spirit of the piece rather than the holes in my scientific knowledge. 🙂


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