Author Archives: Melanie McNeil

About Melanie McNeil

Quilter, Designer, Teacher, Writer

Martha Washington’s Children’s Games

Yesterday I was adding a final border to my Games with Martha quilt. I haven’t told you about this yet, other than a passing mention.

Games with Martha is part of a larger project I’m working on. It’s an interpretation of a quilt top made by Martha Washington, around 220 years ago. Martha Washington was a remarkable and complicated woman. As our first First Lady, she served at Valley Forge with her husband George, during the Revolutionary War. She was considered an adept manager of the plantations of both her first husband and Washington, bargaining with Europeans on tobacco prices.

She was a slave owner, having inherited the use of more than 80 slaves when her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, died. The slaves were, in essence, held in trust for her use during her lifetime. When she died, ownership of these “dower” slaves reverted back to members of Custis’s family. George Washington also owned slaves. In his will Washington directed that they be freed upon Martha’s death. After he died, she freed them soon after.

And she was a quilter. She is known to have started three quilts, finished one, finished the top of another, and started the top of a third. It is possible, of course, that she was not the quilter, but a slave was. However, since the third top was finished by a younger relative after her death, it seems likely that it was her own handwork, rather than something she directed a slave to do. All three quilts are now held at Mount Vernon in Virginia.

One of the quilt tops is called “Children’s Games” because of a toile used in large corner blocks depicting children at play. I’m creating an interpretation of the top. Note, there is a difference between an interpretation and a reproduction. A reproduction is a copy intending to appear essentially the same as the original. An interpretation is a representation of the original, but without intention to look exactly alike.

Here is a photo in George Washington’s Mount Vernon Facebook page showing a woman who is making a reproduction of Children’s Games, along with the original flat on the table.

While her reproduction is, I believe, imitating the scale (larger than eight feet) and creating or finding copies of the fabrics, my version is not that. Again, it’s an interpretation. It will finish at approximately seven feet (about 84″) and uses fabrics currently available and from my stash.

I have finished the top. However, it is BIG and I didn’t get a photo of it. I did get a picture prior to adding the last border yesterday. Here’s what it looked like, and a comparison to the original. Mine is on the right of the screen capture.

My final border is technically a double pink, but is printed in pink, red, and white with small red rosettes in the stripe. It will look substantially like hers. I mitered the border corners and messed that up, cutting two of the strips too short. (If you look at Washington’s mitered corners, they’re not great, either.) However, all’s well that ends well and it looks just fine now.

I’ll tell you more about my mitering adventure, the design of the quilt, and some other things soon. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

On Pins and Needles

I’ve probably mentioned before that I help teach an English class for foreign-born adults. It’s pretty unstructured and we cover a wide range of topics, depending on student interest. A typical class might be like we had a couple of weeks ago. The word “pick” and how it is used was being discussed, along with variations like “pick up,” pick out,” “picky,” and “pickpocket.” The idea of a pickpocket led a student to ask about another type of crime. What’s it called when someone breaks into your house? Well, that is burglary, and the person is a burglar. We went through several types of crime before heading back to the word “pick.”

In a lot of classes, we talk about expressions in American English. We have a lot of sayings that aren’t obvious for meaning, things like “being on pins and needles.”

Have you ever really thought about that phrase? Supposedly it originated some 200 years ago, based on the tingly feeling you get when recovering from numbness. That tingly feeling has been interpreted, I guess, to how we feel when anticipating something with eagerness or anxiety.

Are you on pins and needles about anything?

I was on pins and needles this morning when I opened WordPress to create this post. Would I be able to use “classic editor,” or would I be forced into using “block editor”? Thanks to Kate at Tall Tales from Chiconia, I was able to find the classic editor. Hence, I’m able to write this post.

Speaking of needles, I’m also on pins and needles in anticipation of life becoming somewhat more normal, whatever that means. Jim and I have both had two covid needle jabs, so we are moving in that direction. In our county, things are going pretty well. Good job, neighbors!

Another needle story: my youngest grandchild is about to have his second birthday. Son asked if I could make a super-hero style cape for him. Well, sure! I could do that. Since grandson is going to visit his mom’s family (across the country) for his birthday, and will see two older cousins there, I decided to make a cape for each of the three little boys.

I went to big-box fabric store and bought polyester-cotton blend yardage in red, blue, and dark green. I looked at a couple of tutorials and decided how I wanted to shape the neckline. Last time I made a cape, string ties were still allowed. This time I needed to use Velcro. (Okay, hook-and-loop tape, not Velcro. If you care about trademarks and don’t get too offended, you might enjoy this hilarious video from the Velcro people.)

My Velcro bits were the kind with glue on the backs of individual squares. That makes it easy for placement, but it was tough on my needles. The glue gummed them up, caught the thread, messed with tension, led to me swearing loudly more than once. I replaced needles twice and gutted it out to not replace a third time. But I got the three capes done, replaced the needle again, cleaned the machine, and tomorrow I’ll put the capes in the mail.

Each cape has two sides of different colors. You can see all three have a red side. The boys can choose to be all alike with the red, or all different by mixing things up. 

Side note: Since finishing the capes, I’ve been working on making a quilt top honoring one made by Martha Washington more than 200 years ago. Sewing needles would have been precious and expensive then. I was so enjoying the process until I had a thought — is it possible to honor the quilt without honoring the woman, someone who owned more than 80 slaves? I’m still thinking about that and will try to post more about it, if the editing tool doesn’t get in my way.

If you’re interested to know more about pins and needles, I’ll point you to a few blog posts with interesting facts and links. One is by me and trips through 50,000 years of needle use. One is by my blog friend Gwen the Textile Ranger, and digs deeper into manufacture of needles in England in the 1850s. Another is by Pati Friend of See How We Sew, and covers a 400-year-old Japanese tradition of thanking worn pins and needles for their service. The last linked here is by the Mill Museum in Connecticut. It’s a fairly lengthy history of the development of sewing machines, which necessitated a functional needle first.

And edited to add one more: this post on the site Love To Know presents a history of sewing needles. I’m no expert and can’t attest to its accuracy, but it’s definitely an interesting read. Here’s one thing I note. “By 1906, Scientific American reported an annual production of 3 million needles per day worldwide, with 300 million purchased each year in the United States alone. Most hand-sewing needles sold in the United States were British-made; Americans never attempted to challenge British dominance of needlemaking.” So that answers my question about needle manufacture in the US. Apparently we’ve never had a big industry in that.

 

Cotton News and Why Fabric Prices Will Rise

One of my favorite bloggers, Audrey of Quilty Folk said, “There’s been a lot going on at the home front which made it seem like I didn’t have time to blog. Then I had too much to post about so it really felt like there wasn’t proper time and well, yeah. Vicious cycle.”

I always have things to talk over with you! Even over the year-plus when I didn’t post at all, there was plenty to say, and then way too much to say, and so on. And now there are a handful of things competing for my attention to write about. The winner this time is cotton.

Cotton Supply Changes and the Effect on Cotton and Fabric Prices

On January 13, 2021, the US banned imports of cotton and cotton products from Xinjiang, a region of China that produces one-fifth of the world’s cotton. The ban is punishment for human rights violations of the Muslim Uighur population, which the US and Canada have deemed to be genocide. Other violations include using forced labor (aka slavery,) systemic rape and sexual violence.

While cotton is a commodity, it actually has a number of different grades used to classify it by length, length uniformity, and strength. That means that different grades are not perfect substitutes for each other (as navel oranges are not a perfect substitute for seeded oranges,) but they do serve as substitutes. There are substitutes for the cotton grown in China, but because the total supply has dropped, with a stable overall demand, prices increase. That’s Econ 101.

There are other disruptions in supply and pricing, including costs of packaging and transportation, covid-19 constraints for production, and drops in cotton supplied by other countries, including the US and Pakistan.

The change in supply and resulting price increase affects the price of cotton for all kinds of goods, including fashion and yardage. Prices for our quilting cottons will rise, too.

Here’s a link to a blog post by Scott Fortunoff. Fortunoff is the CEO of Jaftex, one of the large quilt fabric manufacturing companies headquartered in the US. Jaftex contracts with and buys printed fabric from mills for distribution in quilt shops.

In the post he uses a hypothetical example to illustrate what a small change in cotton price does to your yard of fabric. Using made up numbers, he shows that a 20-cent per yard increase in the price he pays for printed yardage leads to a 50-cent increase in what he must sell it for, in order to maintain his profit margin after covering all costs. Generalize that thought for real numbers, and it means that a small increase in the price he pays leads to a larger increase in the price he must charge.

At the quilt shop, that same 20-cent increase in Jaftex’s purchase price might lead to a $1.00 increase in the price you pay, because the shop owner also needs to maintain their profitability to stay in business.

Of course we want to support our local quilt shops and the designers and manufacturers who bring us our raw material, but we do have choices for where we can get our fabrics. Stash, exchanges with friends, thrift shops and yard sales, these are all sources for quilting fabric. Clothing has a lot of yardage in it and can be a good source of fabric, too. You don’t need to be limited in your quilting if there are limits in your budget to absorb price increases.

Either way, it is worth it to me to pay more for yardage if it will pressure the Chinese government on this important issue.

Here are a few links to more articles, if you would like more information on this subject.

Reuters article from 1/13/21 “US Bans Imports of All Cotton… “ 

Washington Post from 2/22/21  “US Ban on China’s Xinjiang Cotton … ” (might have a paywall)

Another post from Scott Fortunoff, from 2/22/21 “Commodity Insanity”

Fortunoff from 2/15/21 “It All Starts with Greige Goods”

The Guardian from 2/22/21 “Canada Votes to Recognize China’s Treatment of Uighur Population as Genocide”

BBC.com 2/2/21 (disturbing/trigger warning) “Their Goal is to Destroy Everyone”

A post of mine from August 2018, which isn’t about this change in supply but about pricing relative to enacted tariffs “Tariffs and the Cost of Quilting”

 

 

The Baby is the Best Part

I made a bunch of quilts last year, but because I didn’t blog at all, I didn’t show them to you then. You’ve already seen Melting Pot, Cimarron, and But Love Lasts, but there are a few more to show you.

Besides the ones listed above, I also made two quilts for babies. Some people looooove making baby quilts. Some people even specialize in them. It’s not really my thing, though I’ve certainly made a few over the last 17 years.

One of my baby quilts last year was for my own grandbaby. He’ll turn two soon, and is a walkin’, talkin’ delight, as all grandbabies are.

His mom, our dear daughter-in-law, grew up near Mt. Rainier in Washington. It’s a beautiful location, and Jim and I have had the opportunity to hike in the national park.

Mt. Rainier, Washington

A year ago I realized that fabric panels celebrating the national parks were available. They are based on historic travel posters promoting the parks. I bought the one for Mt. Rainier.

It was slightly tempting to use the panel as the center of a medallion. Because. That’s what I do, right? But this was for the baby, and the intention was for it to be a play mat or cuddle quilt, nothing special. And that’s exactly how it turned out. 🙂

As you can see, the baby is the best part.

A New Use for Quilts

Today in east central Iowa, the temperature won’t get above 0°F. My son emailed from Oklahoma, where it is windy and not much warmer, unusually cold for his location. His gas company sent a notice asking residential customers to reset their thermostats to 60-65° during the day and even colder at night, because of unusually high demand for fuel. Brrrr!

We are all lucky, though, and can stay in where it’s safe and cozy, tucked under quilts to keep warm.

A creative person might think of a different use for quilts on a windy, cold day. Jim stumbled on this anecdote as he was researching genealogy sources for western Illinois:

Thomas Camp, in 1849, settled near where the present town of Good Hope is situated. All north of him for many miles was one vast, unbroken wilderness, with not a house or dwelling of any kind, and also perfectly void of timber. A few winters after his settlement upon the prairie, there came a heavy fall of snow, and upon the top of that a sleet of rain, which freezing, formed a solid crust on top, and over which a man could walk or slide. Mr. Camp thought he would have a good sleigh ride; so taking a sled out several miles from his house, and rigging it up with quilts for sails, he jumped in, and there being a brisk northwest wind, he was soon sailing over the prairies. The wind being so strong he could not lower his sails, although in a measure he was able to direct his course, and therefore, on arriving at home, he could not stop, but run into an out-house, wrecking his prairie schooner and almost losing his life. He never tried the experiment again, although he declared it was a perfect success.*

So if you get a notion to go outside and you have a sled, a quilt, and a broad stretch of icy landscape, you could give it a try, too!

*Source: History of McDonough County, Illinois, Its Cities, Towns, and Villages with Early Reminiscences, Personal Incidents and Anecdotes, and a Complete Business Directory of the County, by S. J. Clarke, published in 1878, page 593. Extracted 30 Jul 2016 by Norma Hass. Via this link https://mcdonough.illinoisgenweb.org/1878remicamp.html