More than 25 years ago, Jim and I bought a house built in 1933. Only one family had lived there; with that comes good and bad. There had been relatively few updates, which was good, but those that had been done had mostly been done badly. Though most of the issues were cosmetic, the kitchen was worse than an eyesore. On one side were painted, built-in wooden cabinets with unadjustable shelves at heights I could barely reach. On the other were “St. Charles” metal cabinets, and not enough of them. Countertops on each side also differed, including their mismatched metal rims. The floor was covered in linoleum tiles that had shifted and drifted, the color reminiscent of street-splatter on my car after rain. The gas stove was in harvest gold while the small refrigerator was in avocado. The stove fan, which didn’t vent out of the house, was in brown.
We took our time planning the update while also repainting every other room. Primitive design software helped us determine cabinet placement, and dozens of glossy kitchen magazines helped us sort out the options for decor. I was getting impatient for the kitchen’s turn at renovation, and everyday found myself huffing a little about how awkward it was to use, or how ugly the Pepto-Bismol pink paint was. While waiting, I read an anecdote. Perhaps it was in one of those kitchen magazines, or maybe it was a Reader’s Digest entry. It went something like this:
A young woman proudly showed off her new home’s kitchen to her grandmother. Excitedly she described the various features — countertops, cabinet styles, appliances, finishes. The older woman was quieter than expected, nodding as she took it all in. The granddaughter, surprised by the lack of reaction, prodded for more. “Grandma, what parts of my kitchen do you like best?” she asked. Grandma turned and looked around again before saying, “The hot and cold running water.”
That short reminder helped me keep my kitchen in perspective. We did have hot and cold running water, then and throughout the renovation. We did have appliances that worked, as basic and ugly as they were. After that when I worked in my old, mismatched kitchen everyday, I was grateful for the technology of indoor plumbing and what an amazing impact that had on our lives.
Fast forward a few years. Jim, Son and I were in England, traveling from London to Dover by train. The passenger cars were unlike any I’d seen in the U.S., wooden carriages with doors that opened outward, and bench seats inside. At one point I started giggling to myself and Jim asked why. “Well, I was going to say, ‘We’re lucky to be able to travel this way. A hundred years ago we couldn’t have gone from London to Dover like this.’ But then I thought, ‘A hundred years ago, we could have gone exactly like this!'” No, the rail travel between the two cities hadn’t changed much in that time, but it still was a faster means than walking or horse-drawn carriage.
This week I struggled to finish one of the VA hospital quilts, the one for which I’d already made a rookie construction mistake. It was on the long-arm frame with quilting nearly done, when all of a sudden OOUPH!! The needle hesitated running through a little build-up of fabric near a complex seam, and suddenly the sound of quilting changed. I stopped the machine and looked closely. On top nothing had changed, but underneath I could see bits of white batting fibers clinging to the stitches I’d just run.
I changed the needle and began again. After 15 or 20″ of stitching, I examined my work. Again on top it looked fine. Underneath I had loops galore! The tension was seriously out of whack.
How many steps are needed to solve a problem like this? As many as it takes to fix. Since I hadn’t changed the tension setting, I didn’t start there. New needle, rethreading both top and bobbin, cleaning all microscopic bits of lint out of the bobbin assembly, testing and retesting, rethreading again… I even reset the timing because in the meantime it had started skipping stitches, but the loops remained. Finally I tightened the upper tension dial, figuring I had nothing to lose. And that was the magic step, allowing me to finish quilting.
The work-to-glory ratio was not in my favor for this quilt, all the way through. (And I still need to bind it, so I’m prepared for more problems before it’s done!)
Though my frustration built at times, I tried to remember the modern miracles we enjoy as we quilt. It isn’t just the rotary cutter, which I wrote about recently. It isn’t even just the sewing machine, modern versions of which have been available for about 160 years. (YES, quilters in the 1800s did both piece and quilt on machines, if they were lucky enough to own them.)
The technology of quilting has changed in spurts throughout quilting history, or at least the last several hundred years of it. Consider a few recent changes. In 1794 Eli Whitney patented a cotton gin that could clean short-staple cotton, the only kind that could be grown economically away from the U.S. east coast. Power looms invented in the same decade allowed the rise of factory textile mills in both the U.S. and England. Improvements in dyes and printing technology throughout history let us enjoy the range of colors and designs we have available now. Modern transportation allows fabric and associated products to be shipped anywhere in the world.
Besides fabric production and distribution, though, there are other technological “miracles” that make our lives as quilters easier. Have you ever purchased fabric using a credit card, whether online or in the local shop? Have you ever read or written a blog post or looked up a youtube video about quilting?
My project got bogged down in various ways. Even so, 200 years ago it would have been beyond the imagination that I could use the fabrics I did. One hundred years ago, the even-lofted polyester batting wasn’t conceived of. Fifty years ago, no one had the notion that making a quilt from start to finish would take so few hours, regardless of my personal challenges.
As a quilter I try to appreciate our history, both from the artistic standpoint and also the technological. Practicing gratitude about the achievements of those who came before helps me keep my own challenges in better perspective.
This Thanksgiving, I wish you a sense of wonder and fulfillment in your craft and the rest of your life.