Anniversary quilt turns into a labour of love

Tragedy cut short plans for a wedding present, but the project was revived in time for the couple’s 10th anniversary

SASKATOON — When my daughter, Cara, married Todd in 2008, Todd’s mom, Brenda, and grandma, Marge, wanted to give them a quilt for a wedding present.

They were gifted quilters, creating detailed, intricate designs. For Todd and Cara’s wedding, they had a special quilt in mind.

They bought fabric in the wedding colours of mauve and green and cut the fabric in squares. Each guest was asked to sign a square using a fabric pen, making the future quilt the couple’s wedding guest book.

It was very sad that a few months after the wedding, Brenda passed away, followed by Marge three years later. The signed quilt pieces lay in a box, forgotten.

In 2018, Cara started planning a 10th anniversary party. I wondered what I would give them for a gift. I thought of the quilt pieces, still residing in my sewing room. Would I be able to make this quilt to these ladies’ standards? I had made a few quilts in my time — simple creations. Taking on someone else’s project of sentimental value was a daunting task. I needed expert help.

I took the pieces to 440 Quilt Shop in Saskatoon. The store was busy, so I waited till other customers had been helped since my question would take time to answer.

When my turn came, I showed store owner Jackie my signed squares of fabric and explained that I was taking over someone else’s project and needed a pattern or instructions to guide me.

Jackie pointed out that a pattern will call for pieces of a particular size, but the pieces I had were already cut. A pattern wouldn’t work for me, she said.

She pulled out a blank piece of paper and started drawing a design and working out sizing for the queen-sized quilt I was preparing.

Picking up a calculator, she started punching numbers and writing down figures on the paper. She explained the long, narrow pieces between each block are called sashing. The little squares of contrasting colour at the corners are called cornerstones.

She described the steps in assembling a quilt and then told me that she would not sell me any fabric right then, but was going to give me some homework.

She told me to go home and sew the signed squares together, and showed me how to arrange them four to a block, arranged in alternating colours, mauve then green, then mauve, then green.

When I was done, she said I should come back and then we could decide on contrasting fabric for the sashing, cornerstones and the border.

The following Saturday, I laid out the pieces on my bed and looked at them. There were also blank pieces that would help make up a queen-size.

I arranged the squares so that each block had at least two signed squares. Some had three with the blanks completing each block. Marge’s signature went with her husband Bill’s in a block in the centre beside their daughter Brenda’s signature with other family members radiating out.

When all the blocks were in order, I started sewing one block at a time, leaving the others in their place on my bed to keep the order.

While sewing I thought of the people who wrote their names and good wishes that day 10 years ago. Happy thoughts like “Best wishes, Cara and Todd,” “Wishing you every happiness in all your years together,” or “Live a long and prosperous marriage.”

Some had advice from a voice of experience: “Just keep talking, and talking and talking.” For others, just their name was enough to remember them by.

With the blocks done, I decided to tell my daughter, Cara, about my project and asked her if she’d help pick out fabric for the sashing and cornerstones. She also did sewing and had opinions about colour choice. Jackie had commented that young women often choose much different fabric for their quilting projects than the older generation.

It would be more fun to shop with her and also have her input, making it more personal to her. We set a date to meet at the shop for a fabric shopping extravaganza.

Jackie had been correct in her observation of younger women. I was intrigued by Cara’s choice of print and was glad I had asked her for this part of the project.

Armed with the new fabric, I went home to continue my quilting adventure. As I sewed, I imagined Marge leaning over my shoulder, watching my progress.

“I hope you approve of the work I’m doing, Marge,” I said out loud.

Once again, I laid out the blocks on my bed in their finished order. Following Jackie’s hand-drawn pattern, I cut out the sashing and cornerstones pieces, then sewed them onto the signed blocks; one block, one sash, repeat until long, wide strips were laid out on my bed. Other strips of sashing and cornerstones were sewn in strips to fit above and below the rows of blocks.

Slowly the quilt top took shape, growing over my bed. By the end of the afternoon, it was done. I folded it all up and placed it carefully in a bag for another day when I could go back to the store for the last stage of the project. Time to shop for the backing and quilt batting — the soft filling that gives a quilt its warmth.

Back in the shop, I was shown where the bolts of backing stood. I could choose other fabric, but it wouldn’t be wide enough to cover the whole quilt and I’d have to sew two pieces together, leaving a seam down the middle. I chose from the backing a nice floral print with a funky look, hoping Cara liked it.

Considering that this quilt was meant for decorative use and not for wrapping up in the living room, I chose a light batting.

The staff at the quilt shop gave me the name of a person who does long-arm quilting; someone who owned a long-arm sewing machine and did quilting as a service to others.

In the old days, and even today, some women stitch their quilts by hand. My mother owned a set of quilt frames — long boards about four inches wide and the clamps to hold them together at the corners. The assembled quilt (top, batting and backing) was nailed to a board along one end and the board was rolled so that only a workable area was exposed. The other end was nailed to a second board. Two shorter boards were laid along the sides of the quilt and held there with clamps at the corners. The whole thing was set on the backs of kitchen chairs, one at each corner. Friends were invited over for an afternoon of quilting, and there you have it — an old-fashioned quilting bee. Guests sat around the quilt, working together until the exposed section was done. When one part was fully quilted, the frame was loosened at the corners so the whole piece could be rolled to a new section for stitching.

The person who could make the smallest, neatest stitches was most admired for her skill. Much gossip and laughter ensued as the women passed the time, stopping at the end of the day for tea and goodies before going home.

These days, not many women have time for a quilting bee, although it sounds like a lot of fun.

I had my work and not enough time to quilt it by hand. Besides, an elaborate design stitched by machine sounded like a nicer finish for a special gift than any hand-stitching I could do.

On my appointment day, I took the quilt in three bags — top, batting and backing — to the quilter’s home. She would have taken it from me at the door but I’d never seen a long-arm machine and I asked to see hers. It filled a room in her basement, leaving only walking space around it. She explained that hers didn’t have a computer as some do, but it still looked pretty impressive to me.

Each woman who does this service decides on her own fee, so if you’re looking for a quilter, shop around.

The quilt is returned without its binding around the edge and this is the last stage of the quilt-making process. A long piece of fabric is ironed in half and sewn on the front first, folded over to the back and either hand-stitched or stitched-in-the-ditch so it’s not visible on the front. Done.

I laid it out on my bed one last time. Challenging though it was to make someone else’s project, I was proud of the finished creation.

On the day of Cara and Todd’s anniversary, I brought out my gift and someone asked me to tell the story of the wedding quilt while Cara and Todd held it up for the guests to see.

I was sorry Marge and Brenda couldn’t have had the pleasure of making it for them, and sorry that they couldn’t be present at the anniversary, but I was happy to have been a part of the project and now Cara and Todd had the keepsake of their wedding day with the personal notes from guests that they had wanted them to have.

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