Sunday, November 15, 2009

How to make an immigrant quilt

Let’s be clear – I don’t sew.

I don’t own a sewing machine -- and even if I did I’m not sure I could figure out how to turn the thing on, much less get it to do what I’d want it to do.

I’m not a good candidate to be making a quilt.

But – God help me – I am making one, and have been, on and off, for the past 13 years.

Before you ask, no, I’m not finished yet.

I told you – I don’t sew.

Years ago, in Guatemala, I was forced to take sewing class – costura – at the Colegio Maya. It was one of the only classes I ever took that I came this close to failing. Sra. Alonzo hated me. God’s truth. I insisted on talking while I sewed. My stitches wandered, and I was indifferent to their meandering. And I think I once told her – more or less – that her class was an unwelcome remnant of musty 19th century educational thinking.

My brothers (taking handicrafts like all the other boys in those days of gender-segregated classes) were coming home with cool things like lamps and magazine racks they had made; I carted home samplers and twee crocheted doilies only my grandmother could love.

I tried to persuade my parents to get me out of the class. My father sat on the school’s board of directors and my mother was the hip young artist the school administrators consulted to determine just how many inches above the knee our miniskirts were allowed to be. But no dice. Even after the appeal and the sympathetic looks I still had to attend the stupid class. And mind my manners while I was at it.

Mrs. Alonzo glared at my hopeless cross stitch, pursed her lips at my imperfect chain stitch and cleared her throat every time I chose the fat crochet hooks and thick yarns that speeded the delivery of completed (if utterly graceless) projects.

As we sewed, outside the windows of our classroom a war of insurgency and counterinsurgency raged.

When I first moved to the States people didn’t believe me when I told them I’d never experienced a school fire drill. Our Colegio Maya drills prepared us for crossfire; for the military vs. guerilla shootouts that frequently took place in that part of Zone 10 during those years.

We watched our classmates’ fathers killed in front of the school during recess; saw one of our bus drivers go down in crossfire as he escorted us from the playground into the school; even witnessed one of our teachers collapse at the news that her son had been caught by the country’s politically-driven violence that left no family untouched.

Inside, we stitched in silence.

We never talked about what we saw outside the school’s door – not even the afternoon after C’s father was killed in front of our eyes. Instead, we focused on samplers that evoked a gentility long disappeared from the country.

I’ve come to think of that sewing class as emblematic of the country during those years – enforced silence and an obtuse pretense that everything was as it should be.

Still, I cried when my family had to move to the United States (see “Hope is the thing with feathers” blog post of Dec. 14, 2008 to read why we moved). Though I have been an American citizen from birth I had only visited the States on vacations every so often and I understood, even from those short visits, that I was an American without the slightest idea about how to feel or be American.

But when my mother took us one summer day to enroll in Downingtown High School (a huge school it would take me weeks to find my way around and which I’d never really understand how to navigate) I was gratified to learn that here, at least, sewing classes were not mandatory.

You could fast-forward through the next 15 or 20 years of my life (years in which every poem and story I wrote was about Guatemala’s bloody unfolding history and every political cause I embraced had at its heart a hope for justice in that country) and see very few moments in which I picked up needle and thread willingly.

Once, shortly before my daughter was born I crocheted just long enough to produce a small baby blanket for her. Another time, I managed to finish a short hooded capelet which she wore a handful of times as a toddler. That’s it. I even eschewed hemming pants – that’s what safety pins are for, isn’t it?

Strangely, some of my best friends turned out to be people unusually skilled with the needle.


I loved watching them work. For a couple of years running I spent nearly every morning at Robin’s house, watching him graph patterns, cut strips of fabric, piece them, and put together into quilts. Some carried well-known pattern names like Log Cabin and Tree of Life, others were original patterns. They were all exquisite (to see his work go to

Irrationally, I found myself wanting to create a quilt too, and started collecting my daughter’s outgrown clothing to that purpose.

Robin was encouraging – after he got over his shock at the sheer folly of it.

I had no sewing machine and so proposed to make a crazy quilt – a type of quilt popular in the Victorian era in which the pieces of fabric were randomly placed and set off by decorative stitchery. I think he understood that it was the very randomness of the crazy quilt that appealed to me.

Still, he warned me, it's not as random as it seems.

Unheeding, I went ahead.

I chose absolutely the worst possible fabric to serve as the backing block, and within seconds of sewing the first piece on it, it went radically and permanently out of square.

I kept going anyway.

I added a piece of an antique woven Nepalese cap my mother had presented to me when my daughter was days old, then a piece from a very downtown-New-York toddler’s outfit one of my brothers had bought for her, followed by a scrap of organza collar from a ridiculously pouffy little girl’s dress only a mother would have the nerve to buy for her kid.

I sewed them on with satin stitch and chain stitch and blanket stitch, and stitches without proper names because they were really “make-betters” on stitches I had tried but mucked up.

I wasn’t producing art (or even straight seams) like Robin or another quilting friend, Donna – but I could live with that.

As I kept going with this first block, providence seemed to encourage me.

My brother-in-law went up to the attic of their family home and found a piece of a quilt that their deceased mother or grandmother or grand-aunt had started and abandoned years ago. Guess what? It was a piece of crazy quilt, with the old leaded silks and taffetas and shirting fabric simply basted on to a seed-bag backing block.

When I held it up to the square I was working on, it was almost exactly the same size. If my block had actually been square, that is.

For about two or three weeks after the discovery of the Saunders quilt piece I dreamt about the finished crazy quilt. I loved the idea of piecing together these bits of lives in cloth and putting them in a quilt for my daughter.

At that time I hadn’t yet seen the movie “How to Make an American Quilt,” which is, in essence, an extended riff on just that. I had heard about the movie however, from Robin, who railed at the last scene where Winona Ryder wraps herself in the lovely quilt just completed for her and literally drags it through the dirt.

Several more weeks passed after the discovery of the Saunders piece, and my usual sewing animus reemerged.

I wondered whether I should just sew the two blocks back-to-back into a crazy pillow and be done with it already.

I don’t remember when I officially laid the project aside.

My mother died suddenly of an aneurism we never knew she had.

My husband, daughter and I moved to Pennsylvania, where our lives, for a while, seemed like the miscarriage I had soon after moving – a promise so compromised it could not be sustained.

My father got pancreatic cancer, and died after two years of a battle that rent my heart.

Through it all, my daughter grew, and outgrew clothing. But instead of cutting them into pieces to incorporate into the crazy quilt, I carted the clothing to donation bins.

I didn’t know where I had put the two existing quilt blocks, or even whether I had packed them and brought them along with us on the move.

Providence seemed to have lost interest in this particular quilt –and anyway, I wasn’t sure I believed in providence anymore.

People vanish from our lives. Quickly, when a bullet or aneurism takes them. Or slow and excruciating, like the long dying of those who disappear during a dirty war, or in cancer. We train ourselves not to talk about these deaths – as in that long remembered sewing class of mine – for fear that our voices will tear.

Or that we will fray into nothingness as we consider our losses.

Each death is a piece out of a fabric that started out whole. What do we do when we are surrounded by the pieces?

People are fond of saying that God writes with crooked lines, I prefer to think He sews with them.

His grace sometimes punches through our lives with an unbearably sharp needle, but then, great generous blanket stitches bind our frayed edges. Backstitches advance us even as we seem to be going back. And His wandering, loopy chain stitches link us to the strong fabric that remains in our lives.

I found those two quilt blocks a few months ago.

My daughter didn’t remember them, and for an hour or so, I regaled her with the provenance of each piece on the block I had created. I mused about the sayings I had stitched-in back then – redes from a different religion, from the radically different life I had led.

And still, I recognize I had been searching then, like now, for recognition of the moments when the numinous touches our lives. For the moment we find ourselves in still center of the labyrinth, and look, there's no minotaur there but a pair of wings.

I speculated, as my daughter examined the two pieces, about the fabrics used in the block basted together by the Saunders women– onto which I had stitched the names of my daughter’s grandparents and great-grandparents.

Then, like now, family is the spine, the ribs, the invisible frame that enables us to stand. No matter that I had never met these members of my husband’s family, no matter that in my own extended family there is some scar tissue along with the supporting bone. I wanted those Welsh, Mexican, German, Guatemalan, Greek and American names all there where my daughter could run her fingers over them and know that, along with her unique gifts, this is the stuff she is made of.

A crazy quilt – light and dark, smooth and coarse, rich fabrics and poor, straight lines and crooked.

Random only on the surface.

“Are you ever going to finish the quilt for me?” she asked.

“Can’t I just make you a pillow?” I asked in answer.

“No,” she said. “You can’t.”

I don’t think I say yes to her, but in the next few days I start on a new block.

Then another. And another.

Each piece I add has history and memory: the salmon silk onto which I sewed the old blocks and on which I built the new is from a formal gown my mother wore in Thailand to meet the king. The rough yellow silk cut into leaf shapes was hand-woven in the San Marcos region of my mother’s homeland (the Guatemala that so shaped my youth).

The feather-shaped pieces of sophisticated Italian silk used faced and reversed in the wings of one of the birds on the end pieces is from my father’s tie, and the white-on-white cutwork feathers on the other bird are from handkerchiefs that once belonged to my grandmothers.

I think of a Dorothy Day quote as I sew the memories on: “We cannot live alone. We cannot go to heaven alone. Otherwise God will say to us ‘Where are the others?’”

Each piece I add has a present: my daughter’s school ribbons, a piece of the beaded Indian silk she wore for my older brother’s wedding, symbols from the manga she currently reads and loves. A machine-embroidered Virgin of Guadalupe from one of my pillowcases. Pieces from a scarf that belongs to my husband made into the trees of his woods in central New York. Milagros representing the prayers I’ve taught myself to remember, and the ones I’ve made up in gratitude.

Each piece I add has a future: I plan to take the quilt top to the aunt of one of my husband’s Mennonite co-workers who routinely adds batting and edging to finish pieces like this into proper quilts. I set aside yards of backing fabric for it (kente cloth my father bought years ago in Zaire for my mother) and conjure images of new faced with old, of a whole made from pieces.

I start to embroider on one of the blocks (an oblong, actually) the words of a William Stafford poem I’ve found by chance, by providence, recently: “There’s a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change.”

How much a wayfarer I still am.

I’ve made an immigrant’s quilt for my daughter, and sewn into it the messiness, the incertitude, the striving and suffering and faith that pace every pilgrimage.

I don’t know when I’ll finish – I told you, I don’t sew.

But I have learned to piece together.


  1. This is going to be exquisite! - it already is! I am so impressed that you are persevering on the crazy quilt...I will admit I never thought you'd do it. And to heck with Mrs. Alonzo - your sewing skills are just fine!

    I miss our mornings!!! :-(

    i.e.: railing about Winona dragging that gorgeous all-white hand quilted quilt through the dirt. You have one heck of a memory! LOL

  2. As I go through my busy days, I try to find time to answer my emails. I complain constantly because I can never catch up! One thing I do is save all the blogs that you, my friend write. I truly savored this story like I savor an exquisite piece of fine candy. I loved it, you are such a talented and gifted writer, Sabrina. God has indeed blessed you with many talents. I am thankful that you share them with us through your blog. Think about putting them together for a book on short stories! ¡Gracias!
    Anna V.

  3. Sabrina, this is beautiful. With wedding craziness it took me a while to catch up on your posts, but I finally did and this one is just beautiful.


Comment on this post: