Thursday, August 27, 2015

How the Slow Stitching Movement Saved My (Quilting) Life

I should probably say right up front that one of my mom's nicknames for me when I was growing up was Quicksy. To hear her tell it, I invented the art of multi-tasking. That might be stretching things a bit, but I will confess to a tendency to approach most tasks with the intention of crossing them off my "to do" list as quickly as possible. That said, I found myself drawn to Mark Lipinski's "Slow Stitching Movement" and was thrilled to secure a spot in his first slow stitching retreat this past April.

A little background about my foray into quilting will probably help explain why slow stitching came along at precisely the right moment. Although my mom was an accomplished seamstress, I had absolutely no interest in learning to sew by machine. In my twenties, I dabbled in crewel and embroidery, but as a southpaw, it was difficult for me to learn the stitches. I was in my 30's when I took my first cruise and I quickly became hooked on cruising. What a concept! Sit on deck all day with my nose buried in a book, then eat a fabulous dinner and catch a show before being rocked to sleep in my cabin. The only problem was that it wasn't much fun for my then-husband. It seemed I was expected to socialize and carry on a conversation (yes, despite the fact that this was my vacation!). Being the type-A personality that I am, clearly I had to find something else that I could do while carrying on a conversation and socializing. Following my usual modus operandi, I researched hobbies that would fulfill these criteria and a new quilter was born. Imagine my delight when I realized that I didn't have to waste time on a physical hobby. I could fulfill my wifely duties and converse while engaging my hands in a worthy occupation that produced a lovely end product. I had hit on the ideal solution.

Over the next 15 years, I pieced and quilted one baby quilt after another, most of them during school breaks and summer vacation. After learning all I could from the quilting books I bought, I took an occasional class on the weekend (ever the student) and became adequately proficient at my craft. Along the way I began to appreciate the Zen of stitching. But life was so chaotic and my free time still so limited that my quilting never truly evolved beyond a way to busy my hands when I couldn't work. Did I mention I'm type-A?

Then came the dissertation years when reading for pleasure and quilting became little more than distant memories. I actually informed staff that while they could continue to get pregnant, I would be unable to produce any more baby quilts until further notice. At the end of my 5 year hiatus, I found that quilting had undergone some major changes-- namely, many more quilters were machine piecing and some were even machine quilting their projects. Rotary cutters had replaced scissors and those pesky little templates weren't even necessary for machine piecers. I filed that information in the back of my mind and tried to resume my handwork, but my life circumstances had changed. A divorce, a career that took up more and more of my time, and ultimately a new relationship lead to even less time to spend on quilting.

Then, a few years before I planned to retire, I began to toy with the idea of learning to machine piece. My boyfriend bought me a sewing machine for Christmas and a year later I took it out of the box and set it up and began to teach myself to use it. By the time I retired in 2004, I was ready for a big girl machine and some formal instruction. Machine piecing seemed made to order for someone who liked to do things quickly and was something of an overachiever and so I churned out quilt after quilt, wall hanging after wall hanging, table runner after table get the picture. I'm not saying that my work was shoddy or that some pieces weren't actually quite good. But something was missing.

While I still loved choosing fabrics and patterns, the actual piecing generally bored me silly and quickly became very mechanical. And then my guild hosted a speaker who brought along some of her crazy quilts. I was inspired to take a workshop with her and rediscovered my love of embroidery. Handwork was something that I had enjoyed years earlier, but that I didn't pursue because it was so difficult for me as a left-hander to find instructions I could follow. It seems in the intervening years a number of very good books had been published that addressed this need. I began researching crazy quilters and soon had a library of books by Judith Baker Montano. When I discovered Allie Aller's  Crazy Quilting:  The Complete Guide , I knew I had found my passion.

My usual method of learning--researching, then jumping in--served me well since there weren't any local classes in crazy quilting available to me. My guild had one or two members who had done some crazy quilting in the past, but I was more or less on my own. I began to acquire books and DVD's on silk ribbon embroidery, beading, motifs, and anything else that was related to crazy quilting.  Happily, Allie's blog lead me to other blogs about my passion and I discovered the Hudson River Valley art workshops offered in Greenville, New York, just two hours north of where I live.  It was my good fortune to be able to attend a beading retreat offered by Nancy Eha where I made several good friends, including Nancy. A few years later I took several more workshops with her at the Vermont Quilt Festival.

As I began to create crazy quilts, I immediately noticed a difference in my approach to quilting. No longer was I racing to the finish line. Crazy quilting has no pre-established finish line. As the Yogi once said, "It ain't over 'til it's over" and that was one of the best things about my new passion. I decided when my work was finished, not someone else's pattern. I knew from the start of any project that this was not going to be a quick romp in the fabric. I allowed myself the time to explore new techniques; I played with color in a way I never had before; I began to focus on texture far more than I had in my sane quilting; I began to get in the zone when I was beading and embroidering. As I began to realize how much I looked forward to picking up my work each day--because now I was making time to stitch each day--I knew that it was time to pick up my sewing needle again. Because while all of the embellishments on my crazies are done by hand, I machine piece most of the blocks. That was still "busy work" that had to be accomplished so I could get to the good stuff. But something had changed: now I wanted to do the good stuff all the time.

I had taken up my yoga practice again and that, combined with the Zen of hand stitching and beading, was working its magic on my psyche. About this same time I began writing a food blog.  While I hadn't kept a journal since I'd stopped teaching writing, blogging filled that gap quite nicely. I still produced the occasional machine pieced quilt and even began playing around with free motion quilting, but these were mere dalliances. I had resumed my love affair with handwork. I liked the way it made me feel and I was proud of the work I was producing.

Enter slow stitching. Having listened to a number of Mark's podcasts during road trips with my quilting buddies, I knew who he was. I had bought his magazine and I had seen him at Quilters Take Manhattan. I was always seeing his blog being referenced on Facebook and it seemed that the moon was in the seventh house and his Slow Stitching Movement was making its appearance at the very time that I was becoming interested in the Lucy Boston quilts, which lead me to Inklingo, which lead me to Willyne Hammerstein's La Passacaglia, which took me back to hand piecing, which lead me to sign up for Mark's first-ever Slow Stitching Movement Retreat at the Lamberville Station this past April. Can you tell I believe in Karma?

While I brought my machine along with me to piece a utilitarian quilt I was making for my new couch, I also brought along my hand stitching. Waking up at the crack of dawn each day to join Mark and the other conference attendees (new friends-in-the-making) to write our morning pages, I was reminded of my years of teaching high school writing workshop. The stream-of-consciousness technique provided a wonderful outlet to cleanse my mind of all the "monkey chatter" that prevents me from falling asleep at night or focusing on my breath during my yoga practice. It also put me in the right frame of mind to approach my quilting with a new set of eyes and a renewed appreciation for the art that I was creating, not simply producing. Taking time to really see the beautiful palette I'd chosen to work with; to fondle the fabric that I was about to transform into my creative vision; to place each stitch lovingly and with attention--this was the heart of slow stitching. Taking pleasure in the process, rather than the product, became the point of my art.

I'd like to say that I ceased from that day forward to make any quilts or projects to fulfill some last-minute gift giving or class sample, but that wouldn't be true. What I can say is that my quilting has brought me far greater pleasure since that 4 day retreat. While I still move from project to project to keep my interest piqued, when I am working on a piece, I give it my full attention and appreciation.  One of my projects is definitely a legacy quilt: my hand-pieced La Passacaglia. I work on it almost daily, very deliberately using the suggestions that Mark shared with us. Doing so puts me in "the zone" and my stitching time nourishes me, both physically and mentally. I believe that my work has improved as well. My focus results in finer stitching, better use of color, and a greater attention to detail. I'm currently working on using these same techniques when I machine piece or quilt, but my progress there is in the infant stages. In any event, the race is over.


  1. I'm glad that I stumbled on this, Arlene. Very well put! And your Passacaglia is beautiful!

  2. Gorgeous! It's going to be a beauty. A true legacy quilt. And I enjoyed reading about your quilting journey.