As a little girl, I was in awe of my father’s sister – my aunt Emily. She was my first influence. Every summer I looked forward to visiting the small town in rural Arkansas where my father grew up and where Emily and her family still lived. She was fearless – from her cooking (she was an exceptional home cook) to leading a group of her girlfriends to New Orleans for Mardi Gras (unaccompanied by their husbands this was a big deal in her circle), to pushing for the local church’s Sunday school program to include lessons in sex ed, to ultimately and gracefully fighting and losing a battle with cancer.
On our drives down back roads in search of antique stores for kitchen tools (to add to her collection) I don’t remember ever stopping at a fabric shop. Nor was there any mention of sewing or patterns on our trips into town to check out the newest inventory at her favorite clothing store. On occasion, we would get together with her friends who would talk about quilting, and I knew how proud she was of the quilt she had made for the master bedroom. However, it was not until after she passed away that I saw my aunt’s wonderful collection of quilts and inherited some, that I truly appreciated that part of my aunt’s life. It turned out she had preserved quilts that had been made by her mother and aunt and given to her as a child as well as those she had made.
Through the years my appreciation for the craft grew and anytime I saw a quilt in a museum or there was a show of quilts I would make a point to take notice. It never occurred to me, however, that I would learn to quilt. To this day you will not find an ironing board or sewing machine in my home – I am what some might call “lazy” when it comes to certain aspects of domestic life.
A few years ago, after moving to Maine, I started thinking about quilts and stitching. It must have been the do it yourself attitude my new friends and neighbors embraced. Some how I found my way to Natalie Chanin and one of her Alabama Chanin workshops that teaches Depression-era stitching.
I first heard about Natalie “the homespun couturiere,” when she was featured in Ruth Altchek’s (now defunct) fabulous sustainable lifestyle column “My Green Life” in Domino Magazine in the fall of 2007. There was a picture of Natalie in a gorgeous hand-stitched knee length white jacket and black Converse sneakers describing a day in her life, which went something like snuggling with her young daughter, composting, hanging fabric on a clothesline and hitting the farmers’ market. I went to her website, ordered a “Thank You” tee shirt (I mean come on who ever says please and thank you anymore and we should we really should!!), and was sold. A year later I was in New York City attending one of her workshops, learning how to stitch and meeting some of the coolest people on the planet (or on the east coast anyway). I practically skipped back to my hotel room afterwards to load up my iPod with music we had been listening to by King Wilkie, The Be Good Tanyas and Drive-By Truckers. The experience of sitting in a room for several hours with interesting people creating things was motivating. More than that there was a sense of responsibility to the earth and one’s own family, a sensibility of appreciating the simple things in life (food, laughter, friendship, community) and respecting our heritage – the way my aunt had lived.
I made a skirt and a couple t-shirts from Chanin’s DIY kit line and then stalled out on stitching until getting to know another extraordinary woman in Samantha Lindgren. Less than a year ago Samantha (or “Sam” as that’s how her friends refer to her) founded Gathering of Stitches in the East Bayside neighborhood of Portland, Maine. It is a space for fiber and textile artists to hold classes, rent studio space, and for folks like me (and maybe you) to hang out and stitch and learn about hand-crafts.
Sam grew up sewing and knitting and crocheting, and knows what a thrill it is to create something and what an amazing group of people can be attracted to the idea of sharing a space to work with fabrics. She has this way of teaching you something without it ever be frustrating or intimidating. It’s just fun, an experience, something to share and maybe laugh about. She has created this place my aunt would have loved and I think Natalie Chanin would respect.
There are workshops to learn how to sew, quilt, knit, embroider, dye, and silk screen. I started off with the workshop Sewing Machine ABC’s followed by a very friendly lecture on ironing (it’s become our personal joke – “Sharon that needs to be ironed” “Sharon did you iron that?” …have become a common part of Sam and my exchanges) and most recently completed the workshop Intro to Modern Quilting (interested – these and all her other workshops are listed on the website).
In the three-session workshop myself and two other women learned the basics of modern quilting by creating small quilts (think wall hanging or baby quilt) using the classic log cabin block. Topics covered included fabric preparation, basic color theory, using a ruler and rotary cutter efficiently, sewing 1/4″ seams, pressing, making blocks, assembling a top, making the quilt sandwich, quilting and binding.
Inspired by the workshop, on a road trip up the coast I stopped in Alewives Fabrics in Nobleboro and picked up an armload of new fabrics to make another quilt. Sam helped me figure out in advance about how many yards of fabric I would need and the staff at Alewives were game to check out the color scheme I ended up with.
Gathering of Stitches has sewing machines, irons and ironing boards, rotary cutting mats and rotary rulers, and just about anything else one would need to create a quilt. So, as soon as I am done with my current Alabama Chanin project, I plan to get to over there and work on my second quilt!
For the inside track on getting started at what Sam calls “the compost of the sewing world” – including picking colors and joining a quilting bee – check back here Thursday for my sit down with Sam.