Quilting and the Human Spirit

JOAN D. McMAHON

December 22, 1992|By JOAN D. McMAHON

Many quilting circles have their roots in the church or church-related activities. But recently I received a quizzical look from church members when I said that quilting is a spiritual endeavor.

It helps us look at the way we learn about ourselves and our values. It connects us with others and the world around us. It is how we find meaning and purpose in life. Quilting explained a lot to me about the human spirit, our behaviors and our beliefs. In explaining the truths about quilting, I also discovered truths about being human.

When we quilt, we use threads of fabric woven together in a design and texture unique to themselves. As thread holds together the layers of the quilt, our spirituality holds together the layers of our lives. ''Threads of time'' and ''patches of life'' connect us with our past and give meaning to our own lives.

Our values, beliefs and attitudes help to create a sense of who we are. We examine the rich values from our past and create new values for our future. In quilting, we feel part of the rich history of other quilters who have suffered through our same sorrows. We have been woven like patchwork into a design and texture of values unique to the 1990s, just as our quilt designs and fabric, as well as our attitudes, beliefs and values, have changed over the generations.

Quilts are a reflection of beliefs, and people's beliefs influence the colors in their quilts. The Lancaster County Amish do not use yellow in their patchwork. It is considered a heretic color, shunned in quilting as those individuals are shunned who do not conform to the teachings of Jacob Amman. The quilts of the Indiana Amish, on the other hand, often contain yellow. Regardless of the colors used, quilts reflect the passion and love that a quilter has for life itself. The colors in quilts are as diverse as people's beliefs. Somehow the colors unite to form a harmonious whole, just as people may do.

Quilt patterns are symbols of life and death. ''Windmill'' reflects the importance of water in the life of farming communities. The ''tree of life'' reflects on living, knowledge and posterity. ''Bear's Paw'' reminds us both of destruction and of the warmth of animal skin, like the warmth of the quilt we lie under. ''Dessert Dish'' rejoices in what comes after the main event. ''Jacob's Ladder'' leads us out of despair. The Names Project AIDS quilt is our modern symbol of life and death. Humans are fragile.

Quilts are memorials to people. The movie by Pat Ferrara, ''Quilts in Our Lives,'' tells of a woman commissioned to make a quilt of clothes from a dead child's wardrobe. For the grieving mother, the quilt became an important way to make peace with her daughter's death. After death, rebirth in quilts.

Quilts provide physical and emotional warmth. When we are troubled or sick, we snuggle up in quilts or spend more time with our fabrics. I have caught myself, in times of great stress, going to my sewing room and stroking my fabric. Quilting means security and comfort and the softness of home. It helps us get in touch with our inner voices. It helps in our search for our authenticity. Quilts give us opportunities for inner peace.

The more you quilt, the more you want to quilt, and the more you need to quilt. The movement of the needle, the rhythm it generates, creates a soothing cadence as we slowly turn our minds around to the basics of life. We unload our souls into the cloth and forget the day's troubles. We resolve inner conflicts and decrease our stress. Our souls become the quilt, symbolic of how we are living now.

Quilts are beautiful but not perfect. Some quilters deliberately insert a non-perfect block in their quilts to remind them of life's imperfections. Others start over many times, trying to make a troublesome block bend to their standards. I'm convinced that quilt blocks sometimes have minds of their own, just like people. No amount of fixing them will make them perfect. Designs we plan often have to be sacrificed because the ''quilt will tell you what it wants.''

Quilt patterns and plans that we make with our friends are well laid out, just as we want life to be. But just because we lay it doesn't mean we'll follow it. What we hope is that the patterns we follow in the quilting will be like the patterns in spiritual development. We don't know how the pattern will come out but we hope it will look beautiful in the end.

Joan D. McMahon is a fourth-generation quilter and an associate professor in the Health Science Department at Towson State University.

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