The Time-Traveling Quilting Bee

Searching the antique shop’s crowded shelves like a detective, I spotted an interesting wicker basket. Heaped with linens. Digging down, I pulled out a stack of vintage quilt squares, held together with a safety pin. The pile consisted of already pieced blocks in antique white, contrasted with fabric in a faded red and gray pattern. All the blocks matched, except one. That square was similar – but the piecing deviated slightly from the rest. I wondered…could that be a Humility Block? The imperfect block left in an Amish quilt to show that only God is perfect? But wasn’t that a myth?

Elliott.Jacob's Ladder Blocks

The “imperfect” block looked most like the “Jacob’s Ladder” pattern to me.

Though I liked the story of the Humility Block, research told me no quilter needed to leave an imperfection on purpose because no finished quilt was without mistakes. Besides, this quilt didn’t look at all Amish in design. The material was lightweight and limp, unlike any I’d seen on a quilt. More like an opaque voile curtain. It reminded me of a dad’s old pajamas worn way past their prime. Later I learned the squares were out of shirting fabric – fine cotton that’s often an 1800s reproduction.

Elliott.Odd Block Out

Most of the blocks matched & looked like this one.

I swiped up those old squares with delight, handing over a fiver for the lot. At home, I laid them out. The pattern appeared to be a sort of Jacob’s Ladder. And the odd block out really looked the part, which was a mystery. Another thing puzzled me. Every piece of fabric was attached by hand sewing, stitches long enough to look utility-style. Perhaps they were basted, meant to be reinforced on a sewing machine. Or…maybe the squares were much older. The idea made me smile. I pictured a pioneer woman riding in her Conestoga wagon, wielding her needle with skill in spite of the rocky ride, readying a coverlet for completion once she arrived at her new home. There she could strengthen those seams with a little time on the treadle.

Milk River Wagon Train.Library of Congress.1979

Young, Kay, and Michael Crummett. Milk River Wagon Train: Fourth day ride; Memorial service for “Flash,” the horse. Malta Montana United States, 1979. Malta, Montana, September 2. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/afc1981005_mc48/.

Still, it was so fragile. Would it hold together if I left the squares in their original state? A half-hearted purist, I felt I couldn’t go over someone’s laborious work with a quick zip on my machine. Would that be right for the integrity of the blocks? For the hopes of the initial quilter and her quilt plan?

Not sure what to do, I put them aside for a time. For a few years. Until I was invited on a special family trip to Alaska and needed a project for the long ride over the Alcan Highway. In a motor home. The (almost) Jacob’s Ladder quilt-top needed a lot of work. I had a lot of time on my hands. So the squares, my trusty thimble, extra needles, and a spool of new cotton thread came with me.

In my imagination, I was like the pioneer woman. In my modern covered wagon, bound for territories never before seen. Unlike the woman of my daydreams, rather than created out of necessity, my needlework only served to keep my hands busy across the miles. Between glances out the window at the scenery, I wondered about the original quilt maker, adding to her stitches where they had come away with my own, making the corners match as precisely as I could. Until the entire quilt-top was sturdy and sewn together. In a way, she rode with me on that long trip, rather like a companion in a quilting bee across time.

I wonder if my unknown pioneer friend would have liked the final outcome of her work-in-progress? I sure liked thinking about her story.

Four Women Working on a Quilt.Adams, John Wolcott, 1874-1925, Artist (1)

Adams, John Wolcott, Artist. Four Women Working on a Patchwork Quilt. , None. [Between 1900 and 1925] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2010714905/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Stockings Were Hung by the Chimney with Flair

We’ve all heard of quilt fabric stashes and how they grow. And grow. My sister-in-law, Pam Elliott, has a very special stockpile she started after seeing beautiful, designer home fabrics on eBay. Beginning with sample sizes of spectacular silk-velvets, damasks, & lampas from houses like Scalamandré & Brunschwig & Fils, she added odd bits to her shopped stash. And of course, it grew.

Most samples were too small to use for pillows or too heavy for quilts. But what about Christmas stockings? Matching a luxurious fabric for the body with a different design on the cuff could be fun. A master seamstress, Pam lined the stocking interiors with satin & attached leather hangers cut from old, soft gloves purchased at an antique store. The first stocking turned out better than expected, so she made more. When her family saw them hanging on the fireplace that Christmas, they all wanted their own custom stockings.

Pam's Green Stocking.1

Though time consuming to make, Pam estimates she has sewn thirty stockings or more. Most are given as family Christmas gifts. Many become wedding presents and others celebrate the arrival of new babies. Her recipients seem ecstatic, even honored to have their own Pam designed heirlooms. All agree they are works of art & a labor of love.

Hanging out in Pam’s sewing room during a visit, I was transported into something like a secret cave full of treasure where she showed me piece after piece of marvelous material collected for her stockings. I couldn’t choose a favorite. Nor could I stop stroking the lush velvets or examining the intricate patterns, woven with silk thread.

One particular fabric fascinated me – a pale cream silk with a big, embroidered flower of scarlet. Pam admitted her daughter had dibs on that one & I put it back with regret. Later, I received an unexpected package from Pam, containing my own stunning, designer stocking. According to an attached note, the fabric she had chosen for the stocking’s body was truly special. A reintroduction of a 17th century, Old World Weavers design of silk & cotton-cut velvet. Though I knew Pam had finished her daughter’s stocking, somehow she’d found fabric enough to create another cuff from the cream silk with the scarlet flower.

Pam's Christmas Stocking.1

At Christmas, I love to display my exquisite stocking. It is my grandest decoration & truly, I never expect anything to materialize inside. Why would I?

After all, it’s already filled with love.

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My Beautiful Word of Honor

Would you believe me if I told you I love to pay bills? Truly, I do! But there was a time I dreaded the job. That is, until my friend told me about a book on how to make it a delightful event. What? How could that be? Still, since Barbara seemed always bathed in beauty, giving every situation a splash of loveliness, I wanted to know her secret. So I bought my own copy.

Written by Alexandra Stoddard, the book was titled Living a Beautiful Life. It made me look at hearth & home in a new way & helped me find beauty in the mundane. I haven’t seen that book for years though I know it’s in a box somewhere. My memories are sketchy after so long. Let’s see…a touch of yellow in every room? Hmm. But there was something I put into practice – paying my bills in a beautiful way. Making it a special time.

Impossible, you say? Not so fast! First, I set up my desk or writing area with:

  • A favorite pen of good weight & elegance for ease of use;

 

  • Charming postage stamps, pleasing to the eye;

 

  • Pretty checks that made signing my name a pleasure;

Checkbook

  • Lovely note cards (or greeting cards) kept at-the-ready.
Pretty Cards Mine (1)

Some of my note cards at-the-ready.

Then it was time to put on the kettle & brew a cup of tea served to self in a gorgeous cup. Or pour coffee into a mug worthy of wonder. Didn’t hurt to have a couple cookies on a plate for a snack break. (All that math!) Or music in the background? A fragrant candle burning?

In that lovely environment, paying bills was a pleasure. A treat to be enjoyed. Back then, it changed my world.

My quest for loveliness in the bill-paying task has now morphed into the pleasure of keeping my word. Every time I use a service, like electricity from PG&E, I know it’s on loan from the company. Entrusted to me up-front until I reimburse them. When I do, I’m keeping my word & that makes me very happy.

“Thanks for another month of heat or cooling or juice for the microwave, PG&E!”

Handshake (1)

So this is my new style of paying bills. When it’s time, I set up my station rather like days of old. On the table to the right of my computer, an antique plate holds crispy toast covered with apricot jam. Nearby, a china cup is filled with steaming Cinnamon Spice Tea. The aromas tickle my nose & the radio plays softly in the background. I begin tap-tapping on the keyboard.

Rawpixel-Computer & Tea-unsplash

These days I only pay a few bills by check, but I still use an elegant pen & pretty postage stamps. My current checks are charmers, though I feel a bit of a dinosaur when writing one out. Still, I sign with a flourish & love the wonderful feeling of keeping my beautiful word of honor.

Taking another sip of tea, I smile at my accomplishment.

Jon Tyson-unsplash

NOTE: Living a Beautiful Life by Alexandra Stoddard remains in print & has been updated for changing times.

 

 

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From the Heart

IMG_1258 (1)

The Oregon Street Antique Mall in Redding, CA – where you can “Seek the Unique!”

One of my favorite sites in Redding, California sits on the corner of Shasta and Oregon Streets. A spacious, historic building that inhabits nearly a block. The Oregon Street Antique Mall. That store sends my antique-anticipating-heart racing when I step through the doorway. My last treasure hunt there, a lovely Roseville vase talked me into taking it home. Ridiculous, since none of my art pottery is even displayed now. They are all carefully packed in boxes. So what’s the obvious end for this piece of Apple Blossom patterned art-pottery? Easy answer. Still, I do enjoy it so much, decorating a small table, waiting for placement.

The Antique Mall’s two floors hold diverse riches. But for me, the prime attraction is Kate Barker, the winsome owner. Her welcoming style is genuine and folks flock to her store’s events & because they are great fun. And, because she supports other businesses with a passion. Historic Downtown Redding and Kate Barker have a close relationship.

Kate & Phil Barker (2)

Kate & Phil Barker. Photo UBP from Kate’s Facebook @Writer Kate Barker.

A couple years back, the Oregon Street Antique Mall had been run by Kate & her husband, Phil Barker. But as they neared their 50th wedding anniversary celebration, Phil passed away. I watched Kate as she made the brave decision to continue running the Mall by herself. It was tough, of course. All the challenges that arose from operating a business were hers to resolve alone. Before, Phil had taken care of many hard things. Now Kate took it all on her shoulders, pressing on to a path she’d never wished to walk. But Kate wanted to make Phil proud. So she dug in, orchestrating new events to draw folks to Downtown Redding, learning to advertise on Instagram, and create memes for the Antique Mall’s Facebook page.

As the one-year anniversary of Phil’s departure appeared on the calendar, I longed to do something to comfort Kate. Something special to mark the day. Since she had recently admired the antique, crazy quilt hearts crafted my friend Geo, I contacted her.

Kate's Owl Heart.Geo.3a

Victorian Crazy Quilt heart cut from antique quilt & crafted by Georgina Diehl (Geo).

Geo (Georgina Diehl) is a master at needlework and recycles antique crazy quilts by cutting up old quilt tops, forming small stuffed hearts or cats or Christmas stockings. The results are stunning and popular eBay items. I knew I’d called on the right person when Geo, touched by Kate’s story, cut into a new, antique crazy quilt to make a small heart featuring a pair of embroidered owls. It was a sacrifice of sorts. Geo may have had other plans for those owls, but she generously offered them to make something exquisite for Kate.

Kate's Owl Heart.Geo.BACK2

Geo’s creation backed with velvet from an antique opera cloak. And a special message for Kate.

Backing the heart with a piece of velvet from an ancient opera cloak, Geo completed it quickly so I wouldn’t miss the looming deadline. The day I gave Kate the package, Geo had referenced her eBay dealer name – lavendergatherings – in the presentation, tying fragile lavender ribbon around the outside and attaching a lavender-filled sachet. Charmed, Kate turned it over in her hands, wondering aloud, “Whatever is IN there?” She opened it with ooos and ahhs. When she read the writing on the small paper heart attached to the back – “Forever Phil + Kate” – the tears came.

Kate Holding Owl Heart

Kate Barker and her owl heart.

Because of Geo’s artistry and kindness, I was able to give Kate a unique gift to mark the day. The two owls – one larger, one daintier – represented the perfect pair, Phil & Kate. Love remembered and love remaining.

Kate's Sign & Heart

Photo courtesy of Kate Barker.

In Victorian times, when Geo’s crazy quilt top was first created, an owl symbolized wisdom, intelligence, protection, and vigilance. I realized these were all attributes and gifts I would wish for my friend Kate every day going forward. Only doubled.

 

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Feeling Blue…Red, White & Blue!

On a quick trip to the store to buy some graduation cards, I noticed an early display of July 4th holiday-ware. How could I not? Colorful clothing, picnic items, streamers, banners & bunting, all featuring the Stars & Stripes. A cornucopia of creative whatnots reaching out to rev up my patriotic heart.

Of course, I began to plan. Now where was that recipe for Barbara Bush’s Red, White and Blue Cobbler? The one I – shhhh – shortcutted & made with canned cherry & blueberry pie filling? But the dish had scored at every potluck, served up warm with vanilla-bean ice cream. Made one’s taste buds stand at attention & salute. For the next bake, perhaps I’d tap my inner chef’s shoulder & use fresh ingredients. A longer process, but the effort ought to result in a higher-ranking of deliciousness. Right?

BERRY COBBLER

I remembered our town’s tradition to set off our own fireworks. The night before the big 4th celebration in a nearby city, locals pack the stands at the fairgrounds in anticipation. The light show never fails to fill the sky with glory & uplift our spirits. As a bonus, the spectacle is easily seen from my own back yard. Just one requirement – a lawn chair.

Fireworks Many

A Navy brat, my heart has always swelled at anything that highlights our nation’s history & fight for freedom here & abroad. Knowing of my military connection & pride in my dad’s service, my friend Georgina (Geo) & I had swapped stories of our father’s military service records. Her father – an Army veteran of WWII, Korea, & Vietnam & a Bronze Star recipient. My dad also served in WWII (a Pearl Harbor survivor) & the Korean War, & as a career Naval officer for twenty-seven years.

Geo, a master seamstress & crafter, had already created an exquisite heart with a simple anchor embroidered on one side, cut from an antique crazy-quilt. After the heart was sewn, she set it aside for a while. But once we’d chatted about our personal heroes, Geo finished it up & sent it my way. A surprise gift.

Geo's Anchor Heart2

When I unwrapped the beautiful heart, tied with wide, lavender ribbon, I didn’t think of the Navy link first. Instead, I thought of Jesus as the Anchor of our hearts. Touched, I did a little research of its meaning during Victorian times – when the quilt was made – and learned the anchor symbolized hope. According to the scripture referenced:

“This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil…,” Hebrews 6:19 (NKJV)

Not until I received an email from Geo, “When I saw it (the heart) again the other day, it just spoke to me of your father being in the Navy…,” did I see the rest of the significance.

On this 4th of July, I shall not only celebrate Independence Day, but also honor my dad by hanging the anchor heart in a prominent place as a tribute to those who have gone before. And as reminder to never give up hope.

Thanks, Geo. Let freedom ring!

Sparker w-little flag.2

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The Making of a Cozy Mystery

I’m a cozy mystery author. When researching for my debut novel, A Vase of Mistaken Identity, I found a favorite cozy definition: “Cats, quilts, and not a lot of blood.” So clear, I understood the recipe right away. So clever, I can still remember it. But could I plot a mystery that included all the angles?

  1. CATS: According to the definition, I needed a cat for my story. But not just any ole momma cat, snoring on the sun-warmed carpet. I wanted an interesting animal. So I closed my eyes and sent out an inner casting call. Soon Betty padded into my brain and meowed a hello. Here was a freedom-loving calico with golden eyes and a crooked whisker. Perfect. She even had a habit of slipping through the smallest door opening, darting across the lawn, and springing over the fence onto the neighbor’s yard. Betty often chose to hang out with the wrong crowd – the strays next door. Last count – eleven mousers making mischief all over that dilapidated house. The bad habit got Betty into more than one scrape. Even so, my heroine, Thea James, adored her furry feline. In fact, I grew quite fond of Betty myself. And crossed “cats” off the list.

Betty Outdoors

  1. QUILTS: The Log Cabin quilt has always been my favorite pattern. Maybe it’s because the colors can be arranged in so many ways, yet the result is always gorgeous. Or maybe because it was the first quilt I ever made. Since I needed a quilt for my cozy mystery, I designed a small Log Cabin quilt for my rookie-quilter-heroine, Thea, to sew. I named it “Kitty in the Cabin.” As the book progressed, her work on the quilt did, too. My design featured a center block fashioned into the shape of a kitty’s head. I used a variation on a nine-patch to give it a little twist & some extra personality. Pictured is the prototype created by my cousin, Linda Gholson, quilter extraordinaire. She chose the 1930’s reproduction fabric & hand-quilted it with lovely details like French knot eyes, whiskers, & little fish stitched around the border. Quilts? Check.
  1. NOT A LOT OF BLOOD: This idea agreed with my Care Bear’s preference in books & movies. If blood had to be spilt, I didn’t want to be there when it happened. In a cozy mystery, the crime happens behind the curtain. Or, off stage. Then the reader doesn’t have to live through a nightmare-making, murder scene. In my story, the crime happened years ago, the body recently discovered by happenchance. Our heroine, a bit more clumsy than usual, stumbled smack into the mess. Poor Thea. But hurray for me! Now I could paste an imaginary, gold star by the last requirement for a proper cozy. All done.

Murder Off Stage

Then, I had only to write the book. The fun part. But perhaps you wonder about Thea’s first adventure in A Vase of Mistaken Identity? Here’s a teaser:

Thea James, antique dealer and budding amateur sleuth, discovers a list of names in a vintage vase. Curiosity prompts her to seek out the first name on the list. When she learns that the first woman lies in a coma after an accident and another has mysteriously disappeared, her inquisitiveness turns to fear – for Thea’s name is also on the list!

A Vase of Mistaken Identity

Can Thea find the murderer before he finds her?

Order your own copy of A Vase of Mistaken Identity! And enjoy….

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Craft Therapy: Quilting

Next to writing, quilting is my favorite pastime. I love plotting out the design, gathering the perfect fabric, and the actual seat-in-chair experience of sewing up a masterpiece. When it’s done, a quilt offers comfort, warmth, beauty, and even tells a story. Like writing, I find time spent quilting to be time that results in healing.

Recently, a friend showed me a quilt she’d hand-quilted over many months. Anne called the project her “Quilt Therapy.” Before she started the quilt, she’d struggled with a family member over something on which they could not agree. Anne believed she was in the right, but knew her attitude was wrong. So, she decided to pray about it and actively seek healing for their relationship. Through quilting.

Therapy Quilt - Anne McKinley who made the quilt

Anne & her lovely “Therapy Quilt.”

Anne took time to pray about the fabrics and the pattern for the quilt she would make. After cutting it out, she pieced the blocks together on her sewing machine, praying as she went. And not just any type of prayer, but prayers for the one with whom she disagreed. Soon, she started hand-quilting the top to the quilt back, praying all the while. As she worked the needle back and forth through the soft batting, the prayers soothed her spirit.

By the time Anne finished her quilt, God had changed her heart and stitched the torn relationship back together into something beautiful. More lovely than the quilt!

So many times I have experienced healing through the craft of writing. I know it works. Now, after seeing my friend’s stunning quilt, hand-stitched with prayer, I know that works, too. I wonder how many problems could be solved with only a bit of quilting therapy?

Therapy Quilt - Cathy Elliott

Sampler quilt, hand-stitched with prayer by Anne McKinley.

Epilogue: Anne just started another quilt. It’s crib-sized, with a pink, patchwork design for a wee one coming in the spring. When this baby arrives, she will be welcomed with a new quilt & lovingly wrapped in prayer.

Baby Feet

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