How I Learned to Think Diagonally and Sew with My Soul the Gee’s Bend Way

Mary Ann Pettway

Mary Ann Pettway

The long leaf pines swayed in the mountain breeze. The atmosphere inside electric with color, song and humming sewing machines. This past week I attended a 4-day Gee’s Bend Quilting retreat in the beautiful rolling hills of northern Alabama. We were in the midst of two inspiring Gee’s Bend quilters: Mary Ann Pettway and China Pettway.

The Pettways have an interesting way of teaching. Demonstrating, then observing. Showing, then praising. They loved us through the process until we “got it”. The quilting itself was not the Big Thing. The Big Thing was the small voice inside that spoke through our hands as we worked. From time to time the Pettways would break into song – sounds of praise so deep, the voices of the two women reverberated in that room so that anyone would have thought there was a choir of twenty.

basil

Basil ready to slice his strips into angles

There were fifteen quilters. Basil, the only male quilter there, is an art quilter from St. Louis. Arleen brought her Gee’s Bend Quilts book for the ladies to sign. She worked quietly in the corner and produced gorgeous angles in her blocks – obvious that she had studied the style prior to the workshop. Others struggled to let go of all they had learned about quilting to learn a new way of sewing tiny pieces of fabrics together.

“Yes, you’ve got it! You’re quilting the Gee’s Bend way.”

When one of us heard that, we knew we finally understood that we were slicing and dicing our way into a new way of quilting. On the 2nd day, I finally got it. Allow the Spirit to take over in your sewing! Sew with your soul instead of what the world says you should do.  Forget about straight lines. Forget about patterns. Forget about bringing a preconceived notion of what you will make. Let the quilt develop into what it wants to be.

Arleens

“You’ve got it.”

“That’s where the art is,” China Pettway says.

What have you learned to do in a new way? When have you realized that they way you have always done something may not the only way, the best way?

pettwaysI’m sending out a huge Thank You to the Gee’s Bend Quilters and the Alabama Folk School at Camp McDowell!

almost finished

 

gees bend quilts

a few quilts the Pettways brought with them

Advertisements

Little Boxes, Filled with … what?

A couple of months ago, my husband R. was diagnosed with Metastatic Carcinoma of Unknown Primary. At first we are numb. Walking around staring at each other, trying not to get teary-eyed, but doing it anyway. Now, a few weeks down the road on this new journey, we’ve moved into another phase. Not acceptance. It’s something else for me. R. has an “attitude of gratitude”, and I’m into some other twilight zone of feeling I have not quite owned up to. I’m dealing with this new circumstance as I deal with most others.

I’m making things, keeping my hands moving. Yes, I’m escaping in a sense. Sometimes escape and denial is necessary to get you through. I’m making tiny houses. What is a house but a place where a soul resides. Little doorways. When I’m stitching, I do not have to think so much about the fact that my husband will gradually disappear from this life. But all these thoughts jump back into my stitches. I pray for him to not have pain. I try not to think about how lonely I will be in the future in this house.
I try not to think a whole lot about what I’m doing and my mind can wander off down the endless avenues of my brain. Every stitch a prayer. Going down one way I think of the beauty of the fall season here in New Orleans, which is the cooler temps. Then my thoughts take off another way and wonder about that hurricane that is forming and heading our way.
But with each stitch, each pull of this deep purple thread tightening that little doorway, I am thinking of what these cancer cells are doing to my husband day by day. And that I can do nothing to stop them, nothing to stitch those cancer cells up in a little box and burn them – and my scissors cannot cut off their threads of multiplication. It’s going to be a long journey.  Over time, about twenty minutes into my little house, my brain settles into the rhythm of my stitching, and I am once again in a meditation zone. I’m not in charge. And every stitch is a prayer.

The Contemplative Nature of Hand-Stitching

There’s something I love about hand stitching. Actually several things.

  • The stitcher must slow down and focus on the work at hand.
  • There are choices to be made (threads, colors, designs), or not – free your mind and choose intuitively and quickly, with no plan.
  • The mind opens to dimensional possibility (beads, buttons, tassels)
  • Stitches, colors, shapes bring memories of past projects, events and people
  • Thoughts and feelings, sometimes about others, are incorporated into the stitches

When I stitch I do not always plan the colors or stitches. I like to see what develops as I go along. I add dimension as I stitch, and use a variety of stitch styles and a variety of cords and threads. Today, I used wool felt squares and DMC #8 cotton embroidery thread – my fave. These are what I call Prayer Flags. I know, there are prayer flag traditions all over the world. And each style is unique. Mine are a little unorthodox and wonky, but meaningful to me. I stitch tiny pockets on the back and write names of people, events and such on small papers and tuck those into the pockets as prayers. As I complete each set of 5, they represent time spent in conversation with the creator of the universe, and a time spent not thinking about myself.

As I stitch each ‘flag’, I may go back and forth between them until I’m satisfied that the square holds all the stitches (prayers) it can hold.

IMG_3006

 

The chaos of every day.  How do I focus on each one? Do we need to? should I prioritize?

 

IMG_3007.JPG

 

And then there are the storms. Do I cause the storms? Am I in the middle? the sidelines? Am I being injured by the swirling winds? Can I escape? Where can I hide?

IMG_3008

 

 

Roots run deep. What you see is only the tip of the iceberg. Patience is the gift of the gardener. Nurture the place where you are. Can I really do that?

 

 

 

IMG_3009

 

 

Do I struggle to open the door to something different? Why is the door closed? What is hiding there?. Is it locked? Perhaps it’s the wrong door.

 

IMG_3010

 

 

Am I in a precarious place? Should I run away? Or should I stay? There is comfort in a safe secure place. Remember, the ship that never leaves the dock does not experience adventure. Fly. Fly Away.

 

 

Done.
prayerflagsemma
When do you find time to think of others – of their pain, their needs? How do those thoughts manifest in your life?

Fabric as Art, Art as Fabric

One of our new endeavors here at Uptown Needle & CraftWorks is fabric design. I’ve danced around the edges of this art form for years. I’m a kinetic learner and experience is my friend. I wanted to jump right in, get dye under my fingernails, dye everything at once with intense color. Can’t do that when it comes to fabric design.

One must first learn how fibers absorb color, how to prepare them, and think through the entire process of fabric design and dyeing. Like most things meaningful, it’s a process. When I found the new book Playful Fabric Printing by Carol Soderlund and Melanie Testa, I found my roadmap.

612+8-dgE7L._SX389_BO1,204,203,200_First I read through the volume, underlined, highlighted and added sticky-notes to places that I wanted further clarity or items I needed to purchase. Once I had all the supplies and equipment, making stamps and stencils became my first task. I was in creativity heaven. My first stamp, using craft foam and a square of plexiglas, was  design from my sketchbook – umbrellas. The stamp was designed so that there was a repeat every 6″. Once I had a few stamps prepared, fabrics soaked in the soda ash and salt vat, and a few sample Procion fiber reactive dyes mixed, I turned up my jazz music, printed fabrics, and …. played! And I invited friends! The designs and colors are fantastic.printing4
printing3

STAMPS1     printing6  PLATYPUS.jpg  img_2782.jpg

Want to come play with us? Another class is coming soon!

Family visit and a nice surprise!

My cousins Nancy, Mary Ann and Theresa from Meridian MS and beyond came in the shop yesterday for a brief visit. I have not seem them in many years so always good to see family faces, familiar cheekbones, eyes and smiles. They brought me gifts. Press photos of my Great Aunts Neill and Jane, along with vintage newspaper clippings from the 1930s and ’40s. Along with all this was a stack of love letters that Jane and her husband Frank (Marine Corps General Frank Loomis) wrote to each other during their separation because of WWII – tissue-thin typewritten carbon copies, dated and numbered.

Both Aunt Neill James and Aunt Jane Loomis have been important to my existence – not just because they are my family – because they were strong courageous independent women at a time when women were encouraged by culture to be seen and not heard. Aunt Neill James was celebrated in her day (the ’30s & ’40s) as a writer, world traveler and amateur anthropologist of sorts, and I have written several essays about her life that have been published. She was my hero when I was a child. I did not get to know Aunt Jane until I was an adult and my husband Robert and I visited her, along with cousins Thomas and June Snowden, in San Diego in her home on Sunrise Circle. At that time, Jane was sinking into Alzhiemer’s and eventually needed an assisted living arrangement. Thus, Thomas and June stayed at length in Jane’s home to begin closing it up and settling where Jane’s and Frank’s belongings should go. While assisting them clean out the attic there, we found the stack of letters, still in envelopes and tied together. These were eventually stored in the Snowden’s home in Meridian. June has since passed from this world into the next and wanted me to have these letters.

jane neill lettersReading these letters was (and still is) somehow a feeling of violating Jane and Frank’s privacy. On the other hand, Jane saved these letters for a reason – perhaps to let the family know how they lived, what they did, where they traveled, and how much they loved each other. Like Neill, Jane was a world traveler and experienced cultures that most small-town girls (born in Gore Springs MS) did not.

Attic treasures. Threads of commonality. Story material.

What’s in YOUR attic?

Jazz Fest is over, now what?

The creative team at Uptown Needle & CraftWorks 
thanks you for subscribing to our newsletter.
YOU’RE INVITED: Don’t forget the Magazine Street Champagne Stroll on Saturday May 13, 5pm-9pm. We will be open!
________________________
The Frannie Baby dress by Children’s Corner has to be one of the cutest baby and toddler dresses ever designed. Summertime COOL! Make it and let Kate monogram it for you!  And, we have a workshop coming up!


______________ 

Get your hands in some dye paste! Make your own stamps and print your own fabric. 2-day workshop the weekend of May 20. 

Calling all knitters! Bring friends! Help us make “knitted knockers” for breast cancer survivors who need prostheses, 3rd Sundays.

May 21, 4pm-6pm.

KID’S FIBER ARTS CAMP
————————————–
We’re with you every step of the way. 
The team at Uptown Needle & CraftWorks thanks you for supporting our funky little shop. 

Emma, Robert, Kate, Hannah, Kit, Meredith, Jennifer, Rebecca and Grace (our shop dog) hope to see you soon and very soon.
 
UPTOWN NEEDLE & CRAFTWORKS
4610 Magazine Street
New Orleans La 70115
504-302-9434

A New Year Begins

Like many women of a certain age, I’ve had a few past lives. When we lived in Memphis I organized a non-profit literacy program focusing on creative writing. It was called WriteMemphis. We had 27 volunteers working with inner-city teen girls in several Memphis locations. These young writers created awesome poetry and prose about their lives in Memphis – from the strong women in their lives to gunshots through the front door to becoming teen mothers. When I left Memphis in 2014 I gave the program to Literacy Mid-South, which was a natural fit for the life-changing work they do.

Fast forward to where I am today. New Orleans. New business. New home. New life.

I miss writing. I really do. Even though I love the work I do every day in our shop I miss the creative energy of word to page. I have resolved to make more time for writing in 2017. And in celebration of that promise to myself, I want to share exciting news! One of my essays is included in a new anthology (slated for March publication) edited by my friend Susan Cushman,  A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We are Meant to Be.

A Second Blooming includes work by fabulous writers – Mary Karr, Anne Lamott, Beth Ann Fennelly, and my friends Ellen Prewitt, Susan Marquez and Nancy-Kay Wessman – twenty-one in all! I am in awe of these fabulous women and I am honored to be among them. Readings and signings are scheduled in Memphis TN,  Jackson MS and soon in my home city of New Orleans.  I’m so excited I’ll let the world know when that will be! Here’s the catalog page from Mercer Press:asb-mup-catalog-page