Quilting My Way Out of COVID

In February, I started planning a queen-size bed quilt. I waited until after the holidays so I’d have a big time-consuming project to help me get through the long uncertain months while COVID still raged. Who knew when I’d be vaccinated or when we’d be safe? 

I’d grown accustomed to the restrictions. Aside from grocery store clerks, the only people we saw were our sons and only for a few minutes. When they visited, they hovered near the front door never taking off their winter jackets—all of us masked. With everyone else, it was phone calls or Zoom visits.

Time was heavy on my hands. Cutting and arranging little strips of color one square at a time was how I’d keep sane until spring when we could see friends and family outside. 

At one level, I was immersing myself in a creative process involving color and texture—a visual challenge that has always attracted me. But part of the appeal this time was creating order, making sense of something when so many things outside my four walls didn’t make sense. Day by day I completed squares and made visible progress when the sense of progress out in the big world was tenuous. 

As March gave way to April, more people became vaccinated, including me. Winter eased up and I could be outside with friends again. In May and June, I began cautiously approaching a more normal life: seeing vaccinated friends, gardening, walking, and socializing.

I had less need of my quilting project, but it wasn’t finished. Like COVID, the project had lasted too long. I was so ready to be done. 

During the past week as I quilted the pieced top, batting, and back, I became intimately familiar with every inch and all the places where a seam wandered or a square didn’t align. But as my dad used to say when my husband fretted about a home repair’s small imperfection, “A guy riding by on a motorcycle probably wouldn’t even notice that.” 

If you’d asked me a week ago, I would have said the best thing about this quilt is that it’s DONE. 

Today, I’m again pleased with the cheerful colors. 

The quilt project served its purpose and its history will fade with time. A year from now, I hope only pleasure in the quilt’s color and pattern remains vivid. 

Why I Want a Coloring Book for Christmas

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 8.46.13 AM  I can’t pinpoint what makes visual pursuits like paper projects, quilting, and flower gardening so refreshing to a bizzy dizzy mind, but I have a few theories.

One is that I read and write words all day, so shifting to nothing but color, shape, and design relaxes me. I engage a different, less used part of my mind. With visual pursuits, I’m not explaining, persuading, or struggling to find meaning, as I must when I’m writing.

It’s also playful.

As a writer, I need to do a respectable job with whatever I write. But with visual pursuits, nobody but me cares how well I do. If I make holiday cards, I’m strictly pleasing myself. For me, fooling around with bits of paper is fun. I never get bored with the possibilities for color and texture: ridged green paper, lime checkerboard tissue, bronze matte vellum.card

I have to concentrate hard enough that everything else gets crowded out.

Because I’m not as visually talented as my graphic designer friends, I have to try out the combinations to see what works and what doesn’t. When quilting, what happens if I put this red fabric next to the gold? Repeat that color and create a pattern? Does this fabric work or is it too busy?quilt



Designing flowerpots and gardens also involves color and design, but now the shapes are 3D, so I have to think how tall and wide each plant variety will get. This leads to a lot of standing around thinking at the garden store and again in my yard. What if I put a lot of shades of purple with white? I shuffle bedding plants around until I have an arrangement that seems to works. Even so, after a few days, I may uproot and relocate a zinnia or geranium if it doesn’t look right.



While I’m solving a visual puzzle, I can’t think or worry about anything else. I’m completely absorbed. So often our days call for doing things to meet other people’s specifications, so there is real pleasure in envisioning something and then creating it to my specs.


I suspect that’s one of the reasons why adult coloring books are popular now. What colors you select are up to you. Only you. I imagine it’s soothing. Filling in a little section is completely under your control, unlike so many things in life. Plus coloring is mindless. No big commitment of time, materials, or brainpower is required. Coloring isn’t earthshattering or important, but it looks like fun and fun is good. I intend to find out.

Sewing Lessons

Cicadas have begun their whining buzz. Summer is nearly over, and I’m not ready for it to end. But the Minnesota State Fair helps ease me into fall. One of my favorite parts of the fair is the Creative Activities building, especially the displays of quilts, embroidery and homemade clothing. I love looking at all the clothes, especially the women and girls’ clothes.

checked pants

Some are so well crafted that they are worthy of designer labels. But others have ambitious designs that are not fully realized. The seamstress (and it is almost always a she) may have chosen a fabric that was too thin and cheap—broadcloth where a challis would have draped better. Or perhaps the topstitching widens gradually instead of being even and regular. Maybe the fabric is an odd choice for a tailored suit. These are my favorite pieces.

Satin Dress

I understand the excitement the seamstress felt when she first envisioned the clothing. Her belief—that if she sewed carefully enough, she could make something worthy of a ribbon at the State Fair—resonates with me.

Green dress

The gap between her vision and the items in front of me doesn’t matter. Perhaps the seamstress feels drop-dead gorgeous when she wears her outfit. Or maybe she simply took pleasure in working with the color, texture and design, just as I did when I was learned to sew in as a girl in Ohio.

The summer I was 10 years old, I rode my fat-tired blue bike to sewing class at the Singer store for eight weeks. It was hot and there was no shade. My bag of jumbled fabric and pattern pieces banged against my leg as I pedaled and sweated block after block for a mile and a half.

Inside, the icy cold store had a cotton sizing smell, like a shirt that’s just been ironed. Unwinding and unwieldy bolts of fabric tilted into the crowded aisles, a feast of color and texture. Shimmery pastel polyester. Dark floral challis. Fine woolen houndstooth checks. Lush jewel tone velvets. Rustling moiré taffeta with its woodgrain texture. Beyond the fabric were the arcane supplies called notions. Stamped tin needle threaders. Rickrack, lace and ribbons. And row after row of buttons—plastic Scottie dogs, domed brass buttons, and sparking rhinestones.

At the back of the store were pattern books and possibilities. Looking over my shoulder, my sewing instructor directed me to the “Very Easy” patterns at the back of the book.  Her pointy fingernail tapped at a V-neck jumper and a simple sailor dress. “Why don’t you write down some of these pattern numbers, and your Mom can help you decide when you come to buy fabric?”

By the time I returned with my mother, I was in love with my vision. I’d spent days imagining the possibilities for the sailor dress pattern I’d chosen: white with jaunty red trim or dusty yellow with navy accents or maybe red with red, white and blue trim. I finally chose tomato red kettle cloth for the dress with white for the collar and red, white and blue ribbon as an accent. For the first time in my life, I was caught up in a rush of creativity and self-expression as heady as that of any artist.

In class, I chafed at the exacting requirements: sewing 5/8”seams that didn’t drift to 3/4” or 1/2”. In the pattern, the darts in the bodice were pictured as sharp narrow angles turned into triangles with a line of stitching, but my first attempt was more like a lightening bolt than a straight fearless line. I was also surprised at how hard it was to sew the back darts, gradually tapering both of them into slender matching crescents. Every thread had to be knotted off tightly and neatly trimmed. But I was determined to master the craft of sewing, so I could bring my vision into being.

Though my head ached from concentration, the armhole facings for my sleeveless dress were still lumpy and irregular, instead of the smooth ovals they were meant to be. My zipper had to be ripped out and re-done three times. I got discouraged as my vision of the dress dimmed in face of the rumpled panels I guided under the presser foot and flashing needle. The dress I imagined was just out of reach, stylish and perfect in my mind’s eye.

One afternoon when the dress was nearly done I was particularly dejected. I knew my dress looked childish and stupid. I was overwhelmed by its imperfections. My teacher noticed my expression and said, “All you need to do is wash this and press it. It will look great.” I wasn’t sure that was true, but I wanted to believe her.

I washed and pressed my dress for the end-of-class style show, and she was right: you could hardly see the mistakes. As I walked across the stage, my dress’s crooked interfacing seams no longer mattered. I felt as chic and self-assured—everything I’d envisioned.

As a city kid, entering clothing for a ribbon at the Ohio State Fair wasn’t part of my experience—I’d never even been to the state fair, since it was three hours away in Columbus. But I didn’t need a ribbon. I was already proud of my achievement. So it wasn’t long before I was planning my next dress. Skirts, long vests, and other dresses followed. My sewing grew more accomplished, but never would have been considered professional.

In high school, I didn’t have as much time for sewing, and I had begun to make enough money babysitting that I could buy most of my clothes. Though my interest in sewing my own clothes had dwindled, my enjoyment of the creative process flourished. During college, I transferred my love of color, texture and design to pottery and jewelry making. In my 20s, I sewed curtains, pillows covers and bedspreads to furnish my various apartments.

Through the years, my interest in making things has not waned. My home is filled with imperfectly rendered projects: a quilt that was too ambitious for my design skills, though it has appealing colors and fabric. Stoneware bowls that are a little heavy. The porch pillows whose pattern was too busy for the loveseat they were on. Halloween costumes that were only basted together and would fall apart if my boys got too rough with them. The small watercolors that were fun to do but just seem amateurish now that I’m done. I don’t mind that these projects turned out pretty well instead of perfect. I enjoyed the rush of inspiration I felt when I first imagined them and the pleasure I took in creating them.

In the Creative Activities Building, I look over this year’s award-winning projects along with the others that like mine, fell short of their maker’s original vision. I hope those optimistic seamstresses discover, as I have, that the thrill of the creative process is the point.