The sun sifts through the thick curtains that hang over the narrow horizontal windows tucked under the eaves. The square lean-to room clings to the back of Mrs. Moore’s small two-storey home just off the highway in West Summerland. The room contains only one large piece of furniture, an old-fashioned quilting frame set exactly in the center of the space.
A quilt-in-production is stretched tightly across the frame. Around the large frame are a dozen worn wooden spindle-backed kitchen chairs. On each chair sits a woman dressed in a simple cotton house-dress. Some of the women wear small straw hats, crowned with tiny flowers and encircled with navy ribbons. The room is filled with a gentle hum of voices chatting amiably. Heads wrapped in gossamer-thin hair netting, lean over busy hands stretched out across the quilt. Fingers nimbly guide gently curved needles that pull thread over-and-under, over-and-under. Beneath, the opposite hand of each pair presses gently up against the quilt, providing just the right tension to allow the curves and curlicues of the hand-quilted design to flow perfectly over the surface.
Between two of the women, one my Grandma and the other my Mommy, I perch on a tall stool, mesmerized, watching the women. Across the table, a young teenage girl stands. She licks the end of a long piece of thread, squinting as she pushes the thread through the needle eye. Then slowly and carefully she leans over to add her own over-and-under, over-and-under stitches to the design.
The women stop their own stitching for a moment, push back their chairs, sit up straight and tall, and stretch cramped fingers, as two ladies come in through the corner door from the kitchen, carrying trays. One tray holds a large teapot, a delicious looking cake, and cream and sugar. The other tray holds dainty teacups and dessert plates. As the ladies sip their tea, they watch the teenage girl do her stitching. They nod and smile approvingly, and offer gentle tidbits of advice. I watch the “big girl” admiringly.
“Would you like to try?” one of the ladies asks me. I drop my eyes, a little embarrassed, but the other women chime in, “Yes, you’re big enough to learn to quilt.”
In a few moments, I have a needle and thread in hand, and am trying to poke the thread through the eye of the needle. Finally, it gives in to my stubborn repeated efforts and slips through. What now, I wonder? What if I sew badly and ruin the beautiful quilt? My hand trembles a little and I draw back from the frame. Seeing my hesitation, Grandma gently places her hand over my much smaller one. Very slowly and gently, her fingers guide my fingers, and there! Over-and-under, over-and-under, the needle and thread slides through the quilt. Her other hand has taken my other hand and guides it under the quilt, pressing it gently up against the fabric. I feel the motion, the flowing of the growing design. It feels alive to me.
Suddenly I jump, snapped out of my dream-like reverie. Lively youngsters, who had been out playing in the yard, come running into the room, dashing around the table to get a hug from their mothers, and hopefully also a bit of cake. Startled, I drop the needle and thread, and am horrified to see that my last stitch is large and crooked. Mommy leans over and looks at my work. She hugs me and I lean into her shoulder, feeling shy but pleased. Grandma looks at my stitches a little more critically, and I hang my head a bit, worried that she won’t quite approve. But she turns to me, smiles, and says, “Well done!”
I am delighted. And more, I am in awe. Because in those few moments of over-and-under, over-and-under stitching, I have made my first steps into the sisterhood of women, young and old, who for untold generations have gathered together in amiable company to share their lives and together create hand-crafted quilts. Quilts that will not only keep their families warm during cold winter nights, but will add beauty to their everyday lives, and will, with proper care, be handed down to new generations to come. And I dream that I, too, will someday pass down some of these skills, and share this sisterhood, with my own daughters and granddaughters.