The quiltmaker's intent

IN the same spirit in which one ascends to explore a dusty attic on a rainy day, I went, one February afternoon, to an antique show in a nearby New England town. The show was a sprawling jumble of people and booths -- jewelry, furniture, memorabilia, pottery and glass, silver and quilts. I take a particular pleasure in old quilts. The names of the patterns -- Mariner's Compass, Ocean Waves, Birds in the Air, Turkey Tracks, Delectable Mountains, the Rocky Road to Kansas -- exert a pull on me as strong as the moon on the tide. I look for quilts of some age, something before 1900, judging by the fabric. My eye lingers on the homely quilts that disclose what was worn and used, that describe pride, whimsy, longing, or a sense of place, that tell of great care and endurance, that suggest a story.

What mother made sure her infant slept warm under the early New Hampshire crib quilt of gorgeous old chintzes? Who gave comfort with the Tennessee quilt showing baskets of plaids, checks, and solids against an unusual black background? Was the glorious yellow, red, and white LeMoyne Star top pieced by a Massachusetts girl hoping for an engagement?

Stopping to inspect and admire piecework, appliqu'e, and small stitches, I browsed the aisles of the show. In one booth I noticed some old country furniture, its original paint respectfully left intact. Here stood a Pennsylvania blanket chest showing the impression of the fingers that shaped rows of shallow S-curves in red paint and, next to it, a venerable Maine cupboard with the feel of hand-planed wood and traces of salmon milkpaint, its upper and lower doors cut from the same wide board and hung so a crack ran its true line from one to the other.

At the booth's back wall a quilt was hung, differently from the way most dealers display them. Usually quilts are hung with tacks piercing delicate fabric, their weight pulling them down. This one was carefully gathered by one corner into a loop of yellow ribbon that was nailed to the wall. Its beauty emerged subtly for those who took the time to hold out each corner and the interest to ask that it be taken down.

Set in the Flying Geese pattern, the quilt was from Long Island, where I grew up. Simple and strong, it reminded me of those times when the Canada geese come and go. I imagined the quilter raising her eyes, as I have done, to watch the geese clear and sure against the sky, to wonder at the rhythm of the seasons that sends them into flight and at the internal compass that guides them.

She had chosen a background fabric the color of the soil, striped in straight furrows as if a plow had gone there. Her rows of geese -- triangles of dark blue, red, and green, checked and plaid, dappled and solid -- flew strong in a sky of lighter hues. The fabrics were old, probably late 1800s, but still clear, and jolts of bright color echoed the celebrations that break the repetitiveness of rural life. It was frayed in only two places that I could see; only a small part wanted repair.

It is my practice to buy antiques that stand up to use and my custom to welcome newly acquired quilts by sleeping under them. Yet when my purchase was spread on my bed, it gave off an unbearable, musty smell. My reaction to unpleasant odors has always been rigid: A thing either smells fine or gets cleaned.

The next morning, Geese went into the washing machine, cold water, gentle cycle. Ten minutes later, I realized my mistake. By then, the quilt was full of soap, and fragments of batting floated in the washer. I rinsed it by hand, but the damage was done.

On one side the binding had fallen apart; the batting bunched in places like colonies of snakes; fabrics intact the day before had torn.

I should have known better, but one impulse had crowded out all other possibilities and, for a moment, my sense of values. As I lifted the dripping quilt, the unconsidered consequence of my action weighed heavy in my hands.

In the past, I have made similar mistakes, none so expensive. I have put them away from me, hidden them, thrown them out. As I lay the wet and tattered quilt out to dry, I saw in the stark, unflattering light of a winter morning how empty it is to say we love something if we neglect to take care of it.

Now, some months later, I have collected the cottons, not old but in the same feeling as the ones in the quilt, to replace the torn pieces, and have begun to repair it by hand.

My mending is a sort of covenant with the quilt's maker. Her quilt was the product of a true eye and tender hands made firm by works of difficulty, discipline, and devotion. It reflects her spirit. She made it, intending it to be used and appreciated, intending perhaps it might speak for her in years to come.

And so it does. It reminds me that with care and forethought you can keep yourself from error, that when you make a mistake the responsibility to mend it is yours, that a life of integrity is made in small daily acts, even as the pattern of a quilt is formed of many pieces.

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