Three-one: memory quilts with a secret message
By Este Pope
When a box filled with a stack of men’s button-down shirts more than 24 inches thick arrived from my mother in the mail last month, I knew that I would have to think of something creative to do with all these shirts. I didn’t just want to donate them to charity, and after dividing the pile into shirts for my husband and shirts I had to save, I decided that I’d think of this pile as fabric with potential. These shirts are most of the wardrobe of my late father, who passed away several years ago. My mother, who is of the school that saves everything because you might have a use for it, had kept the shirts in bags in her closet. I had asked for them, knowing full well I’d have to find a way to use them to satisfy my need to carry on my dad’s memory through his clothing.
Last summer I participated in the Wardrobe Refashion blog, and this got me thinking about how much you can do with clothing. I made a few pairs of pants for my infant son with some of the plaid shirts, employing the bottom edge and side seams of the shirts in the pattern. The result was two pairs of what I dub ‘fifties inspired’ pants, that literally envelop my little boy in my dad’s memory.
Image caption: Fifties-inspired pants made from my dad’s plaid shirts.
But baby pants don’t require much fabric, and I had this huge box of fabric to contend with. Why not make something I could envelop myself in? My family is big on quilts – and although I admire and love using the heirloom quilts that showcase the detailed traditional patterns like lone star, wedding rings, flocks of geese, I am not the most exact sewer myself, and know I never will be. I love a crazy quilt, with all the diversity of color, texture and shape. A few years ago I was fortunate to see the Quilts of Gee’s Bend on exhibit, and was inspired by the practicality and creativity of these works of art. Couldn’t I make a tribute to my father that at once filled the practical requirement of using up a good portion of the fabric from his old shirts, and also spoke about my love and memory of him?
I decided to create my own pattern, based on a cryptic theme known only in my immediate family – a saying/idea my dad often spoke about. Basically, it is a lucky number idea. My dad was born on March 1, and so he considered the numbers 3 and 1 to be his lucky numbers. There were times when he would break into a little chant with a grin and twinkling smile and say ‘three one, three one, three one’. Between me and my two sisters, it became something of a joke. We would kind of laugh when he used to talk about the magical powers of three one, but it became a symbol for our family of I guess the magic of life, of love, of family. When the awesome power of our familial bond was challenged, or when we didn’t have to words to communicate these deep feelings, we would often end up with the three-one refrain, which both made us giggle, but also made us believe in its magic.
When my father passed away, we inscribed the letters 3-1 on his gravestone. Of course, this is his birthday, so it didn’t look odd, but we intentionally made the numbers 3 and 1 larger than his birth year. It seemed fitting to me to communicate this phrase in the quilt I designed to carry his memory. The design I decided on is really simple, easy to cut out from odd-shaped shirt pieces, and easy to sew and forgiving for inexact measurements (I am a mathematician’s daughter, an avid knitter, and a technologist in my career, but I am lazy when it comes to numbers! I get too excited to measure; I’d be a terrible carpenter).
Image caption: My rough designs on a piece of scrap paper.
I cut strips of fabric and create 13 inch squares with three strips of one pattern, one strip of another pattern of fabric, and then five strips of a background color or pattern. So, the resulting block showcases three strips of one shirt, and one strip of the other (three, one). I cut the strips without measuring width, only measuring the length of 13 inches, and then I adjust as needed to get the 13 inch width of the square block once all the strips are sewn together. There is an element of spontaneity and chance in this method of quilting: I am surprised and challenged to make the equation work, and end up with a completely unique block every time.
Image caption: Quilt blocks in process.
Actually I am making two of these quilts to start, because I have two sisters. As I combine the shirt materials I am finding that the character of the blocks is quite different, so each sister will have a quilt that looks very different in color and composition than the other, though both will carry the theme of three-one. I have enough shirts to make at least three of these quilts, which will have 9 blocks per quilt with a half inch seam allowance on each block, making the finished block dimensions 12 “ x 12”. At this stage, I’m sewing blocks together, and I’m not sure how the finished products will take shape. I may back the quilts in shirt material as well. I am using the button bands, logos, pockets and shirt labels in the design as well – and plan to use the extra buttons when I quilt the quilt.
In the end, these are just a bunch of old shirts that make me sneeze from the dust gathering between them. The box sits like an eyesore in my kitchen, and I steal moments between my work week, dish duty and entertaining my baby to enter the world of the past and cast my creative imagination on transforming those memories of my dad. I plan to find pictures of him wearing the shirts to attach with the quilts that I will give to my sisters this coming holiday. The pictures will give away the deeper meaning of these quilts. But, like the magical power of our family’s special three-one chant, this meaning will be hidden to most people. “What a lovely quilt, did someone make it for you?” might be what my sister’s will hear from friends and visitors. They will know what power lies in each scrap of material, and when they don’t have a way to communicate their deep feelings of love, of loss, they will have a way to envelop themselves in our father’s memory, and in doing so find comfort and experience magic.
About the writer: Este is a fiber artist and academic librarian. She lives in New England with her husband and son. Her most recent blog can be found at stallesky.
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