Monday, February 15, 2010

The First Quilt

I saved fabric scraps that the sewing students tossed when they were cutting their first patterns. Scraps off the ground. Scraps in the trash. It was used fabric and dirty, but under the use and grime was some loveliness that I saw. I planned to make a small quilt out of African fabrics. Day after day, I brought all the bits inside, washed them and hung them around the rim of the bathtub to dry. I had tried to explain what I was doing to the students, but basically, they thought I was completely bonkers. But I persisted.

Fast forward a month or so. I had not made much progress on my little quilt. All the tiny squares and strips are cut. I had made a few patches. But the only times the sewing machines are free so I can work were in the evenings, when it is dark, and on the weekends. Plus, the machines are quirky and I have not found one I really like. Even when I do, sewing is slow. There is a lot of making do with treadles.

Then, about a month before I am set to leave, a woman comes knocking at Tubahumurize. Jeanne meets with her. She is an American looking for sewing groups to take up quilting. Her group will supply the fabric and supplies. They will sell the quilts in the US. She brought a book about the basics of quilting. She left Jeanne with some American fabric. Not my taste at all, all pastels and teeny flowers. Bo-o-o-ring.

But Jeanne had been following my paltry quilting efforts with interest. This visitor spurred her always active imagination to even greater heights. We talked. Her idea was to get the students started quilting, but with African fabrics, new African fabrics. This is not a well-known craft in Rwanda. So Jeanne thought she could offer her students a niche market, an opportunity to make a little money while in school. And they could start right away in order for me to take a quilt home to sell. It would fetch more in North America.

The idea was presented to the board, which okayed it with enthusiasm, especially after seeing my little pieces. They saw the potential. They saw the beauty. Leone, who was pregnant, showed great interest. I plan to send my little quilt to her for her baby.

A few days later, Jeanne came bursting into the centre, her arms laden with fabric bundles. The quilt was on! All the students came in and we talked about size and design. And suddenly, all the scissors and rulers were out and the cutting began. Fast forward a few hours and we have piles of fabric of all sorts. I delve into my fabric stash and add a few pieces to add more character to the selection. Also, to be honest, my fabrics are of higher quality.

Fast forward again. I have taught the students a few shortcuts about sewing pieces together. I offer some more ideas on design. I emphasize over and over the importance of accuracy, so that it all fits together nicely. They are too eager. They don’t have the right tools. The charge forward on this project with naïve gusto!
The top is finished! Not perfect, by a long shot, but big and bold and beautiful. I explain the next steps are to layer the quilt. We use flannelette for the middle and a bright, bold pattern on the back. I clear a place in the middle of the main room. I stay up late and get up early to work on getting it to lay flat, to be square(ish), to fit. I put in a few basting lines to hold it in place and call in some students to help with the basting. It is done. We trim up the borders. We lay down a grid of diagonal lines in chalk, to make a diamond-shaped cross hatch pattern.

All that is left is the quilting. We have a discussion about why we can’t use the machines. The quilt is too big. The machines are too small. Hand quilting is more valuable. They are convinced. Some are appalled, daunted, when they see what we have to do, all by hand, but a few are excited. Everyone takes a turn at putting in the tiny, straight running stitches, some not so tiny and some not so straight. We run out of quilting thread, so we switch to ordinary thread. A core group of four takes over – Epiphanie (the instructor), Immaculée, Epiphanie and Léah. And me.

But I am leaving in two days! How will we ever finish! It is huge. There are so many stitches to put in. And I have tons of other things to take care of. On the final night, the four remain after hours, quilting. Each time I pass the room as I make my own preparations, I hear them chatting together. It makes me thing that this is exactly what a quilting bee must be like. Everyone together for hours, chatting about this and that. I think that this is probably some of the best therapy they have ever had.

I feed everyone supper as it is clear they are in it for the night. They eat, as always with gusto. I get out more food. Simeon’s chappatis with honey. A treat! They gobble them all down. Satisfied, they go back to quilting. They are in it for the night. I fall asleep to the muffled sound of their voices. Indeed, on the morning of my departure, they are all sleeping. They finished it! I offer them soap and towels and the use of the shower. A luxury! Then coffee. Another luxury!

But, of course, the quilt is not quite done. We have to sew on the binding. I had cut out the binding strips and sewn them together. The instructor sewed on the binding and we spent another two hours hand sewing the binding. I am leaving in three hours now! It is done, they tell me. Not quite I explain. We spend another hour wiping off all the chalk marks and checking for missing stitches. Okay, now it is done. Out come all the cameras. Out come all the other students. They are very excited and very, very proud. It is gorgeous! And full of gorgeous, generous mistakes.

It fits in my luggage. (I somehow knew they would get it done, and saved space.) It is really time to go now. I make the rounds with my hugs and my whispered messages. The students are awash with tears. I am holding it together until we turn the corner, out of sight. Then I cry.

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