12 November 2007


This is an excerpt of something, I'm not sure what. It started out just as this part alone, with some other stuff, then I edited it down and made it part of something else that I didn't really like. So now here it is again, all by itself. I like it, but I'm not sure what to make of it.

The gentle whir of the machine relaxes me, puts me into a sort of trance. Each tiny stitch intrigues me as it moves trough cotton, wool, silk, to grab another thread, and then back through again. Silk, wool, cotton. If done properly, you shouldn't see the knots. They lie in the in-between, nestled in layers of cloth, hidden away so that the only thing I see is perfectly even stitches, floating over the top. To see knots would mean a problem with the tension.

My knots struggle to stay in the in-between. Sometimes they float to the surface and I am amateurish, foolish. A child's attempt at art that only a mother could love. If even her. Sometimes my knots slip way down to the opposite side - overcompensation, still too much tension.

My hands guide tea-colored muslin over the throat plate, under the presser foot. Fine thread - red, for contrast - pierces cotton, polyester, and cotton again. Just a practice run, but the knots pop up to the top after the first stitch. Top thread must be too tight. Clip the threads, adjust the tension, try again. The needle bobs and the machine whirs gently and I take care not to push or pull the fabric through. After an inch or two, I still see the knots pulling up to the top. Clip the threads, adjust the tension, start again.

I didn't seem to have the talent for quilting like the other women in my family. My mother and grandmother are both adept at the craft, and my younger sister is honing her own skills. I admire their quilts, the intricate piecework of fiery oranges and greens, florals and stripes, muted blues and sepia tones. Silks and satins kissed luxe cottons, joined by cotton-wrapped polyester threads, quilted in complex sunbursts and zigzags. Each stitch as long as the one before and the one to follow, each knot resting within the middle layer of polyester batting. They rarely had to adjust their tension.

I smile when I see even red stitches on the surface of my practice quilt block, without any knots. I snip the two threads to inspect the stitches up close. They're beautiful, small, flawless.

Stitch. Stitch. Stitch.

I turn the block over to the other side, and I feel childish. Not only had the knots been pulled down to the bottom, but thread had been caught and bunched up in several spots like tiny birds' nests. I had overcompensated, made the top thread too loose so it didn't provide any resistance against the bobbin thread. Exasperation cramps my fingers as I adjust the tension once again.

As a little girl, I would sit on the sewing room floor while my mother cut and sewed, cut and sewed. Snips of thread would collect on my homemade dresses and in my honey-blond hair as I played with the fabric scraps. Rich velvets and brocades, soft brushed cotton, sheer tulles and meshes. My favorite of all was monkscloth. It was a plain cotton fabric, with a regular weave, four by four. Four threads over four, under four, over again. Predictable, but gorgeous in its simplicity. I would scotch-tape odd scraps together - when I was eight my mother taught me my first hand stitches - and wear the pieces on my head, or pinned to my clothes.

I was beautiful then, angelic. I draped white lace over my head, pranced down an imaginary aisle; I wrapped myself in floral prints, leaned over the yardstick, and pretended I was an old lady. I was my mother's rag doll. That's what she called me after she saw how fascinated I was by the fabric scraps. Come on my little rag doll. Help me cut out the pieces and you can have what's left. That always brought me to my feet, skipping every other step on the way downstairs.

I ease off the pedal, the machine slowing, stopping. The quilt block was nearly full, covered in poor quality stitching. Looking at my last attempt, I can still see knots pulling up to the top. Almost there. As a last resort, I pull out the bobbin and bobbin case. My mother would kill me if she came in, so I quickly grab the tiny screwdriver and adjust the bobbin tension slightly. Ever so slightly.

I never saw my mother adjust the bobbin tension. You should be able to fix any tension problem by adjusting the top thread, she always told me. You shouldn't have to touch the bobbin at all. I adjusted my bobbin all the time when I tried to quilt anything. I could never get the tension right. Clip the threads, adjust the tension, start again. It's my mantra.

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