My grandmother had six sisters. They all loved to do handwork–embroidery, crocheting, quilting–and although they would never have admitted it, they were always engaged in an unspoken competition to see who could do the most interesting stitch or who could come up with the prettiest design. I still have many examples of the work they did, but I have to say that I believe my grandmother was the champion quilter. Not only did she piece the quilts (sew the quilt tops together), she did the actual quilting (the sewing together of the quilt back to the quilt top with a batting in between). This required a quilt frame which stretched the quilt tight so that the quilter could make the tiniest stitches in a delightful pattern through all thicknesses. Nobody could accomplish this better than my grandmother. Her work was well known in her community and people would bring her their finished quilt tops for her to quilt.
When I was about nine, I decided I wanted to make a quilt. I picked a pattern that was much too hard for a beginner. It had many tiny pieces to each section and I had not yet gained my grandmother’s dexterity with a needle. Although I kept at it long enough to finish nine blocks, eventually I laid it aside, packing it away for decades until I recently retrieved it and gave to my daughter who said she wanted to finish it. We’ll see…
I started thinking about quilts today as a metaphor of our American society. Throughout my graduate school experience, we read much about the heterogenous character of our nation, how in the past it was referred to as a melting pot, but perhaps in our time the salad bowl metaphor may be more appropriate. Of course, I understand why these metaphors are suggested, but to me they fall short. I think perhaps the quilt metaphor is better.
Originally, the idea of quilt making stems from need. Back in the times when cloth was woven by hand or purchased at a high price, every scrap was valuable. When a garment was worn past wearing or if there were scraps left over from sewing a new garment, the pieces were salvaged and hoarded until enough were garnered to sew the pieces together to make a large covering. Initially, function was most important, so what the quilt looked like was not a major concern. Humans being what they are, however, some began choosing the pieces and colors to make designs. Some quilts were just aesthetically pleasing, but the map quilts which provided guides to escaping slaves are well known, yet another way to combine artistry and function.
So why is a quilt a metaphor for our nation? As the pieces are chosen for the quilt, the pieces come from different types and colors of cloth to make a single covering, just as people of many languages, cultures, races, and religions have come together to create one country. They have to be sewed together to create seams that join the pieces. This is where the salad bowl metaphor breaks down; in a salad the pieces stand on their own–they have no connection to each other.
The quilter knows the pattern she wants to create and thus has a design in mind, and for me the framework for our “national quilt” must be our Constitution. Each piece, though unique, has a specific role to play in the overall design. This is where the melting pot metaphor breaks down; in the past, Americans felt it was necessary for all immigrants to become like “them” or they couldn’t be “real Americans.” That idea runs counter to the deeper meaning of the Constitution, which does not designate a “right” way to be American other than to follow its tenets.
So in a quilt, what keeps the whole thing together is the seams, the places where two or three or four different pieces are joined. This is what frightens me about where we are as a nation right now. We have never been a perfect nation. There have always been ways in which the design of the quilt has been thwarted and abused. But for the most part, the seams have held. Now, I fear that our quilt is coming apart at the seams. If we don’t figure out a way to reconnect the pieces, to sew it back together, its very design is threatened.
As I write this, one more police shooting is being reported on the news. The news anchors are talking about a “madness” that has spread over our country. Is it madness, or have we forgotten our sewing skills? Each individual piece of the quilt must ask, where is the seam I need to be repairing?