Cut, Sew, Press: A Meditation on Quilting

Yesterday after my daily dog walk in the woods (always on the lookout for bears and cougars), I considered doing some writing, quilting, or photography. But I was paralyzed by what’s become an almost constant mental refrain: what’s the point?
At least with walking the point is obvious: to keep fit, to exercise yourself and tire out one of the dogs, to get out of the house and see what’s happening in your neighbourhood. But with other pursuits, the purpose is not always clear, and I sink into almost complete stasis because I can’t answer that simple question: what’s the point?
So I challenged myself to just start quilting and tackle the questions head on: what’s the point of quilting? Who cares if you quilt? What are you supposed to do with the finished product? How useful is quilting in the grand scheme of things? Isn’t it all just a colossal waste of time?
I needed a reminder that artistic pursuits – like quilting, knitting, photography – quiet the mind. That everything that irritates, angers, or saddens you becomes ethereal, insubstantial, as you disappear into the still, present moment of creating.
Each quilt is like a jigsaw puzzle: piece after piece is measured, cut, sewn, and pressed. It becomes a meditation: first imagine how the fabrics fit together – the texture, the colour, the pattern. What story do they tell – both together and alone? Yesterday, for example, I came up with the idea of lights on (white centre piece) and off (black centre piece). Once the fabrics are selected, focus on the cutting: what size of pieces you need, the feel of each fabric under your fingertips, the temptingly sharp blade of the rotary cutter pressing into the cutting mat.




A quilt starts from a single piece of fabric, shaped with other fabrics into a square, all the squares pieced together to form a whole. For me, quilting is like photography. Pulling shapes and textures and colours together into a single image or piece, searching for the right pattern or odd juxtaposition. Photo composition meets fabric selection. Starting with the white and black centre pieces, I built up a structure around each initial square. Cut, sew, press. Cut, sew, press.
Sometimes the sewing machine didn’t cooperate: the needle popping out due to unexpected tension, the bobbin running out of thread, the fabric shifting crookedly under the sewing machine foot. Sometimes I had to go back, take out the seam, and try again. Paying attention to these details helped the darkness of my mind fade into the background. All that mattered was putting each fabric piece into place, building towards that quilted whole.
I’m not a great sewer. My seams are sometimes crooked, and are often different widths. Small errors at the initial square stage propagate into bigger errors once all the squares are sewn together. Suddenly the finished square is 1/2″ longer on the top edge than the bottom edge, and the individual white and black squares don’t exactly line up.
But I managed to (almost) complete the piece. The next steps are to sew together the top piece, batting, and backing. Perhaps I’ll add some quilting stitches on top – a third dimension that draws the eye to a new pattern beyond the fabric squares.
The piece is called Apartment Building – all the windows with lights either on (white) or off (black).
Apartment Building (2016)

As you can see, it’s no work of art. I won’t be running out and selling these things on Etsy. So what will I do with it? I’m not sure. I have several other completed pieces – Train and Spring – that just sit in a drawer. But when I take them out and look at them I feel pride: I made those. And wonder: my mind and hands worked together to create a concrete version of what started as just a mental image. And anxiety: will I be able to make something like this ever again?
Train (2013)

Spring (2015)

The reward is in pushing past that deadly refrain (what’s the point? it whispers) and just doing it. In creating something from nothing but a scattering of fabric pieces. In letting your mind run free of your everyday mental hangups to create something beautiful – even if you’re the only one who ever sees it.
So next time you find yourself thinking “what’s the point?”, push past it. Shove that sentiment in a box and lock it away until you’ve finished and can say *this* is the point. These moments of quiet meditation, this project, this piece of fabric – even if I’m the only one who sees and likes it – is the point.

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13 thoughts on “Cut, Sew, Press: A Meditation on Quilting”

  1. Perhaps you underestimate the value of the object itself? The relationship between the beautiful colours, the imaginative space created for the rest of us by the piece on the one hand, and your feelings of emptiness on the other can speak to us about creative human spirit living outside our momentary feelings. I enjoyed seeing this apartment building. Thanks

    • Perhaps I do underestimate the value of the resulting quilt, but your comment reminds me that value can be subjective – others may like my efforts more than I do! Thanks for the note.

  2. This certainly rings true for me, and never more so then through this stupidly dreary and rainy Ohio winter when my temptation is to question what the point of ANYTHING is and cope by sitting on the couch drinking coffee and watching Netflix until my brain turns to goo.

    • Netflix can do that to you! First step is just to make yourself do something, lots of times that’s enough to get you over the “what’s the point” hump and make it worthwhile.

  3. I am an artist, sculptor, and writer. For me, it’s to take a blank canvas and to turn that canvas into something by merging the colors, to work the values of color. I have the power to make something from nothing. The same with sculpting, I take a lump of clay and make something from nothing. I am in control. Writing is to take a blank piece of paper and fill it with words. Words that can touch the physical senses of the reader. I can play with emotions. What’s the point? I am who I am, therefore I can.

    • True, there is a strong sense of making something from nothing, of bringing to life images and stories from your own mind and sharing them with others. This is a good antidote to the “what’s the point” refrain.

  4. As an enthusiastic but careless quilter, I used to wonder what was the point. But when I look at my quilts — some of them pieced and some of them featuring large panels of indigo-dyed and relief-printed salmon, highlighted with shell buttons — I think how much my quilts know about me. They are meditations, repositories of thinking and love and patience, and they offer an opportunity for someone (me) to explore colour, texture, and ideas in a graphic context. And for someone who can’t draw or paint (hands go wobbly and my heart sinks as I realize how far the results from the intention…), quilts are a wonderful tactile way to feel my way to visual beauty.

    • I love your description of being an “enthusiastic but careless quilter”, that could describe me. ๐Ÿ™‚ And thanks for the reminder that, regardless of how they turn out, our quilts reflect us and our artistic vision, and that may be all they need to do.


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