August 8, 2012

The B*tch Block

Soundtrack: Bruce Cockburn, Stealing Fire

Inspiration: "As for material, any old, worn, or used clothing would be fine..."

Showered, hair & make-up, laundry in, porridge done, music on.  Big skirt, ballerina, but maxi.  Makes hips look twice their size.  Fight the temptation to switch to the laptop and surf the web, just a little more research.  Instead, pull the cutting mat and rotary cutter out of their plastic and open the bags of t-shirts.

Feel a little overwhelmed by the collection amassed here in just one bag. Circus. Family. Pete and Africa. University.  And these are just the shirts already cut up, I haven’t even begun to look at the other pieces still intact.

During the last two weeks of ‘research,’ I had the idea of creating traditional patterns with these clothes and t-shirts.  But I can’t bring myself to chop them up even more.  I am intimidated.  Scared to cut through a word or logo, scared of what might be lost.  I go with the original idea of a t-shirt quilt.  Or at least I will start practicing with the t-shirt pieces.

I’m drawn to the ‘university’ pile.  Maybe because there is a lot to work with there.  Maybe because of the music.  It’s the activist/angry feminist pile.  I realize it actually spans more than my four years of university (it goes all the way to my master’s degree) but it is a particular version of myself that doesn’t really exist anymore.  Dark red thread.  The colour of angry feminist activist? Maybe.  But it is the bobbin already wound.

I’m overwhelmed by the smell of all this jersey.  It smells like my childhood or my dad.  It reminds me instantly of my parents’ house.  But that isn’t the house I grew up in.  Did the smell move with them or does every t-shirt smell this way?  I notice my cat’s hair on the darker pieces.  I cut these on the green carpet of the TV room which is always a little dull with cat hair.  I watched Steel Magnolias while I cut.

Not sure how to proceed, I start cleaning up the cuts and isolating the text or logos.  I start to lay out the pieces on the kitchen floor, but I can’t see a pattern.  It seems like an ambitious step.  I pick two some smaller logos and sew them together.  Then sew those to a bigger piece.  Then those to a bigger piece.
At every flip of a seam, I smile.  Big.  A huge goofy grin.  I patiently pull out each straight pin, flip over the seam and become ecstatic with such a simple effort.

There is a gap.  The series of words could be pieced to fill it, but which ones?  I pick three out of the seven that are applicable to myself then, but also now.  Words that stayed with me.  That don’t feel as jarring.
The music choice for today begins to seem appropriate.  I didn’t plan it, but maybe it influenced my choice of time period.  A little rebellion, outrage, impotence.

Over the course of the next four hours, I swear I listen to the album at least 20 times.  The lyrics start to make sense and I begin to see how the rhythmic choices reflect the feeling and ‘place’ of the song.  I have fuzzy pictures of my parents as I listen to it, of my dad getting riled up and frustrated, of my mom dancing.  I remember how cocky and sure I was of the world and my place in it.  I remember how that assurance lost my dream job.  I remember getting riled up and frustrated.  How exhausted I became trying to maintain a level of outrage.  How I now leave it to others to get riled up.  How I am envious of their commitment  but also a little thankful I am no longer so angry.  How I see more value in influencing the younger generation than trying to change minds so firmly set.

I chuckle and the ‘revolution’ because all I ever did was bitch.  I was too scared to start a revolution outside my little bubble of liberal arts education where ‘token activism & rebellion’ was fostered and encouraged.

As I sew I have visions of Gramma Rosa and Mom in my head.  Fuzzy images, not specific, just there.  The two women that taught me everything I know about sewing and using a sewing machine. I can’t remember particular lessons, but I know it was them.  I remember Mom as I attempt to thread the machine needle, noticing that my hands move as her’s do.  Is this unconscious mimicry or DNA?

Suddenly, and eventually, I get all the shirts into a messy block.  I started with just two small pieces, thinking I would just mess a bit and kept going.  I remember there are more shirts behind me on the floor.  Laying them out, I realise I had created the beginning of a square, all the pieces fit together and the colours just work.

But the square is a bit raggedy.  I think I should leave it, but I’m not ready to be done and I also feel it’s not done.  The scraps from earlier trimming lay around the block on the floor and make me think of a border.  But I immediately baulk at the idea.  Creating a border means it won’t ‘fit’ with other shirts.  It will stand alone.  I hesitate.  Do I want to demarcate this part of me?  Am I ready to box up this part of who I was/am?

That seems too deep for sewing.

I just want to keep sewing.

I go with the urge to sew.  It is right now and undeniable.

I’m flying on the machine now and because I am working so fast, I sew the wrong sides together.  I go with it.  A mistake, a lesson, built in to the block.  I make it part of the design.

I take a break.  I sit with it.  I look at it, there on my kitchen floor.  I look at the connections between pieces, I think about the order in which to sew.  I notice unintentional squares of colour and work to ensure they stay.  I unpick a few stitches here and there to make corners neat.  I marvel at how easy it seems to be coming together.

The block is getting heavier, t-shirt heavy.  I have to be careful with the feed and the foot and pin placement.  This awareness makes me feel more confident.

Music still going.  Each seam still brings a grin.

And then it’s done.  The chequered corners meeting perfectly.  I’m not sure how I managed it without ironing or ‘stiffening’ but I am really pleased.
I trim it up and admire it, there on the kitchen floor.

I slowly begin to clean up.  Fabric and t-shirts away, clothes back in the bags, scraps in another bag.  Sewing machine apart and back in its chest.  Finally, I iron.  As I iron I think about Grams again.  Just general, no specific memory, just a presence.

And then it’s done.  Again.  I have a square of my life and I am immensely proud of it.

* from How to Make an American Quilt by Whitney Otto

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