Stitching and a Quilt (Part 6)

Bird Creek Ranch. Photo by E.L. Kittredge.

Part 6 of 6, “How Will We Stitch Our Lives?”

Perhaps the answer to what we can learn from a crazy quilt is the complex simplicity of its guidelines. Maybe within those “guidelines,” lie parallels for the stitching we do in the other parts of our lives.

After all, crazy quilts are called crazy for a reason:

  • 1. Check perfection at the door.

When choosing how or what we create, whether it be in fabric, paint, or politics, why do we hold perfection as a standard?

Do we really know for sure how a single piece will fit in the quilt of our lives until we open our hearts and minds to consider it?

Do we ever really know for sure how the whole quilt will end up looking like until the pieces abide near to each other as part of a whole?

  • Every scrap holds possibility.

When spreading out on the table of life the scraps of what is available for the quilt, some pieces add pattern, while others provide a ground for embroidery or a separation between strong patterns.

Some scraps add light colors; some add dark, and others add the richness of variation in the medium range.

Others add the smoothness of young memories or the wrinkles of old. Still others have the rawness of recent memories waiting to mellow.

The stained and worn has something to add as do scraps saved from mending or those brilliant pieces from special occasion clothing. There are scraps that add their stories, but all add something to the whole.

  • Assembling the whole resembles putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

Squares within squares, blocks within blocks create the larger reality. A series of blocks create larger blocks that in turn make the whole. Some choose to sew the quilt top without observing the lines of internal squares. Whatever the approach, each requires a foundational piece of fabric on which to assemble, attach, and unify the design.

This underlying foundation functions like the underlayment of a person’s principles or a company’s mission or the aspirational documents of a country. The foundation of each design square needs to accommodate a range of colors and shapes without overwhelming what the other design squares offer. Working without the parameters of internal squares is a different journey, more challenging, but not wrong.

  • Often the initial combination doesn’t work.

Ideas, concepts, scraps of fabric, pathways often need to be rearranged. The context may require a realignment of pieces.

It is no fault of the stitcher but simply how the reality comes together. After all, the secret lies in remembering that something is growing where very little may have been obvious before.

  • The stitching does more than join the pieces.

The scraps provide a ground of color on which to add the embellishment of traditional embroidery stitches like feather-work, chains, daisies, and French knots, stitches developed and taught for hundreds of years. Now they are combined in new ways.

Adding in beads, or lace, or even deliberately using the stitching of the quilt sandwich as part of the design all add to the whole. There is no pattern that must be followed, and rules of color can be bent.

Stitching adds the highlights that dance and draw attention, while unifying the whole. Diversity abounds. It is, in short, a celebration.

  • One small fabric scrap alone cannot keep a body warm.

However, in the end, it is a quilt, the whole piece, that warms the body with its stitched layers. And, as a bonus, with its beauty and the story it tells, it warms the soul.

The cautious reader may think or feel that life is just too crazy right now to deal with the whole. It is too fraught with millions of fractures, millions of points of resistance, millions of rationales and memes that can be found to support a narrowing view of life.

If that is the case, perhaps lying hidden in full view is the stitchwork used by the Seamstress of Time as she fashions the loops that bind.

Remember that blue horse that I rode in another lifetime?

Follow the pathway of a seam to a place where the scraps of nations and individuals were emptied onto the sewing table. A place whose landscapes lay like quilts pieced for beauty and where trade and its routes joined the lands that fed, sheltered, and clothed the people. And where peoples of wildly different cultural backgrounds, races, religions, and belief systems found themselves struggling for a dream.

Track the seam to the edge of the known, a place that found itself with little foundational fabric of written law and conflicting legal systems to guide the treatment of others.  

Then, follow that stitching to the gold-mining camps of a place that hadn’t yet been named Montana.

To a place in which survival and “getting ahead” became confused, a place where individual greed and opportunity clashed with individuals’ needing and dreaming of a second chance.

To a place that found itself torn by a civil war, the wounds of which have never been healed.

To a place that braved hunger and death but allowed itself to descend into fear and the rule of the mob to rid itself of “the other” that became the suspected threat.

To that place that still teaches in history classes that the area’s first “law” was a hangman’s knot, where yearly celebrations commemorate “vigilante days,” and where a secret vigilante code “3-7-77” crowns the patches of its state highway patrol.

Can you imagine or have you heard of that place? It may be closer than you think.

That place ginned up a 200-person crowd that hanged the man who owned the great-great-great-grand dam of my trusted blue horse. Without quarter or trial, they put a noose around the man’s neck, pulled him up on a corral crosspiece, and watched him strangle to death.

What was the man’s irredeemable “crime”? Drunkenness.

And so, we stitch our lives, in the history behind us, and our hopes for the future.

We stitch our lands with our usage of what lies within our viewshed and how we interact with those lands whether we treat them with respect or as a commodity.

We stitch our ways of interacting with those around us, in how we travel, or how we communicate, or how we show we care.

We stitch through our perspective what we see and experience, what we create, and even how we give voice to the message that we send forward.

We stitch the diversity of the pieces we live within – the crazy quilt of our landscapes, our own views.

We are an amalgamation of stitching. Sometimes we need to make new stitches. Sometimes, the stitches of others weaken and because those stitches are attached in unseen ways to our stitches, we need to step up and help strengthen that stitching.

The beauty of our crazy quilt holds whether we see each scrap of it as emblematic of our own experiences or if we see each piece as symbolizing the neighbors living down the road. The symbol fits whether we see each piece of our physical landscape as a commodity to be subdivided or envision it as a quilt of wild and working landscapes. In some way, we still shoulder the responsibility of the whole.

Even if we simply see just a plain old scrap of fabric out of which we want to create something of beauty or use, we are symbolically considering how we will stitch the pieces into a whole.

It all reminds me of Douglas Malloch’s poem “A Crazy Quilt”:

                       And so, the hand of time will take
The fragments of our lives and make
Out of life’s remnants, as they fall,
A thing of beauty, after all.

(The final part of an essay “Stitching a Crazy Quilt,” in Crossing Bird Creek, a collection of essays by E.L. Kittredge. To read the entire essay and learn more about our places and how they impact our ways of learning, knowing, being, and thriving, visit

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