My 2nd-grade daughter is learning about America’s Pioneers this fall at school. Soon the kids will take a field trip to a one-room school house, for which they get to dress up in pioneer clothes if they like. Their study culminates in the presentation of a pioneer-based project that they’ve done at home.
I know a bit about these kinds of school projects from my daughter’s study on the raccoon last year. The teacher asks that the children do the projects on their own, but really, where is the line between guiding a frustrated child and just assembling the raccoon artwork into the mobile yourself? This year’s project on Pioneers has seemed no different. From a long list of the teacher’s suggestions, my daughter chose to make a covered wagon out of paper. I found several plans for cardboard-based pioneer wagons that exacted directions offering little room for originality; the whole plan indeed was darkened by a vision of myself gluing together the wagon while my daughter looked on, bored and impatient or just coloring the wheels with crayons. Fortunately for all of us, my in-laws came for a weekend to visit and my mother-in-law rescued the Pioneer project with a little quilting work.
While my mother-in-law was raising her family she was an avid quilter. She has given us a handful of quilts (some of which she made herself, others of which were made by family members). For my daughter’s Pioneer project, my mother-in-law drafted a simple nine-patch quilt square pattern. All day long the two of them traced squares, measured, pressed, and cut fabric, and sewed on the machine to piece the square together. I couldn’t have been happier with my daughter so involved in her school project, besides so thoroughly enjoying the close company of her grandma. Every so often I stepped in to preach about the relevance of Pioneer-like thriftiness in using leftover scraps of fabric and how quilts were needed to cushion the hard, uncomfortable seats of the covered wagons and to keep safe during dust storms, among other things. The busy quilters mostly ignored me, the constant din of my informative chatter floating above the hum of the sewing machine. By the end of the day, grandma and granddaughter had almost finished their imperfect, colorful handmade square, lastly bordered with “Prairie Points” like in the Prairie Queen quilt, one of the many beautifully named patterns that were popular during pioneer days.
Tracing, cutting, sewing on the machine, pressing – it all came naturally to my daughter, who insisted on doing more sewing the second day. It couldn’t have happened without the gentle guidance of my knowledgable and skilled mother-in-law. While my daughter was sewing at the machine she looked content, carefully finishing each piece and moving the needle up out of the way before she lifted the foot and removed the fabric to cut the thread. She was focused, deliberate, calm. For a girl whose favorite color is “all the colors of the rainbow, even black,” this patchwork sewing gig is right up her alley. She is a bit doomed to it, I suppose: her dad’s side of the family awash with quilters and her mother obsessed with saving and writing about the beauty and meaning in hand-made things.
Which brings me back to the preaching: I want so much for my daughter to learn about the importance that quilting and handcrafts have played in women’s lives in history. While she and my mother-in-law were working, I briefly looked up “quilting in Pioneer America” and found a rich history. One site, “Patterns from History,” wrote that “Pioneer quilting had come full circle from making quilts in anticipation of the journey to the opportunity to express creativity through quilting in the new land.” (The history on pioneer quilting has been fleshed out pretty well in several books and websites devoted to quilting history and I now have a couple of titles waiting in my library request queue!) Before we started the project, as I worked on convincing my daughter to try out the patchwork quilt instead of making the cardboard wagon, I heard myself repeating the things I believe about why people continue to hand-knit: that it’s not just to make clothing or blankets because we need them to survive, but we make them carefully by hand to have something beautiful and meaningful for our everyday lives. Machine-made items can be beautiful and wonderful and much, much easier and cheaper than hand-made items, but so many machine-made things are also quickly and poorly made and just as quickly disposed of. I know because I frequent all of the used-clothing stores in town and they are often full of junky, machine-made clothing and housewares. What a dangerous cycle for ourselves and our planet! Just because we CAN produce tons of clothes for cheap things doesn’t mean that we should. Oh, it all drives me crazy, this kind of waste.
I also can’t help but wonder what my daughter’s take from all of the sewing and talk of handcrafts is, besides being a wonderful bonding time with her grandma and getting her school project done. Does she think that sewing is women’s work, or that sewing is just another medium for an artist? Like my own mother wanted for me, I want my daughter to not be restrained by the old, sexist constraints and stereotypes as she plots out her life. I want her to travel and see the world and to pursue whatever work or goals she needs, regardless of whether it is a male-dominated profession, regardless of whether our culture or individual people tell her it is appropriate for a woman. My daughter’s goal in life right now, though, is to become an artist – it has been for over a year – and her favorite art projects are often crafts. She is a little confused by what it means to be an artist, too, and last night inquired at bedtime about how much money artists make. Trying to keep awake as we lay there in the dark, with the big pink ceramic shell nightlight (that my grandma made) on in the corner of her room, the barley bag warming our feet under my mom’s homemade down comforter, I murmured the line, “Find what you love to do, honey, and the money will come.” But she didn’t go for it. She said worriedly (and with new non-sleepy vigor) that she had heard from other people that artists don’t make money and she wants to make lots of money to buy things like lego sets and iPads. Our conversation drifted slightly into the meaning of life and the role of money before trailing off into sleepy silence.
Oh, how my heart aches for her – she’s only seven years old! For my budding artist, here’s to more creative, thrifty, even feminist quilts. May she and all of our family – and yours – be always blanketed with warmth, beauty, and meaning.