A new quilt is starting to take shape in my studio. It’s based loosely on a technique that I’m trying to learn, called bargello, after a pattern of quilting on some chairs in the Bargello Palace.
In the bargello quilting technique, strips of cloth are ironed and sewn together into tubes. This tube is fourteen strips of cloth around, in a repeating pattern of seven strips. The resulting tube is then sliced with a knife or a rotary cutter into strips which are as wide, at a perpendicular angle to the tube, as the original strips of fabric. These loops of fabric, as they’re called, are then slit open or have a seam ripped at a specific spot. The result is then a flat strip of pre-sewn squares. Successive loops can be opened at different places, to create diamond or wave patterns that can become quite beautiful. OR, the loops can be cut in varying widths, resulting in even more extraordinary patterns.
This is a test. One should always do tests of the work, to make sure that you understand the technique you’re learning. I don’t think that I’ll wind up with anything much larger than a baby quilt, though a throw quilt with a central panel of pseudo-rainbow is always possible.
Quilting is kind of like astrology, or writing formal poetry, or building utilitarian furniture. There is a set of rules and a set of guidelines, of course. A bench obeys rules of force and gravity. Astrology has rules that have been laid down over thousands of years. Five hundred years of convention says that a sonnet has fourteen lines that rhyme, more or less, two ways. You’re following a plan.
But certain things are inherent in the Maker of the thing — that is, you, or me. I have a particular level of skill right now, which results in my corners being just slightly off on some of these strips I’ve cut. It’s the thing that makes it handmade, instead of assembled by machine — or assembled partly by machine and partly by hand. My Brother sewing machine is helping out a lot on this project, I’ll admit. But there is a component of this work which is “hand, and eye, and cunning brain” as playwright and author Dorothy Sayers wrote in her play for the Canterbury Festival, The Zeal of thy House.
Dorothy wrote that in the context of prayer. We don’t pray with lips alone, but with the work that we put those hands to doing. The Benedictine motto, Ora et Labora, “prayer and work,” is rarely far from my mind these days. We all have our work to do in the world; right now mine seems to be keeping people warm and clothed, keeping a few Toastmasters clubs going, keeping a daily practice humming along in changed times.
Still, things get done. The coat went to its intended recipient — he intends to look quite piratical at some Maryland Renaissance festival-thing this weekend. I’ve sold two quilts, I have twelve or so things for sale on Etsy (and you can commission stuff, as well, like the Enlightenment-era coat, or a stole or ceremonial sash). This quilt will be up for sale sometime soon, too, I hope — though I may hold on to this one, depending on how it turns out, for a showpiece of some kind.
In this way, along several fronts, does the Art advance — slowly and surely, with much subtlety.