Confessions of a Beginning Beginner.

Confessions of a Beginning Beginner.

By Caroline Gaden  ©

 Glorious colours, superb designs, intricate details, visually stunning, that’s how I’d describe the wonderful quilts shown in every issue of the ‘Australian Patchwork and Quilting’ magazine. But to a ‘beginning beginner’ like me they look so complicated; they instil feelings that “I’d never be able to do that.” and a lack of confidence. So the magazine gets tossed aside again. Every month or so I’d sneak another look at the latest offerings, but find inspiration and confidence in my own ability would ebb even further away… I have no colour sense, no artistic flair, couldn’t design a quilt to save myself.

But, I’m told, “You only have to be able to sew a straight line.”

Ha! That to a lass who in Year 6 was painfully forced to unpick the apron ties seven times because the lines weren’t straight, to a lass whose grandmother was a talented, fastidious and qualified tailoress, to a lass whose mother was a perfectionist with all the beautiful clothing and every needlework piece she created. Every single thing I had ever attempted to sew had to be unpicked and re-stitched several times… the patch-work fraternity would have a lifetime of negative vibes to overcome before I would be able to join them.

But that lifetime was marching on and the interest and longing were not really diminished, just lying dormant under the surface. Retirement was just around the corner, the horses had all gone to less geriatric owners, the kids had all grown and flown, the time was now available and the timing was finally right.

It was 2004 and I enrolled in a beginner’s class at ‘In Stitches’, the local Armidale patchwork shop… a new block every week for eight weeks. I soon realised that selecting colours, [auditioning, what an appropriate word] was not such a major issue… and the same design can look stunning in a myriad of colours.

I learned how to measure and cut in straight lines and the pieces were so small it was even relatively easy to sew in straight lines. I learned how to use vliesofix and appliqué and how to actually construct the blocks in logical fashion. Karyn was a patient teacher who did any unpicking that was needed so we beginners could honestly say “I made it myself and I didn’t unpick a single stitch.” Before I knew it I had made a small quilt.

Then it was back to the real world. My youngest son’s 21st was fast approaching. The challenge was on. I decided on a large quilt cover, more practical than a quilt for where he lived and there would be no worry about the quilting part of the exercise.

What to do for a young male, a student whose life at that time seemed to revolve round his motor bike? Each day he wore T shirts designed to ‘stir’ his more conservative class mate, T shirts with slogans like “Life begins at opening time” or “I only drink beer on days that end in ‘Y’” and “24 hours in a day, 24 beers in a slab… coincidence?”

Some perfect material was spotted, one with motor bikes, one like a chequered flag and, the best of all, old style beer labels in primary colours. The quilt cover took shape in my mind, nothing too difficult, seven rows of seven patches each twelve inches square, 49 in total. A couple or so beer labels were appliquéd onto primary colour squares, the other materials made complete squares. There were eight patches of white material with photographs printed on them, photos showing family, school mates, cadets, holidays and sporting teams. A navy border, a couple of zips and appropriate backing material and the quilt cover was born.  What a great sense of achievement over something so simple.

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Then I experimented with other designs made into cushion covers in Log Cabin, Roman stripes and Greek cross.  I try Biscuit, Crazy/Random and Seminole and am inspired by the results. I fell in love with a Bargello quilt on display in Trangie and quilter Fiona was kind enough to post me the pattern; how thoughtful and friendly to a total stranger.

The next major assignment loomed. My eldest son and his partner were leaving the Royal Australian Navy and I wanted something nautical as a memento. I scoured shops for appropriate material and found warships, tropical islands, dolphins, stars, material which looked like sky, sea and sand. I located RAN ships badges and Australian flags. Trudy, from a Chatswood material shop, encouraged my quest and sent me photos of the quilt she had made for her ex-RAN father, another inspiring advocate for her craft.

Back to Karyn for a workshop on ‘Mariner’s Compass’, an appropriate centrepiece. Gold coloured material was used to appliqué a brass anchor and ship’s bell, cord was used to depict some of the various knots and coil of lines [ships have lines not ropes, except for the bell-rope!] Again white material was used for photographs from their years of service on the various ships. This time the squares were smaller, just nine inches, and there were 81 of them…. well okay the Mariners Compass is equivalent to one nine-patch block.  The result is a lovely quilt to remind the couple of their time proudly serving their country in the RAN.

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More experiments followed. I love the ‘crazy design’ so new cushion covers appeared. I even did some foundation piecing. Confidence was growing and it was soon time to tackle the third quilt cover, this one for my middle son and his wife who adored hot pink, the colour worn by her bridesmaids. With that colour in mind, material had been slowly accumulated over a couple of years.

Another class with Karyn, this time to learn how to construct a ‘Lone Star’. It became the large centrepiece and was surrounded by three inch patches, twenty seven long by twenty four wide. In all there are over 700 pieces of material in this quilt cover… what progress from the 49 patches of the first one.

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A few years later I was busy with Christmas Stockings, cot quilts and quillows,  and quilts for the single beds of an increasing numbers of grandchildren. In Alice Springs I found some wonderful material designed by Indigenous artists, so a quilt was produced and it even found its way into a Quilt Exhibition at the local Aboriginal Cultural Centre and Keeping Place. A trip to Southern Africa saw a suitcase half full of material brought home and a quilt inspired by the colours and  animals of Africa.

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On our Outback travels I’m now taking photographs of colours and combinations, not just scenery. Now I’m ready to tackle some more designs using material I have accumulated in my travels across the north of Australia. So yes I’m still working in straight lines and mainly squares but my confidence has grown and I think I’ve progressed to ‘beginner’ status.

I still feel in awe at the glorious quilts on display in shops and photographs in the magazines, but I also realise that simple patterns can be extremely effective especially when they are sewn with love.

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