Ripping the Seams: On Writing and Quilting

March 15, 2021 § 40 Comments

By Morgan Baker

I looked over the quilt on my sewing table and sighed. Just as I thought. The rows of squares and rectangles didn’t line up. Time for the seam ripper. With the quilt in my lap, I tore out the stitches I had carefully made a few minutes earlier.

I had designed this quilt for my 25-year-old daughter who moved in with her father and me this past year, with its purples, teals, greens and blues. Ellie has had a terrible pandemic year with a break up and a stalled acting career, and then her grandfather died of Covid. But she’s coming through the other side and to show her how proud I am, I created this quilt. I adapted the pattern from one called “Trip to Kauai,” because I had recently spent almost a year in Hawaii and Ellie had visited frequently. But without clear directions on the adaption, it had been challenging.

Quilting, I’m beginning to see, is a lot like writing. I get excited about a new pattern or essay and I jump in, sometimes too fast, and then invariably, I make mistakes. The corners don’t meet or the sentences don’t follow logically. I sew back to front instead of front to front or I need to take summary and develop into scene. The seams need to be ripped out, or the sentences and paragraphs need to be rewritten and, in some cases, tossed.

Don’t rush your writing, my husband Matt reminds me. Easier said than done. Sometimes I want to finish a project sooner than it’s ready. My enthusiasm gets the better of me, whether it’s a new quilt or section of the memoir, which I think I’ll be working on forever.

Patience doesn’t suit me, but hurrying through a project doesn’t work. Taking short cuts isn’t the best idea. When I brought Ellie’s quilt to the fabric store to find material for the borders, I pointed out to Lynn, one of the generous owners, that the rows weren’t even at the bottom. “Did you pin them before you sewed?” “No,” I answered meekly. Thus, the error of my ways. The fabric had shifted and stretched without the pins. The uneven bottom was payback.

Occasionally, you need to rest and let something sit and set. I might need to leave a quilt laid on the table for a few days while I figure out how to make the new pattern work, or my writing needs to stew in my brain. To my dismay, I may have to admit I really do need to rip the seams apart or rewrite the sentences on which I worked so hard. My pride can’t get in the way. I’ll wait until the quilt is on Ellie’s bed to take joy in my work.

After returning from the quilt store, I pinned the quilt back together and sewed the rows that screamed out at me before. The pinning worked, just like when I replace a weak word with a stronger one, or rewrite a sentence so it has more pop, or maybe replace the passive voice with the active.

Ellie and I spread the quilt on the living room floor, the purples and turquoise greeting us. We tried to even the bottom by trimming. Despite all the work, I wasn’t completely confident of what it would look like when I put on the borders.

Days later, the front of the quilt was finished. After I trimmed and altered, I sewed the borders on while Ellie was at work. She was astonished to see it when she came home. It’s ready for the next step –the batting and back. Then it will be quilted.

My memoir isn’t close to being finished, but I can see more clearly now where different sections fit and how to get from one to the other. I have to take my time and write with intention and even when I think I’ve done a great job, I may have to rip a sentence or two apart and start over. I have to work harder on scenes and less on summary. That’s okay, because the edited version will line up better with the material already there.
___

Morgan Baker lives, writes and quilts in Cambridge, MA. She teaches at Emerson College and is the managing editor of thebucket.com. She most recently took part in a Rebirth Your Writing Retreat, where her writing got a dusting off. Her work has been published in The Boston Globe Magazine, The Brevity Blog, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under the Gum Tree, The New York Times Magazine (as M. Baker), and thebucket.com, among others. She is at work on a memoir about her time in Hawaii.

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§ 40 Responses to Ripping the Seams: On Writing and Quilting

  • juliemcgue says:

    I have a much-loved history with sewing projects. As a writer who recently finished my memoir (Twice a Daughter is due out in May), I appreciate Baker’s analogy between sewing and writing. There is such frustration in working on a section–whether it be a quilt or an essay or chapter– only to realize that when you thought you were done, you weren’t.

  • mimijo3795 says:

    Love this! I’m a knitter and face the same challenges, blunders, insights in that craft as in my writing. Right now I’m having to learn a hard technique to finish the sleeves on a sweater. I’m afraid I won’t be able to master it and the sweater will be a bust (or a vest!). Kind of like those heart-in-the-throat writing moments when you know something needs to be fixed but doubt your ability to do it. Thanks for the reminder about the power of patience and persistence.

    • Morgan Baker says:

      Good luck with your knitting. I’m sure you’ll figure it out. And no one else knows what the mistakes are, the way we do. Just go for it. Thanks for reading.

  • How interesting! I recently used the analogy of a patchwork quilt in the MFA class I’m teaching on book and magazine editing. I will share this blog post with my class!

  • kperrymn says:

    I love this essay. I don’t have the knack or the patience for sewing, but I appreciate a good metaphor. I have a good friend, also a writer, who crafted a beautiful quilt in the same hues you describe, during this COVID year. I admire both of you for your ability and persistence in creating things of tangible beauty. Best wishes as you finish your memoir.

  • Thank you for offering this analogy. I quilt with batiks, which do not take to ripping out. Instead I spend hours staring at fabric until I am certain, then I cut. I do it again and again—working it out entirely in my head before proceeding. (And I only pin at the end, when joining large sections.) By contrast, I too often just spew words onto a page. I will have to try using my quilting habits as a model for better writing.

  • pegood59 says:

    I liked your analogy of quilting and writing. All so true.

  • I love this. It’s a hard lesson for me. I haven’t attempted quilting in years but I always wanted to rush through and hold the finished project. Writing is the same. I’m learning to let it sit. Thank you for this lovely reminder.

    • Morgan Baker says:

      Hi Eieen – I find letting anything sit the hardest. I’m so eager and excited, I want to be done and show it off. But waiting often brings better results. A hard lesson. Thanks for reading.

  • I woke up this morning with the decision to trash a piece I’ve been working on for weeks. Now I think maybe I should just rip out a few seams and see if that changes anything. Thank you!

  • I’m a long-time quilter, having learned sitting my grandmother’s side. I love the process, and even have my own long-arm. Sadly, recent circumstances have prevented me from attempting any new projects. I promise myself it will be soon. For now, I am concentrating on my writing and find your parallels between the two crafts very familiar. Thank you for your insights.

    • Morgan Baker says:

      Hi – I hope you can get back to quilting. I don’t realize how good it is for me until I start working on a new project and then it’s oh, right, this makes life good again. I’m glad you’ve got your writing. That is also good. Thanks for reading.

  • I love how you quilted these two endeavors together – such a great metaphor, and reminder. Thank you!

  • lgrizzo says:

    I love this post. My mother is a quilter and I’m a writer. The comparison in revision techniques is spot on.

  • Kristen Paulson-Nguyen says:

    Thank you for this! I’ve been struggling to be patient with my writing lately. It’s so hard to go at my own pace in this digital world. In a weird way, I’ve enjoyed the hermetic quality of pandemic living. It has been good for my writing.

    • Morgan Baker says:

      Hi. I too have found the “hermetic quality of pandemic living” helpful with my writing. I have not enjoyed the pains of the pandemic and the fear. But I am glad between my sewing and writing, I’ve been able to find “outs”. Being patient is hard. I was so eager to work today and now have three zooms to attend. All good zooms, but still…. Keep plugging away. Thanks for reading.

  • Great, Morgan. You got me thinking about quilting, how I am obliged to work in panels because of the small spaces I inhabit. And then, how moving around the panels to find the right arrangement is very much how I am moving around chapters of the memoir, moving around in time. This morning I realised I’ve been itching to quilt again but have outraged it for fear that it will take time away from the book project. How dumb is that! So I am launching a new one which surely will only nourish the writing. Thank you!

    • Morgan Baker says:

      Hi – I totally understand the fear of too many projects. I found during the worst of the pandemic, if I quilted for an hour a day, it really grounded me and didn’t interfere with my writing or teaching. It was really healing. I wrote another piece about this in thebucket.com. How quilting helped me through the pandemic. Good luck, I hope you get to both write and quilt. Thanks for reading (I got the out ruled bit too).

  • I meant to write out ruled, not outraged!

  • In the Rooster’s household, the wife is the Quilter. I like to think I’m the writer, only through WordPress though. Mary Agnes, retired RN, wife of 56 years, mother, Grannie & Great Grannie is constantly calling me to the upstairs bedroom where a quilt in progress, sits on the bed. What do you think, should I change this, that, or some other thing? I read your blog with a smile on my face the entire time. As for my writing, I guess I just like to share, more for a gigantic family network and friends, as well as a few tagalongs, along the way, thus the blog. I can even watch a Uconn Woman’s BB game and Hook a rug along the way. B Safe!

    • Morgan Baker says:

      I love this. Sounds like a perfect union – quilter and writer – with lots of family. I love getting my husband’s opinion on my quilts. He’s improved over time. Thanks for reading. Keep writing for the family and friends. I’m sure they appreciate it.

  • Yes, so many parallels between writing and quilting. Loved how you drew them together into this oh-so-relatable story 🙂

  • Philip von Mehren says:

    Lovely story.

  • Suzy Beal says:

    I recently stitched the back to the front of a pair of pajamas I made for my granddaughter. I found myself tearing out the seam and thinking how like my writing endeavors this felt. You have hit the nail on the head with this essay. Beautifully done!

  • Nancy Smiler Levinson says:

    Hi, Morgan, What a really nice piece! I enjoyed the writing/quilting parallel and all its details that I can see — colors, feelings, the undoing and restarting . . . so relatable (even though I can barely sew on a button) It’s nice to be in touch with you again post our December class with Sheila. Cheers! Nancy

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