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.
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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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