Column: Summer quilt project connects the fabric of family, past and future

  • St. Paul Pioneer Press illustration -- Kirk Lyttle St. Paul Pioneer Press illustration -- Kirk Lyttle

  • Mary Otto. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 8/15/2020 10:30:14 PM
Modified: 8/15/2020 10:30:12 PM

Summers at our rustic log cabin in Maine are precious: in their brevity, in the importance of being together with family and friends, and in the effects that living in this completely “other” setting can have on me.

In Maine, I live many hours of the day outdoors. I swim in the ocean. I prepare meals in an inefficient kitchen and wash the dishes every evening in an ancient porcelain sink and put them in a drying rack until morning.

I devote myself avidly to reading all of the books I have brought with me. And magically, during some summers, living at the cabin reconnects me with aspects of myself so unused over the years that they have been nearly lost.

That happened recently when I abandoned my books and pulled out my mother’s old sewing machine.

Thoughts about a sewing project were already in my mind before we left Vermont for Maine. Learning during the spring that two of my nieces and their husbands were expecting babies in September, I had smiled. With grandchildren all at least teens by now, it would be wonderful to welcome these new babies into the family. I could make them each a quilt. Particularly with the restrictions of life during the COVID-19 pandemic, such an activity would be refreshing and energizing.

Getting the fabric for my quilts was easier than I had anticipated. While a favorite fiber arts store in Maine had closed completely, another nearby had emerged as a remarkable online resource for those who sew.

Exploring the website, I learned that I could identify possible choices and then move each one to my desktop to place them side by side as they might look in the quilts. It was a snap to pick red, white and blue sailboats and a complementary red fabric to go with them, with a blue batik for the back.

I ordered and thought I was finished, until the phone rang. They didn’t have enough of the sailboat material but had several other suggestions. I returned to the online store, dragged the new options onto the desktop to see which would be best, and called to ask for the brightly colored lobster buoys instead. Pickup was “curbside,” on the porch of a weathered old building on a country road that I hadn’t driven on in years.

I had already settled on a design, the simplest possible and both quilts the same. It took me three tries to locate a pair of scissors in the cabin that would actually cut fabric.

The dining table was an ideal size for laying out the material, and the old wooden yardstick from a defunct Maine furniture store was handy in the corner where it is always kept.

With careful measurement and accurate cutting, I eventually had the four rectangular pieces I would need for each quilt top, along with the two larger blue ones for the backs. As I suspected, there was left over quilt batting in a dresser drawer, packed away carefully and in good shape for what I needed.

Now I would have to address the old sewing machine.

It’s not that I never used it during the course of a summer. There was almost always something that needed repair, but it hadn’t been used for a new project in quite a while. I had good choices for thread in the cabin sewing box; navy blue would be the best. There was no bobbin ready to go with that color on it, but it was obvious where on the machine to put the spool of thread and the bobbin to fill it. Success. But now what?

Sitting in front of the sewing machine, eons-old muscle memory came alive.

I lifted the metal plate under the needle and pulled out the bobbin holder I knew rested there. Holding the newly filled bobbin in my right hand, I inserted it into the holder in my left hand, pulled up on the thread to secure it, and inserted the holder back into its place. Click. Ahh. I would thread the machine and be ready to sew.

It has all been a satisfying process and intimately rewarding. I have been reminded of my deep connections to the women in my family who sewed.

The first who comes to mind was a grandmother who lived with us when I was a child. A common sound in my house back then was the rhythmic thump, galump, thump of her treadle sewing machine as she made quilts from salvaged shirts or house dresses. And then my mother, whose skill in making her own clothing — and mine too, for a time — was legendary.

But the paragon of seamstresses was the fabled Aunt Harriet. Her elegant trouser suits and stunning jackets and coats kept her the fashion queen of her Iowa retirement community well into her 90s.

Best of all, though, I am again savoring the beauty of fabric — the pleasures of its color and texture, and the joy of planning, creating, and seeing a finished piece of work. I have rediscovered a forgotten facet of myself that I will happily take with me into the future.

Mary K. Otto, formerly of Norwich, lives in Shelburne, Vt. Email her at

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