Monday, September 20, 2010

Mistake? Nah, Just Self-Expression

by Sophie


I'm hardly a perfectionist. I'm happy to take shortcuts, and the phrase "good enough is good enough" could have been coined by me.

Early on I came to understand that this personality quirk was beyond my control, something I was born with. How else to explain my mother's willingness to rip out a seam - several times if necessary - to get a fabric print repeat to line up right...when I viewed my own sewing projects as approximations, good-natured efforts whose flaws were not only to be expected, but inevitable?

Sewing became a fertile place to work out the meaning of mistakes - long before I knew that's what I was doing. Were they evidence of a flawed character, a moral deficit? This was back in the days when our main goal when sewing was to produce garments that could pass for store-bought, a notion that was hard to shed decades later when the publisher I was working for produced books on crafts that were meant to look unapologetically, intentionally home-made. In 1978 - a year when, at age fifteen, I sewed much of my wardrobe - each mistake had to be reviewed with a critical eye: could that skewed patch pocket, that bowed line of topstitching, that lopsided dart go unnoticed, or would I have to re-do it to avoid the dreaded home-sewn look? I knew what my mother would say: rip, re-do. Her own projects from that era - I remember a peasant blouse trimmed with navy jacobean embroidery, as well as innumerable plaid shirts with perfectly aligned repeat matches - were utterly above reproach.

I think one of the things that appealed to me about quilting, when I took it up seriously over a decade ago, was that there was room for both ends of the spectrum. Certainly there were and are quilters for whom the perfect stitch is an endless quest.

But while editing copy for quilt books for C&T, the publisher for whom I worked, I found out something marvelous: early American quilters viewed a pursuit of perfection as an offense to God. To ensure that their quilts would not be guilty of such an affront, it was common to pierce one's finger and bleed on an inside seam. That drop of blood was like a humility offering; by allowing the stain in the finished quilt one was admitting one was imperfect.

I find that notion beautiful. While I never bled on my quilts (despite stabbing myself so many times I had a permanent callus on several of my fingers) I did enjoy finding the errors and then - deliberately and almost rebelliously - letting them stay.

I don't quilt any more, because writing takes up all my free time. But I do love all the quilts I kept, and I have them hung throughout the house. I know where the mistakes are. I sort of love them.

Have you heard of the Gee's Bend Quilts? If not, take a look - they are unlike anything you have ever seen. They literally changed not just my understanding of quilting but of home-making and of life in its entirety. These poor Alabama women undertook to make functional, practical quilts to keep themselves and their loved one's warm at night - but they did so with wild, unfettered abandon, putting aside any notion of what a patch should be, or a block, or a quilting template or a color palette. Nothing was considered prescribed. None of them judged each other's work unworthy. From the site: "The women consider the process of "piecing" the quilt "top" to be highly personal."

I was blessed with an opportunity to see these quilts when the exhibit came to San Francisco. I'll never forget seeing them hung in the museum. I read stories of grief - a woman who made her dead husband's work jeans and coveralls into a quilt that she slept under to feel as though he was close - and joy, and I loved the women's words which the curator of the show had wisely made available alongside their work. There was no talk of "mistakes."

Some day, I'll return to quilting. I'm not sure what I'll make first. But I hope I can bring a fraction of the passion to my work that the Gee's Bend women possess. And I hope that I can take up my needle again without letting the thought of mistakes slow me down.


Maddy said...

Those are fabulous - there always seems to be different phases and stages where things fall in and out of our lives - I hope to return to pottery in years to come.

Rachael Herron said...

Oh, that jeans quilt.... How wonderful. I have a strong reaction to this: I want perfect, but I'm really damn okay when things aren't.

L.G.C. Smith said...

Do you have any idea what a gift your inborn acceptance of less-than-perfect is? Yeah. Probably. But that said, you have such high standards that most of the time what you identify as a mistake is so far beyond the rest of us (in writing and sewing, at least) that we (I) can't see any flaws.

Those Gee's Bend Quilts just glow, don't they?

Sophie Littlefield said...

Maddy, pottery was an early love of mine. Then I took a class on the wheel and discovered I had no talent for it. I should go back to the homely pinch pots - those, I got :)

I hope you return to it too...

Sophie Littlefield said...

Rachael, the jeans quilt is my favorite too. I wish you could read that woman's frank description of taking her husband's work clothes and cutting them up, discarding none for being too worn or dirty with stains that would not come out - because her grief was so profound that she needed the fabric that was most imbued with *him* for the cover under which she wouuld sleep.

Oh, sniffles.

Sophie Littlefield said...

L.G.C. - you're so sweet to me! But you have experienced enough of my life - lumpy muffins, dirty windshields, and *especially* indifferent grooming - to know how lax I can truly be. :)

Anonymous said...

Beautiful, thank you. One of MFA profs, Lewis Buzbee, mentioned in class once that he thought every artist put "a flaw" in his or her work, a sort of marker of themselves. I didn't quite understand what he meant then, but his example was The Great Gatsby, where for one brief sentence Nick is inexplicably addressing the reader directly.

Long live "the flaws" in us all...

Sophie Littlefield said...

I'll toast that, Mysti - long live the flaws. (no danger of me forgetting that one. :)

Juliet Blackwell said...

I love this post! I once went through the Texas countryside to visit my cousin's grandmother (no relation to me) and when we arrived the cottage was redolent of pecan pie and the women were having a real, live, quilting bee in the main room. It was cozy and jocular and magical. *sigh*

A. J. Larrieu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A. J. Larrieu said...

It's nice to be reminded that "perfection" isn't necessarily the right goal in any endeavor. Passion matters more!

Your post also reminds me of the Cult of Done Manifesto ( here), especially #8: "Laugh at perfection. It's boring and keeps you from being done."

Sophie Littlefield said...

oh lordy A.J. - that was *brilliant*!!! Am now going to add it to my bookmarks, then tweet it and pretend i found it myself!!!

Anonymous said...

I love Manifesto #8 - my feelings exactly.

Athebascan basket makers believed they needed to work an imperfection into thier pattern so the spirit of the basket could escape and not be trapped in the pattern of the weave.

I've also heard that each human work needs to contain a flaw so not to anger the gods by being too perfect.

Works for me!