Old Business

March 14, 2012

My dad was an unhappy person. A lot of bad stuff happened to him in his lifetime, and he was the kind of guy who held on to it, magnified it, used it to hurt other people. When he died a few years ago, I was surprised to find that what sadness I had was for his lost opportunity to redeem himself. While he lived, there was always a chance that he would find a way to transform his life into something good. But it never happened, and when he died he lost his chance.

He left behind a house, a surprising amount of money for a guy who never really made much money (but hardly spent any), and a crapload of daughters- who, it turned out, schemed and fought and distrusted each other when it came to distributing his estate.  I don’t want to make out like I’m completely blameless, because when is anyone ever completely blameless? But I was floored by how it all went down.

He also left some shirts- cotton blend button-downs, mainly. When we were going through his house (an experience I never want to have again), it was one of the few things that no one wanted. And me-  I have trouble resisting a useless, unwanted object that could be turned into something beautiful. So I decided to make a shirt quilt- in part because it would be a sort of symbolic transformation of ugliness into beauty.

I have passionate feelings about design and handcrafts, but only moderate success translating them into objects. So I think, re-think, and put off making design decisions.  The shirts were around for years before I committed to an idea. I finally started cutting plain squares, large ones when there was enough fabric, small ones when there wasn’t. The shirts didn’t yield that much, so I added more thrifted button-down shirts and stash fabric to the mix.

When I started arranging the finished blocks in rows, they didn’t please me, so I added dark sashing in between.

There are some design decisions here I won't make again, but it's not hideous, right?

As you can see, the thing takes up acres of floor space, but that’s a good thing, since D and I both like to roll up in our blankets like burritos, which makes us both midnight cover thieves.

I’m not big on tying quilts, but I didn’t want to take the time to quilt it either, so I tried an idea I’d seen in a quilt book once- tying with buttons.

Like So

And So

Believe it or not, when I started this, I figured it would make finishing the quilt a short-term proposition.


It takes me at least half an hour to finish a nine-button block. The quilt has about 70 blocks.

I started out all bright-eyed and bushy tailed, but before long I was working mechanically in front of hours of t.v. I wasn’t that interested in. I used up my small stash of shirt buttons and traded for more with a friend who makes wonderful, beautifully designed quilts out of men’s clothes. Eventually I folded it up, half-done, and put it in the closet. Because no one needs to watch that much t.v.

Every once in a while I’d get it out and work on it some more. I used up all the buttons again, and traded for another jarfull.

This past weekend I got it out and spread it on the floor. I couldn’t help noticing that it was about 90% done. This time, I’m going to finish it. I’m looking forward to clearing out the space it’s been taking up in my closet and my spirit.


18 Responses to “Old Business”

  1. Lynn said

    Charlotte, I think that’s beautiful. All of it. That touched my heart for so many reasons. I wish you speedy sewing. Amen and Amen.

  2. Myra said

    Thanks for sharing — great story in content and telling, and what a unique looking quilt that will always be so full of meaning.

  3. Charlotte, thank you for sharing this wonderful, bittersweet, intimately personal project. This is to me your very best blog post.

  4. I was reading this morning on archetypes and how a person can never accept him or herself until they can accept their maternal archetype – I’m sure there is a lot about that father-wise as well. I think the most beautiful art comes from transforming something from pain, and for you to use something as personal — and as close to his body as his shirts were – is really powerful. What I like most about your quilt is the peek-a-boo feel that it has with the black squares appearing here and there. And somewhere in the mix, the fact that you only had portions of your father, not a whole person there, either. Little windows of black and blue with a determination to enhance that package with sunny yellow. I think he did redeem himself, in a way, through you. You are such a lovely soul, the golden on that faded horizon. I know that doesn’t replace what is lost to you, but I think your awareness of the possibility that might have been in his life has brought us all something very special in you- best and hugs – crs

  5. Just a lovely story and to be honest I think it is a really fantastic quilt. Very masculine and perfect for a man’s bed.

  6. tonya said

    What a nice post. I share a lot of those same feelings about my own father–so many lost opportunities. I love what you’ve done with all those old shirts and it supports my theory that every quilt is more than just squares of fabric and thread, but a story. Ironically, I’ve hung on to an old pair of very loud plaid pants (my dad’s) that I thought would be great for me one day — not that I plan to ever ‘fit’ into them (let’s hope not), but some seamstress will have a challenge on her hands!

  7. I can’t wait to see more of the finished quilt. I think the process – painstaking, deliberative, creative – must be highly cathartic. It is always so sad when redemption is staring someone in the face, but they just don’t see it, choose not to see it. Denial, lack of will, fear I guess are all elements in that. Anyway, good luck with the final 10%!

  8. Beverly said

    Wow. I can’t find the words for how touched I am by your honesty and openness in telling that story the way you did. And the quilt is lovely. I have a bunch of my Dad’s suits that I’ve intended for years to make into a quilt. I could never find a way to make that first cut. I love your quilt; I love the story and I love the buttons. Great job all around.

    • Thanks Beverly! I’ve been touched in return by all the positive feedback on this one. I knew it felt good to write it, but I didn’t predict how many people would totally get it.

  9. Renee Bollten Vesci said

    Thank you for sharing. For those of us with complicated relationships with our fathers, it is inspirational to read about someone working through the layers of emotions in a positive, artistic way.

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