A thing patched up

A few weeks ago during our lunch break, we got on the topic of the connotations of “patchwork quilt” and “crazy quilt” and how those terms are used as cultural metaphors. It seems like this time of year, most middling NFL teams sport a “defense like a patchwork quilt” while local politics are a “crazy quilt of districts.” I wished aloud that I had access to the Oxford English Dictionary to learn when the first time patchwork or crazy quilt were used as metaphors by some up-against-a-deadline journalist.*

Kelly immediately put out a call after lunch for the OED citations on her personal Facebook wall and got two replies within an hour (“My friends rock,” she said with a smile.) Turns out the first appearance of patchwork as “a medley, jumble” or “a thing patched up” dates back to the 1690s, and the first use of crazy quilt dates, understandably, to the 1880s.

I was thinking about the use and abuse of quilting terms to describe things put together haphazardly or with seemingly no rhyme or reason when I saw a quilt that we received the other day. I wish I could show you a photo of it now, but rest assured that it is on the docket to be featured as a pattern in a future issue. It is, basically, stunning.  At least I think it is (obviously Angie likes it a lot, too!). First of all, the aspect that you won’t fully be able to appreciate in print is the so-good-it’s-scary hand quilting and embroidery. I honestly thought it was machine embroidered on first glance, the stitches are so precise. And the hand quilting–my goodness, the hand quilting is just to die for. But I digress…

My point today is about how it’s pieced and the quiltmaker’s use of fabrics. Honestly, some of the fabrics she used–and she used a lot of them–are not much to salivate over taken on their own. They might be too quirky for some quilters, or too blah, or even (dare I say it) ugly. When you get up close to the blocks, there is certainly a lot to look at but I wouldn’t say most of the fabrics themselves would instill a desire to drop $100 at your favorite quilt shop. It’s when you take a few steps back, though, and look at the quilt as a whole that the quiltmaker’s understanding of her materials is evident. The quilt just sparkles. Sparkles, people!

Quilts like this one give the lie to the idea that patchwork is sloppy or an afterthought, that it’s something that could be avoided with careful planning. Honestly, if all those losing football teams truly had patchwork defenses, they’d already have secure spots in the playoffs. Because as quilters know, there’s nothing quite as strong and cohesive–and beautiful–as a well-made patchwork quilt.

[I will now descend my soap box.]

* I got a little Word Nerd Thrill that I was able to refer to the OED over lunch and all of my coworkers knew what I was talking about. My coworkers rock, I said with a smile.

About Mary Kate Karr-Petras

Mary Kate is an associate editor at Quilters Newsletter. If you ask her what type of quilter she considers herself, she'll answer, "Slow." Favorite techniques include hand quilting, both traditional and big stitch, but she also loves her walking foot and keeps meaning to get better acquainted with her open-toe embroidery foot.
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3 Responses to A thing patched up

  1. Great post! Just one minor quibble – I didn’t ask on Facebook, I asked on CEL – the Copyeditors Listserve. CEL is described on its webpage… “Copyediting-L is a list for copy editors and other defenders of the English language who want to discuss anything related to editing: Sticky style issues; philosophy of editing; newspaper, technical, and other specialized editing; reference books; client relations; Internet resources; electronic editing and software; freelance issues; and so on.”

    If any editors or writers out there have not heard of it and want to join, you can get more information here:

  2. nora says:

    Extremely well written and insightful, not to mention fun to read.

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