Q & A with Katherine Bell, author of Quilting for Peace
How did you learn to quilt?
About eight years ago, my mom showed me the basics of piecing and tying so that I could make a baby quilt for a friend’s first child. After that I taught myself pretty much everything I needed to know with the help of a Singer machine-quilting paperback from the Eighties. I’m learning how to hand-piece now.
What inspired you to write Quilting for Peace?
A little bit of healthy competition with the knitters. I loved Knitting for Peace and wanted to show that quilters did just as much to make the world a better place. I was also inspired by an exhibit I saw at the New England Quilt Museum about nineteenth-century quilters who used their craft to provoke social change as well as to comfort those in need. They used their quilts, for example, as a way to participate in politics, work for social justice, and raise money for the causes they believed in.
You conducted interviews with dozens of people to write the essays in Quilting for Peace. What was that process like?
The quilters I talked to were so different from each other in many ways—women (and a couple of men) from ages 15 to 80-something, on four continents and in 14 U.S. states; quilters who are liberal and conservative, who live on farms and in suburbs, in city apartments and even on a houseboat, some of whom have been quilting for decades and others who have only recently learned to sew. And yet they share a remarkably similar way of looking at the world: a mix of pragmatism, hope, and determination, an instinct for what’s needed in the face of sorrow or tragedy, the resourcefulness to make things happen with little money and on short notice, a sense of humor, and a knack for rallying others. I admire them all a great deal. I wish quilters were in charge of everything!
Which project in Quilting for Peace was the most fun to work on and why? Which was the most challenging?
I loved making the Pink Ribbon String Quilt. It’s such a fun process—you sew strips of fabric to a “foundation” block (a square of plain muslin), and then trim off all the edges. It’s a very easy way to make a quilt that ends up looking quite complicated. Also, I loved the fabrics in that one—lots of Japanese prints in pinks and greys. The most challenging was probably the Civil War Album Quilt, in which I learned a big lesson about working with (or against!) the grain of the fabric. When cutting the big triangles, I cut two at a time instead of four. This caused the fabric’s grain to run along the long side of each triangle, which meant they stretched like crazy and none of my corners matched. They were so far off I had to remake the quilt.
What do you hope people will take away from their reading of Quilting for Peace?
I hope they’ll realize it’s actually incredibly easy to begin changing the world—even the smallest things you do matter.
If you could use only one word to describe your book, what would it be?
When you were a child, what did you imagine you would be when you grew up?
If you could spend an afternoon quilting with one person in history, who would it be?
Rosa Parks, who once said “Any good woman my age from Alabama definitely knows how to quilt.”
If you could time-travel back to a different time or place and spend a day with quilters there, where would you go?
I’d spend it with pioneer women in the American West during the late nineteenth century. (As a child, I loved all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books.) I wouldn’t be tough enough to handle it for much more than a day, but I’d love a glimpse of what it was like to live on a homestead in what was still the wilderness and quilt with the women who called it home.
In the history of quilting, which quilting movement do you think has had the biggest impact?
The quilters who supplied the Union troops during the Civil War. Northern women—many of them associated with the United States Sanitary Commission, a voluntary organization that later gave rise to the American Red Cross—made at least a quarter-million quilts for soldiers, as well as other hundreds of thousands of bed-ticks, blankets, socks, gloves, and uniforms. They also auctioned quilts at “sanitary fairs” to raise money for medical supplies, clothing, and food.
Do you prefer to hand-quilt or machine-quilt?
Machine-quilt, definitely. I am not a patient person.
What is your happiest quilting memory?
This isn’t really a single memory, but I’m always thrilled when I find out that my friends’ children still sleep every night with the quilts I made for them when they were babies.
What are the names of five blogs that you find inspiring?
What are you making now?
I’m hand-piecing a miniature hexagonal quilt for my friend Matia, who is eleven. I’m also in the planning stage of a belated baby quilt for a friend’s almost-toddler.