The First Cut Is the Hardest: Turning Family History into Art

Several weeks ago, I announced a new steampunk project, which from today forward, we’ll call Project M. This new serialized novel will be unique for me (and I think possibly in the world) for featuring weekly prose installments married to fabric illustrations—each formulated in the size and shape of a quilt square.

This is totally uncharted territory for me. I wrote the meat of Project M during NaNoWriMo 2013, but didn’t know what to do with the book until I saw this appliqué panel [below] on Pinterest. At that moment it hit me that I should release Project M with appliquéd illustrations. Which simultaneously gets the story out into the world and gives me an excuse to learn to quilt and appliqué.

Yes, that’s correct. I’ve never learned either of these crafts before

Image Courtesy of Rebecca Sower

For me, this is the beauty of Project M: a chance to improvise, learn and grow in new areas while sharing a story with you that is quite possibly the nearest to my heart that I’ve ever written. A tale so personal, it deserves illustrations as handcrafted as these will be. After, of course, I learn how to make them.

Which brings us to the issue of fabric. Lots and lots of fabric.

Several weeks ago, I put out a call inviting friends to share their cast-off fabric scraps with me so that a piece of their story could be included in mine. (Thank you to everyone who has responded to that call! I am so grateful to you! And to those who might still like to share, please reach out to me via my Contact page.) But still, as I took stock of my available stash plus pieces to be shared, I realized I still didn’t have enough to get going.

Until I realized that the answer to my needs had been hanging over the rocking chair in my Loftice for a very long time.

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This quilt was sewn by my husband’s great-grandmother. It’s a simple block affair composed of cotton prints, with pink yarn stitching, reminiscent of the 1940s or 50s. Maybe these were her housedresses? Or my great-grandfather-in-law’s work shirts?

There’s no way to know for sure where the fabric came from, but there’s a lot of it.

Enough for a portion of Project M.

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At first I couldn’t even face what I was thinking of doing; somehow, cutting into this quilt seemed sacrilegious to Great-Grandma’s memory. Nathan and I talked about the quilt and decided it had more use for us (and did more honor to Grandma) having a “second life” as part of Project M than if it continued to gather dust on the back of a chair.

I collected my courage. I sharpened my scissors. For a few days I stared at the quilt but didn’t have the gumption to actually cut. It’s an heirloom, right? What if Project M doesn’t turn out anywhere near as awesome as this quilt already is? What then?

Finally, I came across a blog about salvaging scraps from old quilts. The author confessed that the first cut was the hardest. I recognized my struggle in hers, and I knew it was time.

I snipped right into that heirloom and ripped two squares apart.

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Several hours of later I had a pile of over 110 squares, and at this point the quilt was only half taken apart. This is enough for me to begin my work on Project M—or rather, on practicing the appliqué I’ll use in Project M—while I wait for shared fabrics from friends to arrive.

I thought I might feel horrified at what I had done, but instead I felt liberated. My perceived obligation to this object had been a weight. One that went something like, “Oh, I have to keep this object around my house in this form, and not use it, because it was made by a particular person.”

Now, that weight was gone. I felt both light and free. And Project M is on its way from a figment in my head to reality.

As I worked this week on my first appliqué experiments—with varying degrees of success so far—I smile, wondering what Great-Grandma was thinking when she made the quilt, and what she would think if she could see me now. She would likely never have guessed that she’d have a writer/maker for a great-grandaughter-in-law, and certainly not one who writes steampunk (which might not have actually be invented yet when she sewed this quilt together).

She likely never foresaw that her colored cotton prints, likely artifacts from the history of her own life, would become pieces of fairies and dragons and airships and other fanciful creations that will soon come to life.

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Which goes to show you that history doesn’t have to be preserved in a museum (or in my case, on the back of a little-used chair). It can live again in new ways as objects, in this case cloth, are reclaimed, repurposed and re-shared.

We just have to have the courage to make the first cut.

This, to me, is the essence of joy and imagination. I am that much more thrilled to share Project M with you this fall, because it’s tied not just to me but to a whole family history.

And in the meantime, I’ll put the question to you: What do you have around you, right now, that you could transform into something else? What materials could help you tell your stories? perhaps ones you haven’t yet considered a “medium” of creation?

I looked at Great-Grandma’s quilt for months without making the connection. Whatever your equivalent be, likely that object will need some retooling. The first cut will be the hardest, but soon enough, you’ll trade the pain of uncertainty for the joy of seeing old things returned to usefulness in new ways.

Happy cutting!

NOTE: If you’d like to have a piece of fabric or a bauble
included in this project, please reach out to

me here to let me know!

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