Good morning and welcome to the Saturday Morning Quilt Break!
Today I’d like to tell you a story, one that I’ve wanted to tell almost since the day I started working here seven years ago except I didn’t have an ending until a few months ago. If I were the hero of a quilting comic book series, I believe this would be considered my origin story. So settle in with your beverage of choice because I’m going to take you back a ways.
A long time ago, during my senior year of high school, my parents offered to allow me to take a gap year between high school and college as long as I spent my time doing something worthwhile. As they put it, “You can live at home and volunteer at a homeless shelter if you want, but you can’t just spend a year working at Robinson’s-May,” which is where I was working at the time.
For almost my entire childhood, my parents, younger brother and I lived in a 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom condo in Van Nuys, which is smack-dab in the middle of the sprawling San Fernando Valley on the northern end of the Los Angeles megalopolis. Yes, this officially makes me a Valley Girl, but not the Valley Girl of popular lore found in tonier neighborhoods like Sherman Oaks or Encino.
If you’ve never heard of Van Nuys, that’s because even people in L.A. like to pretend it doesn’t exist. It carries none of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, although you can find a good number of soundstages and special effects studios and workshops there—the industrial side of the entertainment industry. Aside from the 1930s Art Deco-style Van Nuys City Hall, there are really no sights worth seeing.
Let me put it this way: for people who move to L.A, living in Van Nuys is not the goal. You live there because that’s what you can afford in a very expensive city. My mother was a public elementary school teacher and my father worked off and on over the years as a stage manager for large family entertainment tours (think Disney on Ice but without the ice). We were decidedly on the lower edge of the middle class in terms of income but not aspiration. Because my father’s work had allowed us all to travel the world quite a bit when my brother and I were little, we grew up knowing the world was out there just waiting to be explored.
As such, I eagerly took my parents up on their offer, as I was much more excited about traveling than I was about going straight to college. (Note: the expectation that I would go to college never changed, only the start date.) After a few months of looking at different options for what I could do and where I could go, I eventually signed up with a San Francisco-based agency to get a job as an au pair girl in France. Since I had studied French for four years, which wasn’t super practical living in Southern California, it seemed like the perfect option as well as the most romantic.
It took a while to get all the paperwork done and to be placed with a family in a suburb west of Paris. In fact, by the time everything was in order it was almost a year after graduation (during which time I worked not at Robinson’s-May but at Tower Video—big difference) so my gap year was extended by one semester. I left the U.S. in April and planned to work for eight months before coming back in December to start college mid-year.
Those still stand as the longest and richest eight months of my life.
The first family I worked for, well, let’s just say things didn’t work out. Despite my very good public school instruction in French, I didn’t speak the language well although I understood most of what I read and a good amount of what I heard, if people spoke l-e-n-t-e-m-e-n-t (slowly). The oldest child in the household, a 5½-year-old girl, was not happy to have lost the previous French full-time nanny and acted out as young children do, getting her little brother in on the action (I can see that now that I’ve parented two 5½-year-old girls of my own). I couldn’t gain control of the situation, and with a new baby due to arrive in a few weeks, the mother gently but firmly told me she’d have to request I be placed with a different family.
I got hired by a family who lived in a suburb adjacent to the city called Neuilly-sur-Seine, where I cared for three children—a 4-year-old boy, a 2-year-old boy and an infant baby girl—five days a week for five hours a day plus occasional evenings. I lived in a chambre de bonne, or maid’s chamber, they rented in a building down the street from their own apartment.
Neuilly is an upscale neighborhood full of picture-postcard streets and apartment buildings just like you find in Paris itself. It lies at the western end of the Paris Metro Line No 1, which runs directly under the Champs-Elysées and past the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre. Truly, the world was just down the block and around the corner, waiting to be explored.
Little did I know what that would mean when I started working for this family. They are part of the French bourgeoisie in the original sense of the word, with Madame’s side having connections to 20th-century European politics while Monsieur’s father was a former diplomat (if I recall correctly). Their roots in France run deep.
After only maybe six weeks of working for them, summer vacances arrived, which meant it was time to leave the city and head for cooler climes. We—that is, Madame, the children and I—spent almost the entire summer away from Paris visiting family homes and relatives in different parts of France. Monsieur traveled from Paris to join us for a week here and there when he could.
This was one of the most foreign experiences of my time in France, the whole leave-the-city-for-two-and-a-half-months-vacation thing. In fact, one time someone asked me where my family typically spent the summers. I believe my response was, “Um, at the pool in our condominium complex.” I mean, yeah, a few times we drove up the California coast to visit my aunt and uncle in the Bay Area, but we were not of a class that “summered” away from home.
After a couple of weeks spent along the English Channel on the coast of Brittany (Note: I recommend adding this to your bucket list tout de suite—the crepes alone are to die for), we returned to Neuilly for a few days before we headed south to Provence, specifically to Grasse, a small, picturesque town considered the perfume capital of the world that’s located in the hills about 20 km inland from Cannes.
The house seemed large by my Van Nuys standards, but since Madame’s parents were also there as were one of her sisters and her children, I stayed in a modern one-bedroom apartment just down the road and would walk up to the house each morning. The apartment was south-facing and I had a fantastic view from its balcony of the fireworks displays along the coast on Bastille Day.
The property Madame’s father’s house sat on was terraced, being set into the hills as it was. A couple steps down from the entryway was a small lawn, shaded by a tree and ringed by Mediterranean flowering plants; a set of stairs led down to the pool, where I spent a lot of time with the two boys and their cousins teaching them how to play Marco Polo.
I spent time in that little front garden, too, sitting under the shade of the tree probably while minding the baby.
And this, my patient reader, is where quilts finally enter the picture.
My memories are just snippets, and this may have only happened once, but I remember sitting there chatting with Madame’s sister (who was very easygoing with me, having lived in the U.S. for a few years) as she worked on hand piecing patchwork. I didn’t recognize what she was working on nor how she had things organized. All I remember is that she had maybe two bags of patches next to her chair, and as she talked she would reach into one of them, pull out a small piece of fabric and hand stitch it to a larger unit. I think I asked her a couple of questions about it but nothing very detailed. Perhaps it gave us an opportunity to talk about her time in the U.S.; maybe that’s where she caught the patchwork bug, as quilting was not nearly as popular in France 20+ years ago as it is now.
Regardless, that’s what I remember as the first time I saw someone making a quilt, sitting under a tree on a summer afternoon in the south of France, with real life still a few months and thousands of miles away.
It’s possible another quilting seed was planted in my brain once I returned to the States and started college near Philadelphia. I wasn’t in Amish country, but I stayed near campus one summer and babysat for a local family, and I remember the mother telling me about their trips to Amish country. By then the available antique Amish quilts had long been scooped up by collectors and the newly made quilts were expensive (meaning, they were priced accordingly).
So now here I am, in my 40s, living in Colorado and working as a quilt magazine editor. I have seen hundreds of quilts up close by this point, and have even completed a few handfuls of my own. But the memory of seeing that quilt being hand pieced never left me, and I started to become madly curious about it. What pattern was she making? Did she finish it? What were the colors after all? All I can remember is something yellow.
What did that patchwork turn into?
Thanks to the world of social media, I reconnected with Madame via Facebook a few years ago. The children are all grown and married, and the two boys are now fathers themselves, which is hard to believe.
This past spring, I finally mustered the courage to ask Madame about her sister’s quilt. I was afraid it would sound like an imposition, so I took the time to write to her in French. Even though she and Monsieur accommodated my limited language skills when I first started working for them by speaking to me in English, they gradually weaned me off it over the summer so that by the time we returned to Paris at the end of August I was almost fluent in French. However, that was a long time ago, and I’ve lost that fluency.
With just a little help from Google Translate, I told her I remembered her sister doing patchwork while in Grasse, and I wondered if Madame knew if her sister might still have that quilt.
Je voudrais bien le revoir, car c’etait la premiere fois que j’ai vu de patchwork “up close.” Serrait-il possible de m’envoyer une photo de son quilt? Au moins, veuillez lui donner ma gratitude pour l’experience de la voir coudre à main comme ça! Merci!
“I would really like to see it again, for it was the first time I saw patchwork up close. Would it be possible to send me a photo of her quilt? At least, please give her my gratitude for the experience of seeing hand sewing like that! Thanks!”
She cheerily replied that she would ask her sister if she remembered the quilt, but did I have any details about it? I responded that I remembered something yellow, perhaps plaid or madras? That’s all I knew. She said she would ask.
A few days later, she sent two pictures of what her sister thought was probably the quilt I was asking about. When I saw them, I had only one thought.
“Of course it was a log cabin.”
Of course that’s what she was hand stitching. While we know this pattern as a log cabin, with all the connotations of the frontier and Lincoln studying by candlelight that the term carries for Americans, the pattern has a long history in Britain that predates American examples. And the technique she was using, of hand stitching it with nary an iron in sight to press those seams, is probably similar to one that Pepper Cory teaches as a folded log cabin block.
But aside from all that (and the fact that I misremembered seeing plaid fabric), it’s just too poetic that my first real exposure to quilting would be this iconic and perennially popular pattern. I was watching the creation of a design that speaks to untold numbers of people and that can be replicated and re-designed countless times without losing any of its appeal.
She was stitching up a little bit of home just a few feet away from me and I didn’t even know it yet.
So that’s my Quilter’s Origin Story. And now I must put a log cabin quilt on my To-Make List. Maybe I’ll use a sunny yellow plaid as a nod to how our memories, regardless of their accuracy, shape who we become.
Wishing you a productive week,