Butterfly, Fly Away

To counteract the theme of the last few posts … let’s go from the ridiculous to the sublime.

One of the major reasons I like to sew – and I think this is true for most crafty types – is that I just flat-out love textiles. I love the textures, the colors. I love the vast variety, from polished cottons, cool and crisp, to thick spongy wools, soft yet scratchy, with the scent memory of the lamb that gave them. Just look at a name and free-associate:

Linen.

Velvet.

Silk.

They’re so specific, I can’t think of adjectives that could better your own memories; they are themselves adjectives. Sensual, tactile, visual; fabrics are delightful, to me. And nostalgic. Like a scent brings a memory to the fore in sharp focus, a textile can bring to life a memory or a mood – or a relationship, a person, a loved one.

Here are two textiles, both lovely to see and lovely to touch. Both given to me by dear friends, and both treasured. And both with a butterfly theme.

This silk tablecloth was a gift from my dear friend J.

Of course, there’s a story here. And of course, like most textile stories, it revolves around women, women’s lives and women’s homes.

J. is from the mythical city of New York, born and raised there in the mythical days before Giuliani. As is her husband, P., and by extension, her mother-in-law. They belong to a group that I, West-Coast born and raised, Mexican-American, from a different generation, don’t really know, don’t really understand from experience: Brooklyn Jews, committed to social justice; activists, unionists. People from a neighborhood and a time and a place, from a culture, that’s to me more myth, more history, than real experience. But it is the lived experience of this family, and specifically, this woman; the mother-in-law of my friend.

After her death, boxes and boxes of her belongings, including beautiful linens, were shipped to J.’s family. Really, I knew this woman only through the black-and-white photos (people in dark clothes, standing on stoops) on J.’s walls, but I heard some stories at this time as I helped J. open a box or two and riffle through it. “Pick something out,” J said. “No, no way,” I answered. These things were hers, memorabilia, it seemed to me, of not just a person, but somehow of much more.

But she insisted: it was okay, it was what what she wanted. And if you know J., you know she never says a thing she doesn’t mean.

I treasure this tablecloth. It should be ironed, clearly, but I don’t want to risk it. It is a fragile thing; the bronze print sits on the silk like a jewel would on a butterfly’s wing. I take it out, I enjoy it, I spread it out for a day, for a few hours, and look at it, touch it, remember, and put it away.

And I put it away next to this, another story.

A velvet quilt, hand-pieced, hand-quilted; a gift from my beloved friend Rachel Brezinski.

Rachel is another woman who’s part of a culture, a time and a place, that belongs to American myth as much as reality. She “went back to the land:” left Europe for Northern California to practice self-sufficiency. She canned, baked, preserved and pickled. She butchered, cured, irrigated and weeded. She fed her family, and clothed them, and schooled them.

And, seeing the environmental devastation – the poisons, the clearcutting – there in Trinity County, she started an environmental group at a time when it was a truly radical thing to do. I understand the group is still active.

Echo was … what, two moths old? when this arrived in the mail with a letter. Rachel had wrapped her babies – or at least, one of them – in this quilt (even if he can’t remember it). I laid Echo in it, yes, but not much more. I mean, look at the hand-quilting: every stitch, every one, picked out through three layers. The piecework; irregular angles, circles, all in velvet. Imagine the touch of this velvet. Imagine, too, the possibility of baby barf.

Here you have them: two treasures. I keep them together, bring them out together, stroke and snuggle them and then refold them. As beautiful as they are alone, it’s the stories, the lives and memories that make them most precious.

I’ve heard the complain that handiwork, sewing and knitting, are somehow anti-feminist; that to craft is retrograde, to cook is rechaining yourself to the patriarchy. Here’s my rebuttal: these two pieces, among others. Feminism has everything to do with women’s lives, their everyday reality. It’s about re-investing those lives with value, not erasing or ignoring them; remembering them, treasuring them, speaking about them. Feminism is inherent in handicrafts. And both, of course, are dear to me.

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4 thoughts on “Butterfly, Fly Away

  1. What does that say, that green stitch? “MV 72”? Hm…I don’t recognize it. Musta been Jason that got put in it. I think they just put me out in the woodshed and covered me with wood chips.

  2. Oh, you … I think you were the baby that was specifically mentioned. You know, Magpie, you are part of both of these fabric tales: first, throwing the silk tablecloth in the washer (the WASHER!! I was incensed) in Live Oak; second, by being the first little tiny baby to cuddle in that quilt. I thought about telling your part, but I guess it fits here in the comments just as well.

  3. Davina, you can certainly use my name. What a lovely tribute for the velvet quilt. It was made for Alex, but we figured it was too good for him so we did put him in the woodbox instead. It is possible that he still has a few chips loose somewhere.

  4. Wonderful! (I think I am probably erring on the side of caution in not using names, but hey…) Tell me more about this quilt! Where was it made, whose initials are those, why was it made (was it really meant as a baby quilt?) I want to know … We would like to visit you when we’re there: I’d love to see what you’re making these days. I’ll call you up – we’re (Echo and I, that is) in town from the 20th to the 26th.

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