Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Provincial Portrait: The Quilter

Grandma and I
(I was exceptionally photogenic at a very young age)

It was a quintessential childhood scene: Grandma at her card table, encompassed in cloth, the light glancing silver off her bent head. Her soft, manicured hands made deliberate stitches through the large, wooden hoop that they held. The occasional child nestled in among the ample folds and patterns that tumbled from her lap. There were many children, nearly a dozen at times--some her own, but mostly those she watched for others. Sometimes, we tried to help, with thimbles precariously balanced on tiny finger tips. Other times, Grandma’s material became the enclosing canopy of a painted fortress.
“That’s the way it was. I could quilt and you kids were so good,” she said with a smile. “Sometimes, especially those little boys would get under the quilt and they’d get rambunctious and I’d have to say, ‘Don’t pull my quilt!’” She chuckled softly, displaying an impressive depth of patience for such antics.

My grandmother quilted for over forty years. “[I started sewing] when I was in high school,” she explained. “Mom would be quilting and I would want to learn. I would sit there and do the stitches and she would tell me, ‘You’ve got to do smaller stitches!” As she spoke, the remnants of a Tennessee drawl softened the edges of her words. Where she came from, everyone quilted. A common rural saying of the time underscored this:

“At your sewing do not tarry
First you quilt and then you marry.”

Her first quilt was finished soon after marrying, and she has now completed more than she can count. Over thirty, at least. Many are now enclosed in the sturdy oak cupboard skillfully built by my grandfather’s carpenter hands. She led me to the dimly lit room where it stood. One after another unfurled from the treasure chest, woven jewels of soft pastels tumbling in traditional geometric patterns: Tennessee Waltz, Double Wedding Ring, Texas Star, and the Dalia--a masterpiece of striking complexity and radiant amethyst tints. The mound of material towered remarkably high, yet the majority of her work was missing. Given away as gifts, most of her quilts were scattered throughout the homes of nearly every family member.

In the room down the hall, a cedar chest held the quilt her grandmother made in the early 1900s. The folds of the quilt were nestled among child toys and toddler shoes, faded with age and wafting of cedar. She gently pulled the heirloom from its time guarded enclosure. Outstretched, the navy and white arrangement tumbled haphazardly across its surface, accurately illustrating the pattern’s title of “Drunkard’s Path.” Grandma ran her fingers lightly down the worn seams, her touch of the fabric connecting more than a century of family quilting. Her own quilts now cover the beds of her great-grandchildren.       
"Drunkard's Path," hand sewn by my great-great-grandmother

The process of making the quilts was rather simple. She chose patterns and materials according to what struck her fancy; generally, pastels were her colors of choice--pale peaches, delicate yellows, and gentle lilacs. Sometimes, she chose a pattern from her worn copy of Let's Make a Patchwork Quilt! Occasionally, Grandpa would design one for her. On hands and knees, she stretched out a sheet for the backing on the floor, then the batting over that, and lastly a top layer of carefully pinned pieces. All three layers were then set in her wooden hoop, or plastic square, which held the fabric tight as she worked. Using stencils, she sometimes traced designs along the edges, in corners, and in empty squares. Swirls of leaves, circular wreaths, and undulating borders were painstakingly and perfectly applied, stitch by stitch. The result of such diligent labor was breathtaking.

When asked about the lost art of quilting, and why few people these days are taking up the old handicrafts, my grandmother paused. “They’re movin’ too fast,” She said. “They don't have that relaxing time. That was so relaxing for me to sit and do those quilts. Some, I would work eight hours a day...not every day. It was just something I liked to do.” She reflected, then continued, “I could sit in there and [your grandpa] could watch his television and we could talk… If I got any leisure time, I want to spend it with him.”

My grandma does not quilt much anymore; her eyesight is not quite what it used to be. Yet, all around I see handmade representations of her love, gifts wrapped in calico diamonds and red polka-dot squares. Blessings that will keep you warm, both in heart and home, and last a lifetime. And I think to myself: it can’t be that hard. I have some thread and some children for my lap.

Book List: The Year of the Goat

I finished The Year of the Goata few days ago and had mixed feelings after its conclusion.  In brief, it is an overview of the entire goat world from the perspective of a city dwelling woman who decides to give up everything for a life with goats in the country.  She travels the entire U.S. (and Europe, on occasion) with her boyfriend for a year of research before taking the plunge.  Part foodie travelogue and part goat industry survey, the variety of people and places described in the book were captivating.  There were visits to slaughterhouses, interviews with mountain dwelling pack-goat owners, and trips to the cheese caves of upper crust restaurateurs.  There was no shortage of material to draw from.

That said, I guess the author just kind of annoyed me.  That is a lovely critique, I know.  More than anything, it was the way the decision was painstakingly drawn out--a full year of "But, do we really want goats?"   My active nature struggled through that aspect of the book, and I found myself regularly coaxing the author, "Just buy a dang goat already!"  I anxiously awaited an end to the year of decision, dragging through the author's constant barage of self-encouragement.  The epilogue then explains that she waited yet another year and a half after The Year of the Goat to buy her first goat.  Well, I'm sure she was well researched.  Her first goat milking experience probably did not occur in her kitchen.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Our First Chicken "Harvest"

In the midst of fruit and vegetable harvest season, I took a break to help a friend harvest some of her extra roosters. Last fall, we attempted to slaughter her ducks. I suppose the attempt could be considered a success in that the ducks were killed. However, the process was messy and the quality was questionable. And, I must admit, I spent most of that experience crouched behind a tree, shrieking. I had a strong sense that I needed to redeem myself.

Continue reading at Mother Earth News.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Meet Our Newest Addition: Moon!

It is high time that I formally introduce the most recent member of our goat family.  My blog has failed to recognize her existence for nearly a week and a half, and that is just poor goat-blogger etiquette.  Moon (or Moonlight, or Moonshine, depending on mood and presence of children) is a four year old purebred Alpine doe. She is not currently in milk; however, after a date with a LaMancha buck in October, we hope she will start producing in March.

Moon quickly took over Cupcake's previous role of "queen" goat.  It is typical goat behavior to duke out their dominance structures like an awkward version of chick UFC.  Except they use their heads. Cupcake would rear up on her hind legs, wobble there for a second, then come crashing head first into Moon.  Then, Nibbles would try to follow suit.  Only, Nibbles would usually chicken out at the last second before their heads collided, and it would turn into an clumsy neck nuzzle that closely resembled cuddling.

In the end, Moon was the clear winner.  She now lords it over poor Nibbles, and my husband keeps making various threats that all involve firearms.  Of course, we're waiting for things to work themselves out naturally (right, hunny?).  We are also planning on building a barn, which will expand their sleeping quarters and hopefully ease the nighttime jostling that occurs when we put them to bed.  For now, we are excited about expanding our goat herd--even if Moon's status is somewhat probationary.

Moon (left) and Nibbles