But there is something magical and romantic about the history of Baltimore quilts too.
Over a period of just seven years, between 1845 and 1852, a group of exceptional album quilts were created in Baltimore, many it now seems erroneously assigned to the hand of Mary Evans, a bricklayer's daughter who lived with her widowed mother and nine siblings. The now refuted claims had for years been attributable only by comparison to a single known quilt block made by Mary Evans, but there is ongoing debate to the contrary. Strong evidence now suggests that the Bavarian-born and very entrepreneurial Mary Hergenroder Simon may have been designing and selling these blocks as good old kits in 1840's Baltimore.
These new revelations only came to light as I heaved the mighty and beauteous tome American Quilts and Coverlets in the Metropolitan Museum of Art off the shelf just to be sure as I could be about my facts for this post.
But no matter about origins, we have the quilts and the legacy of the designs, the intricately appliqued blocks containing myriad fabrics and patterns with Turkey red as a prominent colour binding the whole together and they are truly things of breathtaking beauty if you like quilts, and perhaps even if you don't.
Those designs now named and synonymous with a Baltimore Album quilt and though I've made several single ones thanks to Elly Sienkiewicz's treasure of a book Baltimore Beauties and Beyond, (published in 1989, just about the time my little quilt shop was thriving,) those single blocks have all stopped short of laying the foundations for a masterpiece (because to my mind these quilts epitomize the pinnacle of quilting expertise) ending up instead as individual pieces, small wall hangings, gifts for godmothers, or special anniversaries of friends down the years.
Divine Guidance a keeper and one of my favourites but still no quilt on the horizon.
So if I had ever thought I might even consider making a Baltimore Album quilt I would need one hefty bout of inspiration from somewhere and I now suspect there could be no better book to provide that than The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. This despite no connection to Baltimore in the novel that I can recall and very little mention, if any, of quilts either, in contrast to a book like Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace which overtly buys into the tradition and must have had thousands of quilting readers hightailing off to their fabric stashes.
Having read plenty of Carol Shield's books down the years please don't ask me why I had never read The Stone Diaries until now. I have absolutely no idea, a few half-hearted attempts and then set asides, but the gift of a copy from KevinFromCanada, (and, yes now I see the likeness between that cover and the Emily quilt) and the solemn assurance as of one voice of our Canadian visitors recently that I must read it and that I would love it, was all the prompt I needed to do so.
I doubt there is a new and original thought to be had about The Stone Diaries but I'll still share mine here soon, and meanwhile the quilt analogy gathered from a book that reads like an album of memories and recollections with its attention to fine detail, in a variety of forms and narrative voices all ranging across differing viewpoints and offering a variety of perspectives, somehow all chimes with that sense of the album quilt and many contributing their own piece to make the whole.
It's that old adage about stitching a life into a quilt that resonates again.
I have also been reading another book that had passed me by, Sister's Choice - Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing by Elaine Showalter and one chapter in particular, Common Threads, and the language of the quilt metaphor in literature.
Bless Carol Shields, she didn't even go there in The Stone Diaries, if anything her subversive use of the metaphors of stones and flowers are far more challenging, and open to a much wider interpretation than the overtly feminist agenda assigned to the presence of the quilt, but I couldn't help relating this quote from Elaine Showalter to my reading of Carol Shields's book
'Piecing is thus an art of making do and eking out, an art of ingenuity, and conservation. It reflects the fragmentation of women's time, the scrappiness and uncertainty of women's creative or solitary moments...as the art critic Lucy Lippard observes, 'the mixing and matching of fragments is the product of the interrupted life...What is popularly seen as "repetitive", "obsessive", and "compulsive" in women's art is in fact a necessity for those whose time comes in small squares.'
Now if someone gifts you a book you really want to like it but on previous form there were no guarantees about this one, but if we're talking about Baltimore quilts reaching the pinnacles of excellence then the same can be said about certain books and I am left in little doubt that The Stone Diaries is my literary equivalent. This is what I love about reading, it's not an exact science, I can go wherever it takes me, no rights or wrongs but so many analogies all touched a chord with me as I looked at the structure of the novel and the life portrayed therein. In my usual inquisitive fashion I have now ordered a whole slew of books about and by Carol Shields to fill in those shelf gaps because I want to discover much more about her, but if awarding stars how would I rate it?When I do my little piece on the surprise classic that I am sent from The Reader magazine each quarter I am given a star-rating to work from as follows
***** - one of the best books I've ever read
**** - one of the best books I've read this year
*** - highly recommended
** - not for me but worth trying
0 - don't bother
It's a good system, I might even start using it here again because it leaves me in no doubt where I place a book and as I recall only one book I have done for them so far has made that ***** rating (To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf ) and perhaps just a few books each year would make it into that elite category here, but let's make a start for 2010.
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields *****