Thursday, May 28, 2015

Lessons to Learn

For thirty years, I (Teri) was a fourth and fifth grade teacher. I have always loved children, and it was a privilege to have spent three decades in a classroom, learning alongside my many students. I am convinced that I probably learned more from my nine- and ten-year-old students than they could have learned from me. It was, at the very least, a mutual exchange of lessons, though they likely didn't set out to teach me anything. 

About ten years ago, I had a class that I really had to work to challenge in math. They were bright and creative, and a lot of fun to teach. Our initial discussion of symmetry launched a class project: to design quilt squares. I told them if they designed the blocks, I would make them. We discussed different ideas of what kind of quilts we would make and who would receive them. We settled on patriotic quilts that would be donated to soldiers, as many of the kids had family members who had served in the military. In the midst of these discussions, one student's cousin (who had been one of my former students) was in a bad car accident, and we decided one of the quilts would be for her.

At the time, I was a relative newbie in the quilt world. I had only been quilting for about five years; I didn't even own a sewing machine until 1996. Unlike many quilters, I did not grow up having learned to sew, except for the required home economics assignments. My mother didn't quilt or sew, one grandmother crocheted, and the other did some mending. I have to go back a couple of generations to find a quilt made in my family, but my great grandmother was no longer stitching when I knew her. Still, I loved fabric and stitches, and went about learning how to quilt. I had just enough skills to think I could make any block my students designed. And then MY lessons began...
My students designed the blocks and colors, and chose the fabrics they wanted to use. Some of their designs were basic and simple, and I confidently pieced them together. I approached this block's construction by dividing the design into a sixteen-patch, with squares and half-square triangles. Most, however, were not that straightforward. I had to do some serious study and planning to figure out how to approach making a number of these designs, and I found my skills to be much more limited than I wished they were to accomplish the task.  But I forged ahead and did my best, learning many techniques along the way. I also learned what skills I needed to practice and perfect! (Like matching points and appliqué.)

I used paper piecing for the center horizontal section of this block in order to achieve accuracy of the triangles. For a few of the blocks, I machine appliquéd units onto a pieced block. This is not a method I would use today, but at the time, I had limited appliqué skills. I had committed to 27 blocks and two quilts while teaching full-time, living with a houseful of teenagers, with only about 5 months left of the school year. So I cut a few corners to complete the blocks as efficiently as possible. For the most part, I am pleased with the results, but I have learned a lot in the past ten years and gained many skills which would ensure a better result today. Still, I am proud of my effort, as I learned as much about my craft as my students did about math. Above all, I was inspired by the creativity and enthusiasm of my students.

The corners of this quilt were carefully planned for the recipient of the quilt. The buttons and green fabric were cut from her favorite jacket, and the stripe was the jacket lining. She loved flip flops and purses, so we included those fabrics.  I will say that I shed a tear or two cutting up her jacket, hoping that it would give her comfort being wrapped in it in quilt form.

When the quilts were finished, we revisited our discussion of symmetry, and reviewed each block for different kinds of symmetry, like reflection and rotational symmetry. I'll spare you the math lesson, but here are a couple of examples, and you can Google it if you are interested.
Reflection symmetry
Rotational symmetry

One of the greatest lessons I learned while making these quilts is that every stitch I make is an opportunity for me to expand my skills. Life is full of chances to learn new things if we are only willing to take some risks and try something different. Many of the blocks I made for these quilts were not perfect, but the quilts were filled with love, and we all learned valuable lessons, not only about math and quilting, but also about the goodness of giving.