Quilter embellishes material memories

Laura Jean Schneider
ljschneider@ptleader.com
Posted 1/21/22

 

 

I was a little nervous about meeting up with Pam Garlock, a real-life quilter.

My past experience with the dark arts of sewing, the needles and bobbins and the onions-skin thin …

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Quilter embellishes material memories

Posted

 

 

I was a little nervous about meeting up with Pam Garlock, a real-life quilter.

My past experience with the dark arts of sewing, the needles and bobbins and the onions-skin thin tissue of paper patterns had left me a bit leery. The few quilts that I’d made, pieced together to be like my best friend, Amy, as a teenager, were mostly fraught with tears, and included a lot of sugar, coffee, and helping hands as I chopped things too short, didn’t measure accurately, and became best pals with the seam ripper.

Then there was the quilt I’d made as an appeasement gift to my parents, a peace offering for my rebellious ways, when I was 17.

I’m not sure it had the intended affect.

My last attempt was hand-cut from old flour sacks that my grandmother had collected, and I sewed it together with a lot of whiskey and determination. None of the corners matched up, the rows were crooked, the pattern ended in a weird place, since I was sort of winging it, but as I sat in front a fireplace in nowhere New Mexico, I felt I was sewing the essence of my grandmother into that fabric. I machine-quilted it myself, and the result is a little bit helter-skelter rabbit tracks. But the sock monkey flannel backing is cozy, and I sewed the binding on by hand.

Imperfect as it is, it is my greatest sewing success to date.

Mist sifted down on my windshield as I pulled into Pam’s driveway. I sidestepped patches of ice and slush to the front door, where I was ushered into a spotless home. A fire was going in the sitting room, and the house was still decked out for Christmas. That would all be coming down next weekend, she said.

It was hard to imagine that Pam, Josh, her husband, and their 9-year-old daughter JoLynn had only been living there since September 2019.

Absolutely nothing was out of place.

A holiday centerpiece with glittery pine needles and red velvet deer graced the table were I sat, notebook at hand.

While quilting might conjure images of silver-haired women in retirement, Pam defies that. (In fact, she told me, quilting has a resurgence among younger men and women, spurred by the pandemic.)

Pam started quilting in her late 30s, after an older woman named Sharon got her hooked. Seeing the magic of fabric sculpted into something new, “I kinda got the glimmer,” she said from her seat across the table.

“Oooohh, I could do that,” she thought.

“I never sewed a day in my life, instead of home ec in seventh grade,” she added. Like me, Pam had found sewing tedious: Her final project, a pair of boxers, were ruined as she snipped a hole through them cutting the last thread.

BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME

A self-described tomboy, Pam was a horse nut as a girl.

“I didn’t wear a lick of makeup,” she said, until she was in college.

While she and her family vacationed on the Olympic Peninsula, and she always imagined herself moving from Ellensburg someday, she certainly didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.

Three years ago, out of the blue, Jefferson County Public Utilities District called her husband and asked if he wanted a job. Above Pam’s mask, her eye’s widened, still in disbelief at the timeline to follow. By September, they had moved to a quiet neighborhood in Port Ludlow, leaving their horses and her job at a dental office behind.

Now, she has quilted more than 130 quilts since last April, 25 of them her own.

“I offer edge-to-edge long-arming,” she said when I asked what she does.

I was perhaps more confused.

Basically, she explained, it’s digital quilting, which is the process of connecting a quilt sandwich of top, batting (the insulating layer) and backing with stitches. She has a large quilting machine that uses computer programs to stick designs onto finished quilt tops. 

“I don’t do any free motion,” she said, all but shuddering. Free motion is when a human operator makes patterns on a quilt top by free-hand.

I had flashbacks to my erratic rabbit trails.

“Quilting is expensive,” she said. When people tell her to sell her quilts, she’s not confident that most folks would pay what they’re worth, even if she worked on them at the absurd rate of $5 an hour.

It makes sense to her and her quilting community to spend $200 plus on fabric that is then cut into tiny pieces before being sewn back together into one continuous piece.  All that to make a throw-sized blanket.

But Pam said she gives her quilts away. There is no real way to quantify their worth, and the joy she derives by sewing them was obvious.

“Quilting just fed that artist need that I didn’t know that I needed,” she said.

LAY OF THE LAND

I couldn’t help feeling “long arm” and “strong arm” were vying for competition in my brain. I leaned forward, listening.

The machine in Pam’s upstairs studio was saved for and purchased after she decided she was spending a lot of money to have her own quilts quilted.

Her husband completely supported her in purchasing her own long-arm machine.

“He’s the one who told me to do it,”  she said, laughing. “It is nice to have someone supportive.”

With in-person support classes halted, she taught herself to use the long-arm machine using YouTube video tutorials posted on Handi Quilter’s website, the manufacturer of her machine.

“I watched every single one,” she said.

In April of 2021, she started feeling confident about her long-arm skills, and last August, she opened Life’s a Stitch, her quilting company.

“I don’t really do a website,” she said, “I’m just trying to do word of mouth.”

She finds the social media platform Instagram useful, too, and she regularly shares her projects there.

Locally, she said the support for her business has been exceptional. The local quilters, long-armers, and fabric fiends are a tight-knit group. Since she started taking quilting clients, she’s stayed busy. She’s quilted tops for someone in Alaska, and accepts mail-ins, too.

But most of her customer base is local.

Pam led the way upstairs to show off some recent completions. Batik, she mentioned, is popular in the area. She carefully unfolded a quilt that had been neatly prepped for pickup and tucked into a craft paper bag.

She pointed out the way the metallic thread she used had a subtle shimmer. There’s 3,000 yards of thread on the spools she uses, sorted from matte to shiny, and by color and value, along the wall behind her.

This batik quilt, around a twin size, took 1,500 yards of thread to quilt. The patterns for what can be quilted on are virtually limitless. Many run around $15. But she then pulled out the pattern for an intricate “graffiti” style, without any repeating motifs; that was $150.

She asked if I wanted to see the long-arm machine at work, and I said yes. It took up nearly half of the room.

With a few finger taps on a touch-screen monitor, the machine came to life. Watching the machine complete each regimented segment was meditative.

As she showed me around the studio, where everything seemed neatly stowed and in its proper place, she let me in on a few secrets.

“I’m a firm believer in starch,” she said.

I’m not sure she realized her own pun.

PIECING TOGETHER POSSIBILITY

Pam walked me over to one wall that was covered with what looked like two fuzzy shower curtains. They were, she said, design walls. Fabric pieces can be stuck to them to arrange a final look before stitching them together. They reminded me of the flannel board I played with as a child.

I did not arrive intending to be swayed back to the dark side. It was the stacks of fabric that got me, the tactile nature of how crispy cotton felt on my fingers.

She said that quilters are essentially “fabric hoarders.” She acknowledged that she struggles against that stereotype, having seen her mentor’s towering stacks waiting for that special quilt.

There are limited edition cottons, and fabric kits with patterns and fabric designs packaged by the same designer. In her library of quilt books were some that looked like they’d be at home in a hip MidCentury modern store. I was surprised: Quilting had come a long way since my last exposure.

I found myself exclaiming over prints and textures.

She seemed excited.

“It looks intricate, but you’re just sewing straight lines,” she said.

I had to laugh.

Reaching under her cutting table, she grabbed a basket of leftover squares and smoothed them onto the design walls in a nine-patch pattern.

“That’s how I started,” she said, “with a doll quilt.”

I struck me that this was really a type of play, one that I missed.

Before I left, she told me how to save my next project from looking crooked: starting at the left, sew the first strip of blocks together and press seams to the left sides, and reverse the whole process for each strip of blocks.

“It’s helps your whole quilt from going like this,” she said leaning to the side.

And here, she had only been quilting for three years.

Maybe if she could get the hang of it, there was hope for me yet.

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