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Every quilt tells a story Add to ...

It was time to clean out the closet. I went through old clothes, deciding what to keep and what to donate. I had soon amassed a large pile of T-shirts too uncool to wear but too precious to discard.

There was the T-shirt my husband bought at his first Metallica concert, a large selection of high-school sports shirts from the early nineties, debating tournament T-shirts and, my favourite, a Hostess Munchies T-shirt that I won from a lucky bag of chips when I was 14.

I couldn't throw them out or give them to charity, but there was no chance of them being worn again either.

My solution: I would make them into a quilt. I didn't know how to quilt and had little patience for meticulous work, but I did own a sewing machine and a pair of scissors. I set to work sewing the fronts and backs of our special T-shirts onto a large piece of fleece. It wasn't the neatest job, but the finished product was both fun and warm.

I showed my mother my creation the next time she visited. "Look," I said. "I made a quilt."

She admired the different T-shirts. "Very nice," she said, "but that's not really a quilt."

She was right. It would be an insult to quilters to call what I had hastily pieced together a quilt. There was no hand-stitching, no pattern, and the whole thing had taken me less than a day to finish.

But there is one similarity between my T-shirt blanket and a quilt: They both tell stories. Every misshapen square on my blanket represents a memory. I bought that T-shirt the day my high-school relay team won the regional championship. That T-shirt, proclaiming the greatness of the Yokohama BayStars, was a gift from a favourite student in Japan. And that T-shirt was from a camping trip that helped turn a lanky and awkward preteen into a confident and outdoorsy young man.

Not all quilts tell stories. You can go into a sewing store and find neatly packaged bits of matching material for a quilt, but what's the point in that? In my opinion, a true quilt is in the gathering of the fabric. Just as the pieces of my T-shirt blanket were gathered over many years in many different ways, so should the pieces that make up a quilt.

My mother has always sewn. My sister and I often wore handmade clothes when we were children, and my mother kept every leftover scrap of fabric that ever made its way into her sewing room. They were organized by material - cotton here, flannelette there, shiny polyester swatches - all of it stored in plastic bins beneath piles of trimmings and zippers of every length and colour. She moved them from house to house, keeping them ready for when she would make a quilt.

She has not made too many because the time, energy and eye strain is almost too much to make it worthwhile. Still, once or twice a year I'll go over to her house and find one of the beds decked out in an intricate pattern of different coloured strips of fabric.

The patterns have names - log cabin or flying geese - but these don't interest me. What interests me is the fabrics used.

That piece of yellow gingham was from a butterfly shirt my mother made me. My sister had one in pink and my cousin's was purple. I can remember a picture of the three of us, taken outside at the farm. It must have been summer. There we were in our matching shirts, arms outstretched, flying, my tall beautiful cousin slightly in front - our leader - my sister behind her to the left looking serious, and me on the other side making a silly face, trying to be comic relief.

And that scrap - pale beige with tiny red rose buds and tinier green stems. It was from a dress I once loved. It had a beige, shiny sash and a ruffle along the bottom. I can remember wearing it with black patent-leather shoes that had little rainbows stitched into the toes. They made tapping sounds on the hard floor. I thought myself quite the dancer.

Then there's the scrap of kelly green corduroy. It wasn't from my clothes but from my grandmother's big patchwork pillow in different shades of green. It lived on the floor beside her flower-print sofa. She would prop it up against the front of the sofa, on the carpet, and lean against it while she watched her shows - The Edge of Night and Matlock.

A quilt (or T-shirt blanket) should be like a chapter of your life, and each square or bit of material should evoke a specific scene, whether significant or mundane.

When I see the huge selection of mass-produced, cheaply made quilts in superstores, I worry. Unless I am mistaken, there are no young quilters. A T-shirt blanket is something, but it's no substitute for a hand-stitched quilt. Will the craft die out with my mother's generation, or is quilting something women do as they age?

It seems to me that when people reach a certain level of maturity, when they have lived more of their lives than they will live, they want to look back over what they've experienced.

Many people write memoirs as a way of reflecting on the chapters of their lives, but quilting is another way to do this. The pieces of a special quilt are like pages of a journal. The stories lie together, patterned and soft, waiting to be pulled up over a set of shoulders and read.

Hayley Linfieldlives in Goderich, Ont.

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