It was my mother who asserted authority over when winter started for us on Fogo Island, N.L.
We knew she had decided it was winter when we saw summer quilts on the drying line and winter quilts on our beds. Many a November night in our house without central heating, we’d be shivering under summer quilts wondering, “when is she ever going to decide it’s winter?” Our seasonal quilts embody that deep connection to nature we have living on an island off an island at the edge of the continent.
Quilts embody important things in design, among them our connections, both poetic and pragmatic, to people and place. Architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander wrote that, “most of the built environment today lacks a natural order, an order which presents itself very strongly in places that were built centuries ago.” Alexander believed that to create buildings where people feel alive, connected and well, we must draw inspiration from organic forms and patterns. His thinking influenced our place-specific approach to creating Fogo Island Inn and validated local ways of knowing that have served us for the past 400 years. You see this in our quilts. Winter ones are heavier in weight and darker in colour, reflecting moody skies and shorter days. Summer quilts reflect the vivid colours of wildflowers and seemingly endless daylight. Quilters follow nature’s lead.
Fogo Island is an elemental place. You can’t live here without accepting that the weather reigns supreme. The sharp line between living inside and outside defines how we live, how we design and how we build. Traditionally, inside is a refuge from outside, from the dynamic weather. And because we’re fishing people, work is out there. We wanted our guests at the inn to experience that dichotomy, the difference that’s captured in the seasonal quilts.
One of the defining characteristics of Fogo Island is the wind. People often buy a quilt when they are here. It’s a souvenir, but a very functional one that helps extend the relationship they have with this place. We, of course, provide instructions for their care, reminding people to dry them outside on the line when the wind is in the west, because there’s a saying here: “When the wind is in the east, it’s not fit for man or beast. When the wind is in the south, it blows the bait in the fish’s mouth. When the wind is in the north, the skilled fisher goes not forth. And when the wind is in the west, it is the very best.”
A quilt, like any handmade object has love in it. My mother made quilts using pieces of our cast-off clothing. I would see a patch of fabric and think, “oh, that was my skirt.” Sometimes, my next thought might be, “oh, I wasn’t finished with that skirt!”
On my bed nowadays, I have a quilt made by Phyllis Combden. She was a neighbour when I was growing up, and she had half a dozen children. I was not much of a babysitter, but I agreed to babysit at Phyllis’s house because she had a set of encyclopedias. Phyllis’s husband died young, so she worked at the fish plant to support her family. She is a maker. She grows things. She traps rabbits. She picks berries. She bottles jams. There’s nothing Phyllis can’t do. Her quilt connects me to her and gives me the strength of her persistence. A quilt can do that. In addition to its obvious function, it can change your state of mind.
Quilts are traditionally designed in the moment of making. Even though they are made from random bits of old clothing, there is nothing random about how they are stitched together. The quilter is making design decisions on the fly about which piece of fabric to add next. Looking at my own quilt, I might ask myself, “does that yellow really go with that pink?” I am not so sure, but Phyllis thinks it does. I love that this quilt holds Phyllis’s idea of beauty.
Local quilters made all the quilts for our 29 rooms at the inn, 220 quilts in all. We had to purchase new fabrics to create that quantity and struggled to replicate the randomness and beauty of the traditional quilts made from cast-off clothing. With many fabrics to choose from, we tended to overthink the approach, but the last thing we wanted was the quilts to lose their energy in a matchy-matchy flatness. It took many conversations to figure out how to dispense these new fabrics in a random way.
The quilt patterns that mean the most to us are the heritage patterns, such as the tea leaf quilt with its geometric design or the Rob-Peter-to-Pay-Paul, where circles overlap to create a field of stars. They are more planned out than an everyday strip quilt like mine because you’ve got to have the whole picture in your mind from the start. We consider these heritage quilts to be “fancy.” I had an aunt who never had children and she always made fancy quilts. I don’t think my mother made a fancy quilt in her life. Having clothes to sew and sweaters to knit for seven children and a husband, there wasn’t time for fancy.
After finishing a quilt for Fogo Island Inn, the makers stitched their name on a label inside it. Sometimes, when guests are out and about, they serendipitously meet one of those makers and recognize their name from the quilt in their room. They end up in a conversation with someone whom they are already in relationship with – through the quilt.
Anonymous objects, that have emerged out of an opaque, disembodied business model – made by someone we don’t know, to enrich a broker in the middle – may perform a function but we’re not going to rush home to see them. But if we let them, objects can carry relationships and help us make meaning.
Whether plain or fancy, quilts cover our bodies in our most vulnerable moments. And they can be unconditionally trusted to hold our dreams.