Piecing things together… quilts and stories


Stored on a shelf downstairs there’s a box labelled “Quilt”. It contains one of the two patchwork quilts I began making thirty-four years ago. Its face is done – various pink and white multi-sized gingham squares alternating with plain pink ones. I have this sweet fabric sprigged with pink flowers for its backing.


Originally there was enough fabric for a second quilt, but it became obvious many years ago that I wasn’t going to get one quilt finished, never mind a second, so the extra fabric was eventually given away.

I had great ambitions, but I’m not a quilter at heart. I don’t have the patience to do all the piecing, the painstaking stitching together of multi layers, locking polyester padding between the colourful cottons.  I wish I did, because I admire the finished works of art.

Quilt designed and made by Ellen Lewis - a retirement gift from our church choir. The theme reflects a combination of music with leisure time at our cabin, and my DH's love of hunting and the outdoors. (Click to enlarge photo)

I know a few very talented quilters who love what they do and find the process soothing. It only exasperates me.

For the perfect quilt, every piece of fabric and every stitch must be placed “just so” to comply with the pattern, or the end result will look slipshod or chaotic. It’s a little like piecing together a novel from an outline … which is probably why I’m more of a seat-of-my-pants novelist.

Deciding on a theme, choosing the colours and fabrics, and beginning to cut out swatches … these all resemble my novels’ initial stages since they get a certain amount of forethought and pre-planning. But during the actual writing I don’t do well when it comes to staying within a rigid outline. Of course some might think the end result would be better if I did, but no one has suggested that … yet.

Are you a quilter? A novelist who follows plot outlines? How do you reconcile the concept of using stringent control to produce something creative?

~  ~  ~

Good friends are like quilts – they age with you yet never lose their warmth.  [Author Unknown]



Published by Carol

A freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction living on the West Coast of Canada.

13 thoughts on “Piecing things together… quilts and stories

  1. Carol, I agree that quilters are in a league of their own when it comes to crafts. There little or no margin for error that does not show in a glaring patch.

    I don’t know if I liken it to the novel, although the painstaking process of pieceing together characters and plots into an intricate story that will engage the “eye” of the reader may be similar.

    I have tried to use plot outlines … in particular with mysteries … I need to solve the mystery myself and then go back to the beginning (like Columbo but I don’t let the reader see) …

    Most of the time I fly off the seat, get it all down in a frenzy of wild paint strokes and then after a time I go bck and clean up any messes I left behind 🙂

  2. Carol, Love this quilt post and the comparison! I’ve always wished I could quilt, but…I’d rather write.

    I write from large ideas, but like you don’t stick to an outline. On my 3rd book when I switched publishers from Doubleday to William Morrow, my new editors asked for an extensive outline. I chose to do a paragraph outline and when I finished it was almost 60 pages long and had taken me months to write. By the time I’d finished the novel (These novels were long and extensively researched, based on the Aleut culture of ancient Alaska.), I’d veered so far off the original outline that I most of the time I’d spent on it was wasted. I’ve never outlined since and I’ve never had an editor ask me to outline since!

  3. I too have always admired those who quilt, but have never had the patience myself. But those same friends who quilt wonder how I manage to be able to write a book. It takes all kinds as my dear old Dad used to say. I am a seat of the pantster writer and often don’t know what will happen next until it flys off my fingers and onto the computer screen. I do a very very lose outline (I mean a page out of a notebook) and then I hardly follow it.

  4. Florence, Sue and Darlene, thanks for adding your thoughts on the topic. I’m glad to see I’m not the only pantser out there. I’ve been a long-time advocate of having a writing destination in mind — after all, we need to have at least a general direction in mind or our stories will weave all over the place — but allowing creativity a free rein in the first draft. It sometimes means I do a lot more revising and rewriting later on, but that’s just the way my brain wants to function.

  5. Loved your post. I’ve quilted for years and just started writing/blogging (acknowledging that part of me) in the past year. I’ve actually written quite a few posts about the parallels between my quilting and writing.
    I approach my quilting and writing similarly to you, though I do use an outline more so than some of the others who have left comments. As for quilting, I start with a pattern or just an idea or fabric and see what grows from there. I don’t think I’ve ever made a quilt (since the very first one that I did) that stuck exactly with the initial pattern. For me, both endeavors are creative and I like to see where I end up though I start with an initial idea or plan.
    In both, there are elements that need to be precise ie. grammar/seam allowances, but both also allow for so much creative freedom.

  6. My mom and grandmother both loved making quilts. The last ones Mom made, she pieced the tops and then took them to someone else to finish using a special sewing machine. They look handmade, but were much easier!

    I like to have a guide for my writing, but can’t stick to an outline.

  7. My Sister quilts and paints and I crochet, draw, paint and struggle with writing. In all my years at it I’ve not tried an outline, just wrote as a pantster, but think I should use an outline. Got a couple of characters who have been nagging me to “DO IT” while others hide in Muses’ trunk in the basement, twiddling their thumbs.
    Quilts are always a fascinating “must see” at our local fair.

  8. I’m not much of a seamstress, although I did make a few little lap quilts year by machine years ago. That experience fostered the great respect I have for quilters now.

    I used to write with little more than a general idea where I was headed in a story. These days I won’t start a story without an outline and at least a partial synopsis. Having those in place helps me know that my story will hold together and have a workable flow.

  9. Thanks for stopping by to read and comment, everyone.

    Amy, the gal who created the quilt that’s pictured is one who often comes up with her own designs. Even formal designs may get tweaked as she goes along. I think you’re both quilting artists! I’d love to visit your blog. Next time you visit, leave the link for me.

    Yes, Susan, this quilt was very personal, right down to the colours and fabric patterns. But you’re someone who is very familiar with personal art. Your photography touches my soul.

    Carol, maybe I should look for someone, as your mother did, to finish the quilt for me. As the years slip away I become even more convinced that I will never finish it myself.

    Earlene (mE), I think outlines work well for many writers, and might for you, too. The miles to a destination seem to slip by faster when there are milestones along the way. They provide reassurance that you’re heading in the right direction and making measurable progress.

    I like looking at quilts. I even like the planning of designs and choosing of fabrics. I just don’t seem to be dedicated to the sewing part. Given that, it’s funny that I don’t have any problem seeing novels through to their ends.

    Keli, I suspect working under contract and deadlines makes it more important to use writing time effectively. I waste a lot re-working my stories after the first draft. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find myself using outlines if the time comes that I have commitments to an agent and/or publisher.

    Thanks for that thought, Ellen Grace. Creativity in any field is a God-given blessing, isn’t it?

  10. I love quilts and a few of my friends are quilters. I once helped a friend of mine who was in her 90’s work on a quilt. It was my first experiece and we had a wonderful time. She rewarded me afterward by giving me the quilt. I think of her everytime I see it.

    As much as I love them, I will never be a quilter at heart. I’d like to be but having the desire is not enough.

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