Quilts Set Sail


By Linda Lane Thornton

Reprinted from American Quilter Magazine

A year ago, the sewing room in my home in England had a large worktable topped with a bookcase holding books and files of projects cut from magazines. My sewing machine, albeit an old and rather cantankerous model, sat atop the worktable. The ironing board, with both steam and flat irons, stood to one side. My fabric stash was stored in a large plastic crate and my other sewing notions were kept in a tool chest.

Today my stash occupies one small plastic box. I have two smaller boxes of threads, embroidery skeins, beads and sequins, a tiny travel steam iron, and a child’s toy sewing machine which runs on four AA batteries. All of these are stowed in a locker measuring  39″ wide, 20″ long, and 14″ deep on one side sloping to 8″ on the other.

Why the change? Last June, my husband Andy and I left our home in Blyth to sail across the Atlantic on our 35′ sailboat,  Coromandel Quest. The contrast between these two sewing environments has proved quite challenging. There were the agonizing decisions about what to take with me and what I would have to leave behind. With the exception of my travel iron, everything that ran on electricity was put into storage, as were most of my quilting books. From my stash—which was fortunately quite small—I brought mainly marbled fabrics, tone-on-tone, or delicate-hued batiks. I also brought a roll of freezer paper, a supply of fusible web, my small cutting mat, two quilters’ rulers, a tote bag, and a couple quilting books of the “complete guide” variety.

So far our cruising has taken us nearly 8,000 miles from the northeast coast of England via the Orkney Islands and mainland  Europe, the Canary and West Indian islands to Venezuela, and finally to Colón at the entrance to the Panama Canal. Here, in the steamy heat of summer, we are awaiting our transit of the Canal to enter the Pacific Ocean. Next on the itinerary is Peru.

I set myself a challenge for this voyage: to produce a miniquilt, about 7″ x 11″, for each month of the journey, a piece highlighting sights or activities experienced in the previous month. But how does one choose between depicting a red and green parrotfish glimpsed through the lens of a diving mask, a coral atoll shimmering hazily across the aquamarine waters of a lagoon, or the fractured reflections of masts across the ripples of a marina?

A small digital camera lets me take as many photos as needed to capture a mood, a landscape, or something quirky which could be
incorporated into a design. I try sketching, too, but daydreaming provides much of my inspiration. The constantly changing wave patterns, the different colors of breaking waves, the play of light on the sea—they are all stimulating to the creative impulse. That, at least, is my excuse for sitting and doing nothing but watch the waves roll past.

Starting with a sketch made from photographs or ideas, I make notes about fabric, threads, quilting styles, and embellishments. Then out comes the stash, now so small that I can recall every scrap. The “design wall” on which I pin the mini-quilts when they are still UFOs is Coromandel’s mast, which is slotted through the deck at the forward end of the saloon. The mast has a quilted cover, foundation-pieced with sailboats, a lighthouse, an anchor and fi sh, and a background fabric of gaily-colored flags.

The biggest challenge of all, though, is the actual sewing. In even the most benign sailing conditions, the boat rocks gently from side to side. In poor weather the motion can be much more violent, turning rotary cutters and scissors into lethal weapons. A dropped needle can present an enormous challenge—it once took me 25 minutes on hands and knees, gently feeling around the floor and berth cushions, to locate one. I postpone any cutting until we are in a calm anchorage, and the rotary cutter stays sheathed until we are in a marina or somewhere I can take my tote ashore and find a suitable table.

I usually do all of the piecing by hand, as my toy sewing machine has difficulty in sewing straight lines! The piecing can be done at sea, provided the waves are not too big, but I tend to wait until we are at anchor because at sea there seems to be so much to watch. And too many lurches can lead to needle-stabbed fingers!

Once at anchor and under the awning, I can get out my things and stitch away until the mini-quilt needs a final pressing. For Christmas, Andy gave me a mini travel iron just for this purpose—a contrast to the 3.5 hp outboard engine he gave me for my last
birthday—but I can use it only when I have access to electricity. When the quilting is completed, each mini-quilt is bound with black bias tape, adding uniformity to the series.

One of the most interesting facets of this itinerant lifestyle is the unexpected discovery of quilting and embroidery activities in other parts of the world. I was surprised and delighted to find a flourishing cottage industry of lacemaking in Camariñ as in northwest Spain. In Viana do Castelo in Portugal, there is a thriving embroidery tradition. Madeira’s exquisite table linens
are exported all over the world. In San Sebastian de la Gomera in the Canary Islands, where Columbus set sail in 1492, I came across an English lady teaching a group of local women to do hand piecing, in both English and American styles.

Now in Panama, I have had the opportunity of watching women from the Kuna Indians of the San Blas Islands make molás, the reverse appliqué technique bodices that developed from the custom of body painting. I sat by one of these ladies as she plied her needle—her stitches were incredibly tiny, and I was fascinated to see the way she rolled her needle under the fabric before finger-pressing and stitching the reverse appliqué.

So what is missing in this leisurely lifestyle? I miss the companionship of other like-minded individuals and have met very few fellow quilters on my journey. Husband Andy, however, is making enormous strides in learning quilting techniques and  terminology—he can tell the difference between appliqué and reverse appliqué. He also doesn’t mind standing around in fabric stores while I shop. After about a half hour, his plaintive “Can we go now?” request can usually be silenced by the promise of a cold beer when we get back to the boat!

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Here’s a comment from Nicki Auf der Maur that was sent to our office: “Dear Linda A very good friend sent me the link to your article and I have read every single word with a smile on my face. I am an avid stitcher and sewer and also a keen sailor. My husband and I have talked for years about making a long sailing trip and my first thought has alwas been “Hmmm …what about my sewing??”. I’ve always also thought I’d one day write a book called something like “Travels with my sewing bag” and through it introduce… Read more »