The Button Box quilt

It took me almost six months, but I finally completed the few last steps on the Button Box quilt I started in March as a fanwork for Linda Sue Park’s Prairie Lotus (read my review here).

By March 12, I had finished piecing the top.  All I needed to do was put on a border, sandwich the quilt with a backing, quilt it, and put on a binding.  I had planned it as a lap quilt.  I said I would post a picture of the quilt here when it was finished.

On March 13, coronavirus lockdown started.  Abruptly, all works in progress halted.  When I got my wits together enough to start sewing again, it was to make masks.  For a while, in April, I was using my quilt fabric stash to make 30 masks or more per day.  By June, I had made about 2000 of them.

It’s the first week of virtual school and a modified version of life seems to have resumed.  We’ve set up a dedicated study space for the teen, the tween, and a couple of their friends.  The teen said the walls looked bare and liked the idea of warming them up with a quilt or two.  So the Button Box quilt has become a wall quilt, not a lap quilt.  Now the kids have somewhere to rest their eyes when they’re tired of squinting at their onscreen classes.  Maybe, almost six months after lockdown started, I’ve started to adjust.

Plague, But Make It Fashion

Masks are available for sale within the U.S. at PlagueButFashion on Etsy.


Once in a while, you’re unmistakably called.

I started making quilts in 1990. I even did it full-time for a while. I stopped in 2004, when my first kid was born and it felt too dangerous to quilt around little ones. It sounds funny to think of quilting as dangerous, but between the hot iron, the rotary cutter, the scissors, and the needles, it’s not at all baby-safe.

My fabric stash surpassed SABLE long ago. For those who aren’t crafters, SABLE stands for Stash Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy. In the back of my mind, I knew I would eventually have to do something about the dormant yardage taking up space on my shelves, on my floor, and in countless bins in the garage. I put off the bother of it, but it was on my conscience.

The night that Rachel Maddow called for home sewers to compensate for the federal government’s PPE shortage with homemade masks, ideally out of quilting cotton, it all became clear.

“Mom,” my teen called out to me sharply. “Is that something we can help with?”

So that’s what my fabric stash is for. That’s why I held onto it all these years.

signs cow grape green masks

You can see the suspended moment when I switched from other crafts to making masks. The quilt I was making in tribute to Linda Sue Park’s book Prairie Lotus remains unfinished, draped carefully over a chair. I had been making octopods for an upcoming craft fair, but I stopped so abruptly that three of them are still on a counter where I left them, awaiting their turn to have eyes sewn onto their little heads. There’s no hurry making craft fair merchandise, anyway. Craft fairs are a thing of the past, at least for now.

grape banana sushi masks

The first two weeks of lockdown, I made a couple hundred masks for nurses, hospitals, and delivery workers. I discovered just how much of my stash — most of it, that is — is extremely girly. I’ve made an effort to include the few fabrics I have that look more masculine or gender neutral. I briefly felt a sort of outdated scorn at the thought of men feeling uncomfortable wearing florals, the kind of thing I would have especially thought in the 1990s. There’s no time for that kind of attitude anymore. There are lots of reasons that someone might not be all right wearing a feminine print or color. It’s ignorant of me to think it’s my place to judge that.

It’s been a bit of an adjustment to stop holding back on the favorite fabrics that I once used sparingly. What am I waiting for? What is more important than helping out health workers and people who need masks? Ursula Vernon tweeted something that encourages me daily.

 

I commissioned my sixth grader to illustrate the quote for me.

use the good art supplies by lily

Several people asked if I was making masks for sale. I loathe filling mail orders, so I kept saying no. Fifteen-year-old Geeklet, though, enjoys filling and tracking orders. Huh. We had just gone into lockdown; she had no school, could see no friends, and the two jobs she had lined up won’t exist anymore. What if she gained experience and income through an online business?

We named the shop Plague, But Make It Fashion and commissioned a graphic from Crowglass Designs. I didn’t want to give up making masks for donation, so our shop policy is that for every mask we sell, we give away one to health care workers or community groups. After much experimentation, we decided to use a pleated style that uses fabric ties rather than elastics, adapted from a Buttoncounter tutorial with an added length of floral wire across the top edge to mold to the nose area. I do like masks with elastics, but they’re uncomfortable if they’re not the right length for your face, which is hard to determine through mail order.

Look at art podcaster Grace Gordon showing our masks in action.

For the past few weeks, there’s been so much need that I’ve pretty much gone to making masks several hours a day. Writing about Snape and HP has been put on temporary hold. Potterverse has felt less and less allegorical lately, anyway. It doesn’t feel escapist to read about Diagon Alley being shuttered and deserted, people scurrying by fearfully, obituaries in the paper about people we know. I will surely get back to writing soon, but for now, it’s time to put my fabric stash to its intended use.

Roots and Mirrors: Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park.  Published March 3, 2020.


Linda Sue Park must have read and loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books as much as I did as a kid.

Reading about Hanna in Prairie Lotus hits some deep emotional beats I remember living through with Laura:  School trouble.  Recitations.  Hoop skirts going through doorways.  Oranges.  Dresses of fine lawn.  There’s a Laura-like character named Bess, the name that the real-life Almanzo Wilder called his wife.  Even the large-print font looks like the font of the Little House books.  Some of these similarities don’t refer to headline moments from the series, just details inscribed indelibly into memory after countless childhood rereads.

Linda Sue Park must have deplored the racism in the Little House books as much as I did, or more.  It’s clear what the white settlers of 1880s Dakota Territory thought of Native people.  The books’ brief references to black Americans are overshadowed by Pa’s participation in a minstrel show.  Asian Americans had no place at all in the books; Koreans had not even entered the U.S. at that time.  It would have been harder for grade-school me to relate to the books if Laura Ingalls Wilder had written her image of me into them.  I got off easy.

Unlike Hanna, when I was a kid, I did have an Asian immigrant mom around to teach me things.  But they were Korean and immigrant things, not the white-people American things that almost every other kid knew in upstate New York in the 1970s.

To know what they knew, I read.  I learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder that American girls churn butter, sew buttonholes, wear calico, win spelling bees.  I still feel the romance, forty years later, when I watch sheep shearing at wool festivals.  The Little House books taught these stories in such nourishing detail, it felt like having a mother show me.  Those books made me.  I constructed myself according to their instructions, step by step.  I’ve never made cheese or shaved a shingle, but I have the stubbornly unshakeable impression that I know how.  Some of the cooking and handwork I do is a tribute to those books.  They lodged in my deep consciousness in a formative way.  It’s been over forty years and I still have whole sections nearly memorized.

The Little House books are fundamentally racist, and also, the way they are part of me is too ingrained and love-filled for me to eject.

Judging by Prairie Lotus, Linda Sue Park knows exactly how this feels.

The book opens with a covered wagon trip.  Hanna, age 14, is traveling with her white father.  Her Chinese mother is dead, and they had to leave most of her mother’s belongings behind, including her mirror.  They are moving east from Los Angeles Chinatown to Dakota Territory, where there are no Asian or half-Asian people.

The first people Hanna meets in Dakota Territory are a group of Ihanktonwan women and girls, black-haired like Hanna.  The most senior of the women, Wichapiwin, sees that Hanna does the cooking for herself and her father and gives her a root vegetable called timpsina, prairie turnip.  Hanna realizes later that Wichapiwin was being motherly toward her.

Hanna’s mother had taught her about roots, too:  in China, Hanna’s grandfather had been a ginseng merchant.  Before she died, she told Hanna that she was half-and-half, as well.  Her father had come to China from “a beautiful place, a secret place.  Called Korea.  Americans don’t know that place” (p51).

I read that and gasp-laughed at the warmth of Linda Sue Park’s magic.  I didn’t know she was going to put secret Koreanness in this American story that predated Korean Americans.  If you’d told me, I wouldn’t have been able to guess how such a thing could be managed.  But it’s so logical.  Of course Koreans traveled to China, even during the time Korea was rightly known as “the Hermit Kingdom,” very much a secret place.  And yes, when I was a small child, it was true enough that Americans didn’t know Korea.  When white kids tugged at the corners of their eyes to taunt me, they called me Chinese.  But now, an author has shown me how I can be in this American girl story after all.

Hanna’s relationship with her father is more tense than Laura’s with her parents.  He is imperfect, occasionally arbitrary, often moody with grief.  It’s fascinating how she negotiates with him, and brave of her.  His patriarchal power over her melds with his white privilege to create an unease that brings home the constant tension of Hanna’s place in society.

I deeply appreciate Park’s middle-grade handling of the sexual element to the harassment that Asian American women often face, especially half-Asian women.  Hanna’s mother warns her, delicately, that most white men think Chinese women are “for — for fun.”  Chilling.  Because actually, it wasn’t completely true that Americans didn’t know Korea when I was a little girl in the 1970s.  Sometimes, a few of them did.  Men, always, who had been stationed there.  Who would say hello to me in Korean, expecting some sort of reaction, and sometimes, “Are you Korean?  I thought so.  I can tell.”

Much of Hanna’s negotiation with her father is about creating and claiming spaces.  A new home.  A doorway big enough for women to walk through.  A sewing space where she can make her living and become independent.  She assumes, with a breathtaking matter-of-factness, that her race means she will never know romance.  The cover art for the book is a revelation:  Hanna showing her half-white, half-Chinese face in defiance and dignity.

It’s quite the unusual experience for me to feel such trust in a writer’s perspective, down to the most niche detail.  I love Hanna’s Sherlock Holmesian reading of her classmate Dolly’s brown poplin dress, using clues visible to her as a seamstress.  I love the catalogue of fabric types that I didn’t know as a child, but do now:  muslin, calico, poplin, challis, lawn.  I smiled to read the grades that Park wrote for Hanna because I think they might be higher than Laura’s.  I don’t have Little Town on the Prairie at hand, so I don’t remember what Laura’s were exactly, but I guess I wasn’t the only Asian American reader who was taken aback that some of them were so low…and that an author would admit it in print!  My favorite grade is Hanna’s 100 for orthography, a subject that Wilder omitted from her account in Little Town.  That 100 sparkles out at me like an Asian-girl wink from Park.

Having established her authority within the tone of the Little House books, Park deftly creates original material.  Especially memorable to me is Hanna’s “strange kind of revenge” on a racist classmate, one that hurts no one but feels uncannily powerful.  It’s a pure artist move.

Park also writes the kind of delicious passages about material details that are a classic mainstay of children’s literature, whether they’re Laura’s descriptions, Ellen Montgomery buying a writing desk in The Wide Wide World, or Harry Potter in Diagon Alley.  Hanna has inherited one treasure:  the magnificent box that Hanna’s father created to her mother’s specifications, fitted with dozens of compartments.  Hanna lovingly fills these spaces with hundreds of her mother’s buttons.

Rows by size.  Columns by color.  The square in the lower left corner contained the smallest white button.  Above it, she put the next size, also white.  Each square held a bigger button until she reached the top left, which held the largest white button.

In the next column she put cream-colored buttons.  Then beige, shades of brown, gray, black.  After that came the rainbow colors, red, orange, yellow, shades of green and blue, and finally violet.  Several more columns and rows held novelty buttons, shaped like animals or stars or cherries.

The buttons were pretty to look at and pleasantly smooth under her fingertips.  The orderliness of each button in its proper place was soothing.

This passage feels nourishing, a calm lesson in process and pleasure.  It made me want to touch humble things and small luxuries, and put them in order.  I’m making a lap quilt in tribute to Hanna’s button box.  I tested out a few pattern possibilities, including button-like circles or embroidered lotuses.  But in the end, I chose a simple pattern, just two and a half-inch squares of calico in a grid of half-inch sashing, for my American-girl quilt.  I’ll post a final picture to this blog when it’s done.

button box quilt top

Thank you, Linda Sue Park, for taking the Little House books and showing me where the roots and mirrors could be.

The Welcome Blanket Project

Welcome to the U.S.  Truly, welcome.

It’s part of American culture to value homemade gifts the most.  We treasure knowing that the giver thought of the recipient and made something special for them.  I know this is not the finest hour for Americans, but I hope we can remember that we have dear, good qualities in us, too, as a people.

The Welcome Blanket Project exhibits gifts of handmade blankets, 40″ square, in museum shows and then partners with organizations to distribute the blankets to U.S.  refugees and immigrants.  Blankets may be quilted, woven, knitted, crocheted, or otherwise handcrafted.  When I saw the call for donations, I remembered how the quilt-like collage art on the album cover (see below) of Deus Sex Machina:  Or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla by Sons of an Illustrious Father had made me long to make quilts again, as I did in the 1990s.

deus sex machina

So today, I made a welcome blanket that drew from the colors of that album cover for inspiration.

soaif dsm welcome blanket

I knew it had to be a nine-patch quilt because a nine-patch grid is the structure of the band’s last two albums, Deus Sex Machina and Revol:  nine songs per album, three sets of three, all three band members singing lead and writing songs.

A nine-patch quilt pattern is like a tic-tac-toe board, three rows of three blocks apiece, all the same size.  Below are two of the nine-patch blocks from the quilt, the upper leftmost one and the upper central one.

Each patch is 4″ square.  Each nine-patch block is 12″ square.  The quilt itself is made of 9 nine-patch blocks, 36″ square, plus a 2″ border all around to reach the recommended 40″ size for welcome blankets.  (The dark blue patch in the right photo above, bottom row, is an intricate reverse-appliqué that I purchased from a Hmong artisan in Philadelphia, 20 years ago.)

My daughters and I have sent other welcome blankets, as well, ten in total.  My 10-year-old’s gift shows sea, mountains, and sky.  She designed it, chose and cut out the fabrics, pinned and basted them down, and ironed.  The gray of the sky is the reverse of the navy blue flannel for the mountains.  I quilted and bound it to finish.

20180823_145811

This was my 14-year-old’s first crochet project.  She taught herself from YouTube tutorials.

geeklet crochet welcome blanket

Progress shots of one of the other welcome blankets we sent.  The girls helped by ironing, basting, and sometimes helping to arrange the 4″ blocks.

welcome blanket patch stack

welcome blanket layout

welcome blanket arrow quilt