It’s Loud in Here

I’m a bit…. energetic. Especially when I’m excited about something. I’ve been this way forever. If you’ve met my dad, you know where I get it.


My dad has always been the type to have eleventy-frillion things going all at once. He worked as a physician, but has had many hobbies — among them woodworking, flying model airplanes, piloting an airplane, maintaining all of the family cars, amateur radio, kites, camping, water skiing, snow skiing, just to name a few. The man can fix just about anything. Mom had to institute a rule when we were growing up that he was required to sit at dinner for a minimum of twenty minutes or he’d inhale his food and then run back downstairs to continue whatever project he was working on. The rule wasn’t for us, mind you — it was for DAD. And she had to give him a fifteen-minute warning before dinner was ready so that he could get to a stopping point. Otherwise, he’d say “I’ll be right up” and the rest of us would be finished and dinner put away before he managed to get there. He always tried to go to bed “when something was drying,” so that he was at a point where he couldn’t do anymore until it had fully dried. I totally understand that mentality.

If you’ve met his mom, you know where Dad got it. Nana’s 100 now, so she’s not in constant motion like she used to be. But I still remember.


I remember growing up and going to visit my Nana Helen. She never ever sat down. Ever. If she wanted sliced turkey for sandwiches she’d roast an entire bird. Boxed cookies? Never. Nana made the best sugar cookies on the planet. My brother Pete and his wife have now taken on that task and run a very close second, but Nana’s will always be the best. Cinnamon rolls? From scratch, with pecans pressed into the bottoms of them. She taught me how to bake and she taught me how to repot flowers and she taught me how to sew tailored (!) garments for my dolls and I was convinced she was magic.

And now I realize I have a lot of the traits of both of these energetic, unstoppable people. We wear people out. Our brains go a mile a minute and we require less sleep than most people. And we’re moody, but at the same time generally happy, optimistic people. But we feel things deeply.

All of my life, I have been asked “What’s it like inside your head?” … mostly because my thoughts jump around a lot. And I remember a lot of little factoids that most people don’t bother to keep. These little floods of thinking used to spill out of me with great regularity, inciting that question on a more regular basis than I hear it now. But I still get the question.

One thing I’ve noticed is that when I’m in a low place emotionally, be it because of stress, or sadness, or whatever, I start to feel out of control, unplanned, and I tend to be drawn to a color scheme that isn’t really in my usual repertoire. After the fire, I started piling up fabrics that seemed to want to be together whenever I came across them in my sewing room as I unpacked. This little stack sat in a plastic bin on the ironing board for months. And then it moved to a shelf. I took it back and forth to a few retreats and did nothing with it. And then last April, I decided to start cutting into it. No plans, just cutting and sewing.

I had read Create Your Own Free-Form Quilts by Rayna Gillman and been very inspired by it, but I hadn’t tried her process yet. I decided to go for it.

I was just making components with no plan, and I liked the direction it was taking. So I kept going.

I hadn’t ever sewn something together this way, and it was a new and exciting experience for me.

Deciding how to assemble all of it was a challenge, because when I sewed pieces together, the piece wasn’t large enough to cover the area I wanted to cover anymore. I auditioned several of the fabrics that I had already been using to fill in these gaps, and none of them really spoke to me. And then a piece of text-print fabric landed on my cutting table.

It was perfect for filling in the gaps for some reason. I didn’t really know why, but I liked it. So after that choice was made, the rest of the quilt went together very easily and miraculously laid flat.

I thought it was interesting that the text print pieces all seemed to be located in a diagonal line through the piece. That wasn’t intentional, but I did like the effect.

But then I didn’t know how to quilt it, so it sat. Several weeks ago I layered it to get it ready for quilting, so that I could just quilt the silly thing and get it finished and out of the queue, which has gotten too long again. My machine started acting up when I was working on a piece that required white thread and curves, so I decided to see if the problem was the thread and switched to this one, which I decided would be mostly straight-line quilting.

Because of this quilt, I was able to identify specifically what was wrong with my machine, because certain directions/motions caused the thread to shred and others did not. But I had a lot of fun quilting this piece and let it tell me how it wanted to be quilted. It had told me what it needed all this time, so it did again.

It’s quilted very densely, with thread that matches the background fabric. The only sections I left unquilted are the text print so they’re a little puffy and stick out from the rest of the quilt. To me, they’re the thoughts spilling out, the ideas that are escaping.

So my answer to the question about what it’s like in my head? It’s Loud in Here. 

This piece reflects how chaotic I was feeling in April of last year. Some things stacked neatly and some things collapsed onto each other in my life, and sometimes my thoughts leaked out and I felt out of control.

When I finished quilting it, I decided the top 3.5″ weren’t adding anything, so I cut off that section.

I hope that this piece will remind me that even when I’m feeling out of control, I can find some beauty in the chaos. My hands know what to do, if I just allow the art to become meditative like this was. And sometimes a strange discordant fabric finds its way into a quilt and adds just the right touch as the text fabric did.

And sometimes a quilt doesn’t tell me how it wants to be quilted until I have a technical problem and just need to see if I can fix it. Because this one was small and on the top of the stack, it was the one I grabbed, and I honestly think that the tension problems I was experiencing with my machine as I was quilting it just add to the piece, because the entire thing was really about my own personal tension problems as I was assembling it last spring.

That discarded strip is long enough for me to make into a belt. Maybe I will.


“It’s Loud in Here,” started in April 2013 and finished in February, 2014.


A Quilt for Ben

This fall, I started working on a Scrap Vomit quilt using the small bits of fabric that I had been finding in my stash, mostly to see if I could do it. I was also preparing for the Something Out of Nothing presentation that I was going to do in November.

First, I cut and cut and cut strips out of my stash. The straightening cuts would end up in piles on my floor, and even those were fun to look at.

I happened upon fabric combinations that inspired me, but didn’t allow myself to act on those impulses. I was on a mission.

While cutting up my fabric stash, I found a lot of treasures. I found the last remaining pieces of some treasured fabrics from early quilts that had been lost in the fire, and I cut all of those treasures up into strips and squares for future projects. I can’t enjoy them if they’re buried in my fabric stash, so I want to try to get them into quilts where they’ll be loved again.

Progress was exciting to watch. I have a nasty TV habit on Tuesday nights in particular, so I would take my little box of squares and pins down and watch my ridiculous amount of TV (NCIS, NCIS:Los Angeles, and now Person of Interest has sucked me in), pinning squares together.

Pairs would turn into strips…

…and then strips into blocks…

…and before I knew it I had enough for a large throw.

And most of the components of another quilt built already too. I pressed all of the seams in alternating directions.


I discovered with the odd number of squares in each block, this meant that the quilt top lies incredibly flat, even with all of the potential stretch added by the seams. My accuracy improved greatly with the matching of all of the seams, and it was really a fun exercise.

Naturally, Friday helped a lot with the construction process. As always.

My favorite aspect of this quilt is how I can look at it and have lots of little memories. Most of the squares in it have been in other projects — quilts, outfits for the girls, bags, gifts, all kind of things I’ve made.

The only struggle I had with it was what to DO with it. It’s not a traditionally “beautiful” quilt, although it’s beautiful to me because of all of the memories in it. The colors are brash and loud and rowdy, since the main colors were chosen from what I had on hand rather than being purchased with a harmonic outcome in mind. It would be great as a picnic quilt, if we were prone to picnicking. We aren’t. It would be a great sofa quilt if we didn’t already have a stack of them. So I was conflicted. I wanted to finish it but I didn’t know for whom I was making it.

And then I was talking to my friend Jenny over the Christmas holidays by text message. Jenny lives in Minnesota, and her 12-year-old son wasn’t feeling very well. As the holiday break went on and Ben didn’t get better, she and her husband got increasingly concerned, so they finally took him to the hospital on New Year’s Eve. He had a lesion on his back that wasn’t healing and his cough was getting nastier and nastier. He was admitted to Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis and what Jenny and James and their family went through for the next two weeks is nothing short of horrific. Ben was in the ICU for pneumonia, and tested for everything under the sun. Doctors were flummoxed — they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with this child. Ben was put in isolation because they feared tuberculosis or some other highly transmittable disease, and Jenny said that at times it felt like they were on an episode of “House.”

And then, after two weeks of test after test after test and biopsies of the lesion on his back and lymph nodes in his armpit, Ben was diagnosed with Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma. It’s rare, more common in males, and there’s a treatment plan that involves 7 courses of chemo and lots of time in and out of the hospital. Ben started chemo while still under sedation, and didn’t know he had cancer for a full week of his treatment for it.

And I suddenly knew for whom I would finish the quilt. This was Ben’s quilt.

Jerry and I went out to lunch a few Saturdays ago and got navy blue flannel for the backing, since I knew it would be soft. I layered it on the floor in front of the TV while watching “Downton Abbey” on the 19th of January.

Then I quilted flowers in an all-over meandering pattern on it. These would be flowers that would last and last, unlike many hospital flowers. And they would give the quilt a soft texture that would be nice to touch as Ben looked around at the different fabrics in it.

I used a variegated gold fabric for the quilting because the yellow and blue that would be visible on the back are his school colors.

Friday “helped” with the quilting, too.

I chose a black and white animal print binding because early on in the diagnostic process, I had suggested to Jenny that Ben was a “zebra,” in hospital terms. My dad has always said that when doctors “hear hoofbeats,” many think of zebras when they should really think of horses — most illnesses are just simply horses. But Ben actually WAS a zebra, which was all the more confusing.

Initially I was a little concerned that a zebra print binding would be a little too loud for the quilt, and then the absurdity of that idea made me laugh. Really, Elaine?

Tango helped me with quilt testing as I was hand-sewing the binding down.

And even Tucker, our recent impulsive acquisition, got in on it:

And then it was finished. Before school one morning I rushed outside and took photos of it on the fence before I put it in the washing machine.

It was a little windy. And navy blue flannel is a lint magnet. Super.

After it was washed, the texture was amazing.

It went from my dryer into a 3-gallon Ziploc bag without touching any more surfaces in our house.

And then I shipped it to Minnesota and held my breath. I told Jenny it was coming because I knew that they’d probably have to sign for it since I insured it.

Ben was just starting his second round of chemo when it arrived, so it was able to keep him warm for the first few days of that process. He and the hospital chaplain apparently played a memory game trying to find the same fabric in multiple places on the quilt almost immediately after it arrived. (Photo by Jenny Puzzo, used with permission. Ben’s wearing a hat that was sent to him the same day by Sarah Fleming. It was a great day for care packages!)

My hope is that Ben will feel the thousands of people all over the world that are wrapping him in prayer when he feels this quilt around him. And my hope is that Jenny will know that it is to be used, even if that means it gets worn out from all of the washing. If it gets worn out that means it has been well-loved and that’s the goal for any quilt, in my opinion. If you wear it out, I’ll make another — and next time in a color palette of Ben’s choosing… Although I do have to say that a “scrap vomit” quilt is quite hilarious as a chemo quilt.

(Funny story — for some reason I got it in my head that there are 49 blocks in this quilt, so in my card to Ben I mentioned that there are 2,401 squares in it. Nope. There are 25 blocks of 49 squares each, so 1,225 squares total. This math teacher stinks at arithmetic. This should not be a shocker to any other math teacher. I realized my error less than 5 minutes after leaving the quilt with the good folks at UPS.)

I included more zebras on the label on the back.

We’re all praying for you, Ben!