Three-one: memory quilts with a secret message

Three-one: memory quilts with a secret message By Este Pope

When a box filled with a stack of men’s button-down shirts more than 24 inches thick arrived from my mother in the mail last month, I knew that I would have to think of something creative to do with all these shirts. I didn’t just want to donate them to charity, and after dividing the pile into shirts for my husband and shirts I had to save, I decided that I’d think of this pile as fabric with potential. These shirts are most of the wardrobe of my late father, who passed away several years ago. My mother, who is of the school that saves everything because you might have a use for it, had kept the shirts in bags in her closet. I had asked for them, knowing full well I’d have to find a way to use them to satisfy my need to carry on my dad’s memory through his clothing.

Last summer I participated in the Wardrobe Refashion blog, and this got me thinking about how much you can do with clothing. I made a few pairs of pants for my infant son with some of the plaid shirts, employing the bottom edge and side seams of the shirts in the pattern. The result was two pairs of what I dub ‘fifties inspired’ pants, that literally envelop my little boy in my dad’s memory.

Image caption: Fifties-inspired pants made from my dad’s plaid shirts.

But baby pants don’t require much fabric, and I had this huge box of fabric to contend with. Why not make something I could envelop myself in? My family is big on quilts – and although I admire and love using the heirloom quilts that showcase the detailed traditional patterns like lone star, wedding rings, flocks of geese, I am not the most exact sewer myself, and know I never will be. I love a crazy quilt, with all the diversity of color, texture and shape. A few years ago I was fortunate to see the Quilts of Gee’s Bend on exhibit, and was inspired by the practicality and creativity of these works of art. Couldn’t I make a tribute to my father that at once filled the practical requirement of using up a good portion of the fabric from his old shirts, and also spoke about my love and memory of him?

I decided to create my own pattern, based on a cryptic theme known only in my immediate family – a saying/idea my dad often spoke about. Basically, it is a lucky number idea. My dad was born on March 1, and so he considered the numbers 3 and 1 to be his lucky numbers. There were times when he would break into a little chant with a grin and twinkling smile and say ‘three one, three one, three one’. Between me and my two sisters, it became something of a joke. We would kind of laugh when he used to talk about the magical powers of three one, but it became a symbol for our family of I guess the magic of life, of love, of family. When the awesome power of our familial bond was challenged, or when we didn’t have to words to communicate these deep feelings, we would often end up with the three-one refrain, which both made us giggle, but also made us believe in its magic.

When my father passed away, we inscribed the letters 3-1 on his gravestone. Of course, this is his birthday, so it didn’t look odd, but we intentionally made the numbers 3 and 1 larger than his birth year. It seemed fitting to me to communicate this phrase in the quilt I designed to carry his memory. The design I decided on is really simple, easy to cut out from odd-shaped shirt pieces, and easy to sew and forgiving for inexact measurements (I am a mathematician’s daughter, an avid knitter, and a technologist in my career, but I am lazy when it comes to numbers! I get too excited to measure; I’d be a terrible carpenter).

Image caption: My rough designs on a piece of scrap paper.

I cut strips of fabric and create 13 inch squares with three strips of one pattern, one strip of another pattern of fabric, and then five strips of a background color or pattern. So, the resulting block showcases three strips of one shirt, and one strip of the other (three, one). I cut the strips without measuring width, only measuring the length of 13 inches, and then I adjust as needed to get the 13 inch width of the square block once all the strips are sewn together. There is an element of spontaneity and chance in this method of quilting: I am surprised and challenged to make the equation work, and end up with a completely unique block every time.

Image caption: Quilt blocks in process.

Actually I am making two of these quilts to start, because I have two sisters. As I combine the shirt materials I am finding that the character of the blocks is quite different, so each sister will have a quilt that looks very different in color and composition than the other, though both will carry the theme of three-one. I have enough shirts to make at least three of these quilts, which will have 9 blocks per quilt with a half inch seam allowance on each block, making the finished block dimensions 12 “ x 12”. At this stage, I’m sewing blocks together, and I’m not sure how the finished products will take shape. I may back the quilts in shirt material as well. I am using the button bands, logos, pockets and shirt labels in the design as well – and plan to use the extra buttons when I quilt the quilt.

In the end, these are just a bunch of old shirts that make me sneeze from the dust gathering between them. The box sits like an eyesore in my kitchen, and I steal moments between my work week, dish duty and entertaining my baby to enter the world of the past and cast my creative imagination on transforming those memories of my dad. I plan to find pictures of him wearing the shirts to attach with the quilts that I will give to my sisters this coming holiday. The pictures will give away the deeper meaning of these quilts. But, like the magical power of our family’s special three-one chant, this meaning will be hidden to most people. “What a lovely quilt, did someone make it for you?” might be what my sister’s will hear from friends and visitors. They will know what power lies in each scrap of material, and when they don’t have a way to communicate their deep feelings of love, of loss, they will have a way to envelop themselves in our father’s memory, and in doing so find comfort and experience magic.

Links: Wardrobe Refashion Blog : Grandpa Pants blog post in my blog : The Quilts of Gee’s Bend

About the writer: Este is a fiber artist and academic librarian. She lives in New England with her husband and son. Her most recent blog can be found at stallesky.

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11 Comments on “Three-one: memory quilts with a secret message”

  1. Allison H Says:

    I just had to comment. I think your idea is spectacular for so many reasons. First of all, my dad’s birthday was also March 1st (funny) and he also passed away a couple of years ago. I have been trying to think of something I could give my little boys someday to think of him (only one of them might remember him, the other two weren’t born yet :( ) and I love your idea. Thank you for posting it and I’m sure your sisters will be thrilled to receive your quilts.

  2. Junie Moon Says:

    I love her idea of creating a quilt out of the shirts but I love more the story of her father and 3-1 and making these special quilts for her sisters–that really touched my heart.

  3. Mary Lou Weidman Says:

    I adore this idea as I design, make, teach and write about memory quilts. When my son was in the hospital, I used my husbands shirts when I could not afford fabric. One quilt I made was called “honey have you seen my plaid and striped shirts?”
    Thanks for the great inspiration.
    Mary Lou Weidman

  4. pugglelogic Says:

    That’s a lovely quilt idea, and so special to your family. I love how there will be more than one quilt, similar but different. And pants for your little one is a great idea too!

  5. Mary Says:

    This is so cool. As someone blessed (and cursed!) with a family of savers I now have boxes and boxes of embroidered dresser scarves, old towels, etc. I’ve been making pillows and sachets with the good pieces (many are water or age stained) and am hoping to do more. We have tons of family quilts and I really don’t want to add another but your idea is inspirational. by the way, the baby pants are brilliant!

  6. Nichole D. Says:

    What a great idea! I hope you’ll share the finished quilts with us. What an awesome way to remember your dad.

  7. søren Says:

    oooh - my birthday is march 1 as well, and three is my lucky number - I have two sisters and we all have a tattoo of three stars in a triangle, for the three of us. I love the idea of doing something magical like this!

  8. Julie Says:

    Your beautifully written piece touched me. What a lovely tribute to your beloved father and to the loving family he created. Peace….

  9. amandajean Says:

    what a wonderful and meaningful story behind these quilts! the quilt blocks look fabulous.

  10. Deb G Says:

    I’m making a quilt out of the western shirts my grandfather wore. My grandmother had a huge pile of them. I decided to use a quilt pattern named “Peace and Plenty” as it seemed to fit my grandfather’s life philosophy…. I just can’t decide what to do with all the snaps!

  11. Lori Says:

    lovely idea. i have been saving my sons’ “dress shirts” — blue and blue-and-white striped oxford shirts they’ve worn to various weddings over their young lives — to make a baby quilt for each of them .. to save for their eventual babies. we have pictures of them (with younger son as young as three) wearing these shirts, but the fabric is like new because they were worn only once or twice.