How Quilting Is Like Genealogy

I am a wanna-be quilter. My grandma quilted. My aunt quilted. My mom has been embroidering what will be the top of a quilt. (Can’t wait to see it when it’s done.) Me? I’ve always loved the play of colors and patterns, but I can barely sew. What makes me think I can quilt?

This past winter, I finally broke down and bought a couple of books and some fabric. I then did what I’ve done before when I’ve bought fabric: I looked at it. I read the book. Looked at the fabric some more. Leafed through the book some more.

Quilting and cutting

Quilting Rule #1: No bleeding on the fabric.

Finally, I chose a pattern. (Progress!) Then the big step… Cutting the fabric. Let me just say right now that those rotary cutters are sharp!

I quickly learned Rule #1 of quilting: No bleeding on the fabric.

After I got the pieces cut, I did what I’ve done before: I let the fabric sit there. And sit there. And sit there.

I was paralyzed when it came to sewing the rows together. For months, my quilt looked like this:

Quilt rows

I’m glad I numbered the rows and took this picture. Otherwise, I would never have remembered how I wanted to assemble it. Yes, it sat for so long that I couldn’t remember how it was supposed to go together.

Finally, after some well-intended nagging from my sister, I decided enough was enough. I have to get this top finished. As I was pinning the rows together, it struck me how much genealogy is like quilting.

Variety Is Good

My quilting book talked about how it’s important to have a variety in the fabrics you’re using. Different colors, different values, different scale. It would be a boring quilt if everything was the same.

When we’re researching our ancestors, it’s pretty boring if we only look at the same old records all the time. Throw in different things. Have you relied solely on census records and death certificates? Look at land records. Dig into probate.

Look for Patterns

On one trip to a local quilt shop, I was eyeing a pattern for a table runner. I thought it was too advanced for me. It looked so complicated. My sister looked at it and broke it down. “Look,” she pointed out, “it has four basic blocks. You can see how they fit together.” She was right. It looked almost like chaos, but after you saw the pattern, you saw that it repeated itself.

Our ancestors are the same. If we look at everything all at once, it can look like a jumbled mess. But once we study them and see how they associate with the people around them, we can see where the patterns repeat. Those neighbors near them in the 1880 census? I bet some of them are the same neighbors in 1870, even if the ancestor is living in the different place. (People move together.)

Accept Imperfections

My quilt isn’t going to win any ribbons at the state fair — and that’s ok. i worked on it. It’s my creation. It is what it is.

My family tree is the same way. There are all kinds of imperfections in it. I’m certain that I have some wrong limbs on the tree. I’m also certain that my ancestors themselves have imperfections. I have to accept that fact and take them for who they are.

Strive for Improvement

Though I accept my quilt for what it is — imperfect — that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to get better. I’m going to learn and practice more. (I will get better at cutting!) I will stretch myself and my skills. (Next stop: half-square triangles!)

Genealogy, too, calls me to improve. Skills like reading old handwriting only improve with practice. There is always something new to learn, whether it’s a new record group, a new repository, or a new way of presenting your findings. It’s challenging and exciting all at the same time.

There Is One Difference

For all the similarities between genealogy and quilting, there is one big difference. Unlike genealogy, you can actually have a finished quilt. (At least, that’s what I’ve heard. Mine isn’t there yet!)

quilting and genealogy

I got the top pieced together!

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