The Embroidery Panels

by Robin Turnipseed

What is it about a handmade quilt? A common gift in the South, these patchwork tapestries are the first thing that we reach for when we are cold and often toted from room to room by toddlers. . We swaddle our babies in them, cover our sick with them, and try our best to remember to display them whenever the gifter comes for a visit.

As time goes on though, we often find them taking up residency on the top shelves of our linen closets or shoved in a box hiding out in our storage sheds, the latter of which is where I recently (re)discovered my first baby quilt. Well, the pieces of it at least.

Let’s go back a few months…

The Summer Project

It is the beginning of summer and I decide to tackle the “junk garage”, a perfect project given the partially empty calendar stretched out in front of me now that homeschooling is on hiatus . This garage has lived up to its name and held anything and everything we decided to take with us whenever we moved, but never made the decision to unpack and actually put somewhere.
Many a box has been carted from home to home and left untouched. I resolved that this is the summer that I would unpack all those boxes.

Two hours later, I sit in a corner with the contents of one box surrounding me. You give me a box of memories and I will undoubtedly fall down a rabbit hole for hours. I spend much of my time flipping through the yearbooks that lay on the top of the box’s contents trying to read half of the signatures and the “Never change! Best Friends Forever” inscriptions.

When I tired of reading, I continue to dig and discover a couple of square packages wrapped in newspaper hiding at the bottom of the box.

Unwrapping the Panels

Gingerly unwrapping the packages, I unearth two framed quilt panels. One panel holds an embroidered picture of a singing robin bird on a light brown limb surrounded by a yellow felt background. The other framed panel is black felt with an embroidered Dutch girl donning a pastel yellow dress as she waters a pot of tiny tulips.

The flawless embroidery work catches my eye first. The 12-year-old version of myself, who once tried to learn the skill and didn’t succeed, envied the dedication it took to complete both panels with such precision.

I immediately call my mother, who tells me that the panels in each frame had been created by my grandmother with the intention of accompanying many others in the form of a quilt for me, her first grandchild . Mimi had discovered the two pictures in coloring books and cut them out in fabric to be part of the quilt. My mother tells me how she wanted to contribute to my nursery in some way and learning to embroider, then quilt, became her answer.

After embroidering these panels though, she must have decided that did not match her larger vision and relegated them to frames rather than the quilt I received.

The Broken Frames

By the time that I uncovered them this summer, the original frames had been broken around the edges and the robin’s glass had a crack streaming down the center. Even so, I knew they would be the perfect addition to the walls in my new office. As I gently removed them from the broken wood and glass to reframe them, the back of each panel caught my eye.

From the front the stitch work is immaculate, but as I flipped over each piece of aged cloth, I see where stitches had been missed. Not just one stitch, but multiple ones! There are small holes where a seam ripper had been employed to remove extra stitches.

Loose yellow threads rigidly intertwine with renegade black strands on the backs of each of the panels. Large knots, initially loosely tied to hold some of the fabric in place are now coming unraveled. The fabric is even puckered. From the back, the panels are a disaster, yet, flipped over they are lovely.

The Panels Today

The final presentations sit on a shelf above my desk and not once have they uttered a word about their knots needing to be tightened, puckered fabric seeking to be smoothed out, or holes requiring restitching. They know what I know: the work of creating is often messy. I find that to be true in the creation of anything substantial, whether it’s a lovely gift or a lovely life.

Sometimes we sit holding the panels of our lives and wondering how our running stitches veered completely off the track. We intended our choices (the threads) to follow a certain path (the pattern) and that would create something beautiful and worthy to be framed for all to see.

And now we sit with the seam rippers in our hands wondering if we have the fortitude to start tearing away and begin again. We’re afraid that if we tear apart the planned threads to construct a new pattern for our lives that sizable holes will be the only things that will be viewed.

Or maybe the stitches, which were once loosely tied, have come undone. We sit with the remains of time and dedication unassembled in our hands.

The job, the family, the finances, the illness, the relationship, the house, the dream; one of your panels has disintegrated and starting over looms too large. The framework has been broken or, at the very least, it is cracked down the center. You are numb and afraid that the finished product will not be worthy to be displayed.

Courage is not embracing the work without fear, but the belief that the outcome is more important than the fear.

I beg you to find the courage to recreate what you once outlined. Remember: courage is not embracing the work without fear, but the belief that the outcome is more important than the fear.

I implore you to start the ripping out process. Let the holes come as they may. You can restitch them as you like and the scars will be hidden to many. To the ones who do notice the scars, let them stand as reminders that the broken can always be mended. A larger mess simply means a greater message. Your newly crafted panels, flaws and all, will tell a story. A story of a life that was imperfectly stitched together, but lovely just the same.

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