Sewing and Storytelling

By Eileen Jennings / Professional Photos by: Bethany Blair Photography 

As you pull those extra chairs out of the closet for the holiday dinner, or dig through the storage in the garage for the turkey roasting pan, you see them.  The hand-embroidered table runner from great aunt Helen, the smocked christening gown that went through four generations before suffering irreparable damage, great-grandma Marguerite’s stack of personalized handkerchiefs, and many more heirloom items.  They sit in the closet and get packed and repacked with every move, always with the intentions to bring them out more and share the stories of the people and memories they represent.  But, you don’t.  They sit in the closet, waiting for their stories to be told.

A few years ago, I finally decided to bring the lovelies out of the closet and start telling their stories in different ways.  It was intimidating at first.  These were items that were considered sacred–they were to be handled with care. We needed to keep them in “good” condition so future generations could enjoy them.  But we didn’t enjoy them.  We just repacked them and put them back in the closet.

I mustered up my resolve to become story collector and teller, and do something different with the sacred, special items.  I pulled them out the closet and cut them to pieces!  Well, more specifically, I turned the heirloom items into new things for new generations.  Grandma Marguerite’s personalized hankies became key pieces in a new project, alongside the salvaged lace from the damaged christening gown.

The latest heirloom piece I completed was for my sister and the upcoming arrival of my baby niece.  I have tried to make a quilt for each of my nieces and nephews (seven so far), to be given to them when they are babies.  Some of the quilts have had a theme or specific color palette, some have had quilt squares designed by friends and family members.  All have been unique and special.  When I asked my sister if she had a style or theme in mind, she said, “I’d love for you to use some heirloom linens.”  Green light! I received the clearance I needed for my next project.  I reached out to our family members and asked if they had any items that I could use for the quilt.  There was a hand-embroidered linen table cloth from the forties with pretty pink flowers, mismatched linen napkins with embroidery, baby clothes from one of the grandmothers, personalized handkerchiefs from my sister and brother-in-law’s wedding and some other pieces I could use.  I sliced and diced and created a collage, of sorts, of all the lovely things.  I tacked them down to the fabric and started painstakingly stitching around the pieces.  At first, I thought that the quilt top might be too busy with all the different elements, but, the more I stitched, the more I appreciated the depth of the layers and how all the different pieces worked together.  When I stood back and looked at the whole piece, I realized that the top was an accurate representation of family; pieces of different sizes and shapes, some over-lapping, some bold and some subtle.  Each piece had an individual story, but also, collectively, told a story of family love and hope for the next generation.

The quilt was finished (only because my niece was 10 days overdue… worked in my favor!) and shared with my sister and family.  It brings me such joy to see family members recall the stories behind the pieces that make up the quilt and share them with us.

As someone who has sewn regularly for almost 30 years, I always want people to use and enjoy the things I make them.  I want them to know that making something for them has brought me joy.  The time spent working on the item is time spent thinking and sometimes praying for that person.  If I am sewing for a new baby, I embed the object with wishes and prayers for health, safety and happiness.  If I am sewing for a grieving widow and her daughters, the objects are covered in thoughts and prayers of strength, comfort and, with time, hearts at peace.  I don’t make things for things.  I make things for the people who are going to enjoy them.  I can confidently say that this is how past generations of makers felt as well.  We create things for the emotion it evokes in others and ourselves.  We create things as a tangible expression of our love and caring for the recipient.  We create things to tell a story.

So, get those things out of the closet.  Learn their stories and find a way to enjoy and pass them along.  Maybe the items become a quilt, pillow, stuffed animal or another piece of art.  Whatever it may be, it will be loved by the current and future generations.  Need help bringing your idea to life?  Reach out to local makers and share your vision–they will be happy to accept such a heartfelt commission.

Eileen Jennings is native of Northwest Arkansas. When not at her sewing machine, she works as a commercial banker for Arvest.

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