Swedish Textiles

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Many, many years ago I spent a year in Sweden as an exchange student. During that time, my host mother and sister taught me to make clothes without using a store-bought pattern (a skirt, a halter top, and a dress), something I hadn’t done before even though I’d been sewing for many years. I haven’t tackled pattern-less construction since then, but occasionally I make alterations to patterns and I’m sure this earlier experience gave me some of the confidence to do so.

Ditte Ek

Ditte in one of her creations

During the end of the long, dark Swedish winter and into the spring I spent a good deal of time in the batik studio of Ditte Ek. I met her through another exchange student who had managed to arrange an extended internship with her. I didn’t actually do the batik work of waxing and dyeing, but sometimes I would help with various minor tasks. Those were afternoons of a lot of laughter, delicious homemade soup, and probably the first insight that the rhythm of self-employed studio work was appealing.




summer cottage

Aunt Mait’s Summer Cottage

For Swedish Midsummer my host family traveled to visit friends and relatives. A few days before the solstice we arrived at Great Aunt Mait’s rustic, charming, summer cottage. She was a lively, elderly woman and we had an immediate affinity. I remember spending a lot of time eating and sunbathing. Each evening we would lower the flag, even though the sun itself never seemed to really set.


Lowering the flag with Christina, my Swedish sister, and Aunt Mait, while my Swedish mother looks on from the porch.

A few months after I returned to the States, I received a small package from Aunt Mait. I was surprised, and delighted, to find these two tapestries she had made for me. Many years later I had them framed so they could be properly displayed.

And I still have the lovely note she wrote in response to my thank-you.

Faster Mait card

At a yard sale several years ago, I found some vintage Swedish prints featuring traditional costumes from various provinces. I knew that I wanted them although I had no clear plan as to what I’d do with them. After languishing in a box for the intervening years, this past fall I pulled them out and decided the time had come and started construction on a wall-hanging. I wanted to keep the piece simple so as not to detract too much from the actual prints. I was also still in the “use what I have in my stash” mode, so I didn’t want to shop for new fabrics. The red and yellow checked fabric seemed good for sashing, and the navy blue borders provide strong contrast. I only wish I had prints for all the provinces, but at least my “home” province of Vastmanland is here.


Swedish customes

I’ll always have a little bit of Sweden in my psyche, and having textile pieces and reminders reinforces the bond and connection I feel with my second country.


Irish Chain

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Several years ago my sister became interested in genealogy and she spent many hours tracing our family tree. The result was lineage that went back several generations, although she never found the elusive “three O’Cara brothers from Ireland” that my father always claimed were the immigrants who settled in America. More recently my sister submitted one of the now popular DNA ancestry tests, and the results did, indeed, confirm that the largest part of our heritage is Irish.

Over the past year I’ve worked on three different Irish Chain quilts. This pattern first became popular in the US in the early 1800’s, and it has remained a favorite of quilters through the ensuing decades. It has the benefit of being a strong design, especially when the colors are of high contrast, yet its construction isn’t as difficult as it appears. It has a large area that lends itself to show off quilting or to feature a favorite fabric.

DM Irish Chain3

DM Irish Chain1The first quilt was my own work – pieced in between working on customer projects. I’d been wanting to make a Double Irish Chain for some time, and when perusing my stash I realized I had a pleasing combination of fabrics that would make a queen size spread. I quilted it on my longarm, using a design called Drunken Feathers.
JJ Irish Chain1

By using batiks in deep rose and blue, a member of my quilting group put a modern spin on this traditional pattern. She didn’t want any sharp points in the quilting, so I found a design called Beaded Curtain that met this criteria. She is finishing the borders on her home machine, with an entwined rope design.



The third quilt had a long history before even coming to me. A friend started it for her daughter over 25 years ago. The daughter had picked out the fabrics, and although my friend got the top all pieced (the only quilt she’s ever made) she never tackled the quilting. The finished top, backing, batting, and fabric for the binding stayed together through a few moves, and finally ended up with me for finishing. My friend wanted a strong Irish design to go with the theme of the quilt, so we decided on a clover done in Kelly green. EC Irish Chain2

It is true that in addition to myself, these two other quilters have a family history that embraces Irish roots. Whether every family story is true or not, the links we feel, or imagine, can be a source of comfort, connection, and pride. My grandfather used to ask my father and his eight siblings, “What would you be if you weren’t Irish?” In unison they would respond, “I don’t know. What would we be?” And his response, which I’m sure he said with a twinkle in his eye, was, “You’d be embarrassed!”



Branching Out


tree2Working on someone else’s creation always seems like an immense responsibility. This was never more true than working on this piece that two other individuals created. It was a special collaboration for them, and bringing me into the mix meant trusting someone else to help them realize their vision.

The crocheted tree was done by my friend’s niece, during a time when she needed some distraction. It was her first crocheted creation, which I find remarkable. It is thick and textured unlike any crocheted thing I’ve seen before. The niece then sent it to her aunt to create the background. My friend took an organic approach and used a ground to sky theme, making a vibrant, yet subtle, piece.


The next step was the quilting itself, and that’s where I came in. I wanted something that was also subtle, not anything too flowery or flowing or feathery. The design I chose, along with my friend’s input, is one that looks a bit like knots in wood.

My friend attached the tree to the quilted background, a painstaking job done carefully by hand. The final result is stunning; the pictures don’t really do it justice.