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Pieces of an American Quilt

Pieces of An American Quilt
by Patty McCormick
C&T Publishing, 1996
Softcover, 96 pages

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It's hard to imagine two creative cultures more different from one another than quilters and moviemakers. Quilters, working individually or in small groups in a very concrete, tactile medium, at a slow pace, create true objects meant to be touched, used, and become integrated into people's everyday lives.

Moviemakers, on the other hand, work in one of the least tactile of media, in large groups, at a fast pace, and attempt to create an illusion that somehow speaks the truth. Their final product is virtual, and usually its shape is not known until the last piece of film is spliced in and the cutting room floor swept clean.

The meeting of these two cultures in the making of the movie version of Whitney Otto's novel, "How to Make an American Quilt," is the subject of this book, written by the woman who coordinated the quilts and quilt-making for the movie. The story Patty McCormick tells is a fascinating one, a tale of cultural conflicts, to be sure, but also of a high degree of appreciation and warmth between the two groups, which led to the successful making of a movie, and of the quilts which are its central metaphor.

"Pieces of an American Quilt" is a hybrid quilt book, combining the narrative of the movie quilt-making with actual quilt patterns and instructions for quilters. A book for quilters, it seems, is never complete without a pattern or two, and this one includes patterns for the elaborate applique friendship quilt "Where Love Resides" and for a children's quilt that also figures in the movie.

But the real reason to buy this book is for the story of a group of Southern California quilters and their experience as technical advisors, hand doubles, and "stunt quilters" (as they became known) for a major motion picture. Contacted by the filmmakers, Patty McCormick was asked to identify a quilter or quilters to act as technical advisor to the film and to produce the quilts that would be needed. Patty assembled the group of women, and as they became involved with the film and the actors, they soon realized that their "quilters' values" were not those by which Hollywood lives. Sometimes they were given mere hours to complete quilts that would normally take months to make, and in the interest of movie realism sometimes their carefully-crafted pieces were deliberately spattered with coffee and otherwise aged to fit the storyline.

The book explores the making of each of the significant quilts in the movie, the technical problems encountered and how they were solved, and the conflicts between what the filmmaker needed for the movie and what worked in a quilt. The give and take between the film company's art and props departments and the "stunt quilters" is one of the most fascinating aspects of the book.

Among the duties of the quilters was to teach the movie's actors how to quilt -- or at least convincingly fake it -- for the scenes around the frame. Some, like Anne Bancroft, had quilted previously and knew something about it, but most were novices and approached the task with the determination of good actors attempting to learn a part. Patty describes her sessions with each of them, and their real interest in her and the quilting group, which was at least as significant as the quilters' curiosity about the actors. One unexpected side benefit of this relationship was Patty's "rescue" of a UFO Anne Bancroft began during an earlier film, and its completion as a quilt.

The tension and yet simultaneous warmth and sympathy between the quiltmakers and the moviemakers is perhaps best summed up by one passage Patty wrote, about the soiling of the movie's centerpiece quilt, "Where Love Resides":

"A part of the movie I am always blamed for takes place near the end. Finn is running through the orange grove with the quilt wrapped around her and it's dragging on the ground. Let me set the record straight -- it wasn't my fault! Every quilter I have spoken with brings up that scene. They tell me they heard a collective gasp in the theater as the audience watched this beautiful white quilt being dragged through the dirt . . . . Well, I almost fainted watching that scene being shot. But the quilt was dirty before I could do anything about it. Winona is very petite and that quilt is 108" long and heavy. It was wrapped around her as high as possible and it just dropped to the ground while she was running. I have rationalized the scene in my mind. What she was running towards was of the utmost importance to her; nothing else mattered at that moment -- not even this brand new beautiful white quilt that her grandmother's friendship group had spent the last '72 hours' quilting. And that's what the story is all about -- love. The love of a man, the love of your daughter, the love of your friends. It's not about how to make a quilt."

C&T has done its usual superb job in producing "Pieces of An American Quilt," and it is richly studded with color photos of the quilts, the quiltmakers, and scenes from the movie. This is not your usual quilt book; it is something more.

(c) Copyright 1995-2012 by The Virtual Quilt Company. All rights reserved.


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