Recovery, Life Skills, and Finished Quilts

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All images in this post by Rachel Kerley, from her blog 2nd Avenue Studio.



Here's a bit of "Happiness" we had to cut from Quilting Happiness for space. It's from the "Quilting Together" chapter, which is about the comfort and connection that comes from teaching others to quilt, or just getting together to share some creative time. I should say, this was one of my favorite stories from the book, and the hardest one to see cut. I hope you find it as inspiring as I did.


Quilting plays a deep role in Rachel Kerley's life. She's given time to numerous charity quilting efforts, and in 2010-2011, volunteered time each week to teach quilting to female inmates of the Community Corrections Center in Washington County, Oregon. (The quilts were then donated to childrens’ charities around the state.) This was a challenging, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately very rewarding process. She shared with us how her own life experiences have compelled her to share comfort with others through quilting.


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How did you come to teach quilting to women in tough circumstances?

A woman came to my quilt guild and spoke about the need for volunteers to help out with ladies in a residential rehab program. I have a unique set of life experiences that allows for me to connect with these women. I grew up in poverty, around active drug abusers, and exposed to all the chaos that would involve--and yet I managed to get out and thrive.


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How is quilting meaningful and healing to you?

There is a sign in my studio that reads: “Work your grief up into art and it is gone.” (This is a quote from the Roycroft movement.) This idea of transformation seems to be a recurring theme in my work: transforming sadness and shame into joy and contentment.

I probably have a fair amount of “survivors guilt;” I live in a house that is larger than the fourplex where I grew up. Having been neglected and abused as a child, I've been able to come to terms with my past and have respectful, loving relationships as an adult. Teaching healthy life skills to other recovering women, and helping them find ways of coping with the shame and grief of their pasts, is a part of my own recovery. It’s also a place where I can put my feelings about things I cannot control and practice acceptance.


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What do you think the women you work with experienced as they learned to make quilts? Was it a struggle to learn the craft?

Quilting as a craft isn’t hard, but the planning, execution and finishing skills that are involved can take a lifetime to master. Because the quilting program at Washington County Jail was mandatory, the women were not always enthusiastic. The whole process could be be difficult for them. Many of the women I worked with had never made anything, for themselves or for anyone else. If a person is actively living in abuse or dysfuntion, they are not able to learn, or to learn how to learn.

I’ve met women who have never used an iron, never finished anything, or may have a real impairment either from birth or from abuse. I've heard statements like, “I can't do math” or “I'm not artistic” frequently, and all that negative scripting can get in the way of learning. But once we pushed through all that self-limiting stuff, the women who were serious about recovery could really get excited. It’s a true joy to watch a woman put raw yardage in a project box and then watch her go through the making process until she finally pulls a finished quilt out of the dryer.


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Most of the process of working with these women is a careful application of a hands-off approach. Push and let go, push and let go, letting her make her own choices and helping her find a vision for her quilt. I usually sit right down next to these women and quietly coach them along. It's a somewhat sneaky style, like I’m not really watching them, but I can catch mistakes before they snowball. I ask questions, if the answer is a negative personal statement. I repeat it and add “Yet.” I then ask if she wants to know, or offer to show her.

Like this:
“Something’s wrong,” she'll say.
“Is your machine threaded correctly?” I'll ask (though I know that it isn’t).
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know… yet,” I’ll remind her, adding "did you check the threading guide?"
“I can’t thread.”
“I can’t thread… yet. Would you like me to talk you through it?” And on and on it goes.

After a while, she’ll really get into it, She’s learning, and she’s successful! This is what learning looks like! That simple “yet” will give her hope when she needs it. “Yet” is a life skill somebody gave me. Aren’t I lucky to have been able to pass it on?


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How did they feel about their finished quilts?
I’ve seen women just be overwhelmed in the moment of finishing a quilt--with joy, with everything. It’s very complex, to be an adult and realize that for whatever reason, this quilt is where you are right now . . . is it a first effort? Is it crooked? Was it your best effort or your least effort? Have you been giving yourself your best effort? How can you give others something you don't know how to give yourself?

Quilting is actually a lot like life, or recovery. There are so many choices to make, so many places to ruin it, so many opportunities to look honestly at what's going on and do a course correction. And not only is quilting a metaphor for life, it can also be an escape from it. In order to “make” well, a person has to really focus on the making and put aside other things. This gives a chaotic mind a chance to rest. An abused mind a chance to recover. The repetitiveness of the sewing machine, the quietness of pressing, the unique focus of hand sewing, the joy of color--I believe all of these things contain a magical element of healing for a tired mind.


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The women I worked with are dealing with all the tough stuff that recovery from drugs brings: the shame of whatever abuse or malfunction it was that started them on drugs, and the shame of whatever they did while on drugs. Working on something tangible, warming, and joyful like a quilt gives us evidence that the shame isn't well-founded and allows them to stop believing in it.


This post was cross-posted to Diane's blog.