Handmade: How first patchwork project took shape

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News
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When I started making cloth dolls in the early ’90s, they were mostly African-inspired, depicted by cowrie shells, ethnic beads and garments with matching headwraps made of beautifully hand- and machine-woven textiles.

After a couple years, I had amassed quite a collection of scraps, including authentic kente cloth and replicas of mudcloth. I wasn’t willing to part with them, nor did I have an idea for putting them to good use, until one day when I saw them lying together on the floor of my sewing room. “I know! I’ll make a quilt,” I thought, but there was just one problem – I didn’t know how to piece fabric, or quilt, so, I knew I had my work cut out for me.

I didn’t own a rotary cutter, a cutting mat, a grid marked ruler nor a miniature iron – none of those fancy quilting supplies. All I had was an idea, determination, a dull pair of scissors, a sewing needle, an old sewing machine, thread and a strong appreciation for the colorful patchwork quilt my maternal grandmother, who lived in Mississippi, had made for my mother, probably before I was born. She’d made it with recycled cotton fabrics and heavy cotton batting.

I can remember Mama keeping the quilt stuffed inside the rollaway bed in the back room until out-of-town relatives came to visit. Being the youngest of two children, the back room, or “little room” as we called it (where I played and kept my toys), was where I slept to help make room for guests. I didn’t mind, because I knew I’d be snug beneath the heavy bed covering my grandmother had stitched and knotted by hand. I loved the feel of it, and often wish we’d kept it as a piece of family history, and a visible reminder of our Southern roots.

I started my piecing project by cutting the scraps into rectangles and squares, and began the time-consuming process of hand-stitching them together. Since I didn’t know what I was doing, I figured I’d have more control if I stitched them by hand. The more I pieced, the more difficult it became to fit pieces together as I arranged patterns in different directions. It was a “piece of work” in more ways than one.

After a couple weeks of piecing, I noticed it was taking on an unusual shape. It wasn’t the rectangle I’d envisioned, like that of the quilt my grandmother had made. One end was considerably wider than the other. I laid it out on the floor, in disgust, not knowing what to do next, and wondering, how did this happen? It was a crafter’s nightmare. All those hours of work seemed a total waste. But then as I studied the shape, I could see something that resembled the continent of Africa. I also saw the makings of a fiberart wall hanging!

To add more definition to the shape, I would need a template, so I used a large piece of brown mailing paper to try my hand at drawing an outline of the world’s second-largest continent. I then cut it out and laid it over the pieced fabric. I needed to do more piecing for added width and length in certain areas, but at that point, I had a sense of direction. It was as if the pieced fabric spoke to me, saying – “This is what I’m meant to be!”

After pressing the seams open, I then cut a piece of burlap in the same shape and size. With right sides facing, I machine-stitch the pieces together, turned them right side out, stitched the opening close, and neatly pressed the edges. I then made long running stitches (not visible on the front) to secure the back and front together.

Once the wall hanging was complete, it needed a finishing touch – something in a different medium for contrast. Luckily, I’d been holding on to a hand-carved wooden mask from Ghana, saving it for a special project. As it turns out, it made the perfect embellishment for my first and only attempt at making a patchwork quilt top. I glued it in place, and framed it with frayed jute twine and cowrie shells.

The piece, which measures 33 by 44 inches at its widest points, has hung on the wall in my home for the past 16 years as a decorative reminder that one’s creative energy can sometimes have a mind of its own.

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, or

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