When we first saw Lori Mason’s memorial quilts we were blown away. When we attempt to use a sewing machine it typically ends in injury or nests of knotted thread jammed in the bobbin. It is hard for us to even wrap our heads around the skill and patience that go in to Lori’s quilts. But what is equally striking is that Lori’s quilts embody so much of what we talk about here on the blog – remembering loved ones, continuing bonds, and using creativity to express and cope with grief.
Lori takes meaningful fabric, from clothing or anything else of someone who died, and turns it in to breathtaking memorial quilts. From the moment we saw her quilts we couldn’t wait to share them with you, along with her story. She graced us with an interview, so without further ado . . .
When did you first start quilting? Was anyone else in your family a quilter?
My mother knew how to sew, but didn’t enjoy it, so I became the chief mender in the family, especially when it involved using the sewing machine. I made my first quilt in 1990, while I was in art school at the Oregon College of Art and Craft. The previous semester I had taken a surface design course, so I made my first quilt out of all of the fabric I had dyed and printed. I loved the process and haven’t stopped making quilts since then. No one else in my family was or is a quilter, but my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all artists; they taught me a lot about how to work creatively.
People have been making memorial quilts for generations, and I think people’s definitions would vary slightly depending on the kind of work they do. In the work that I create, a memorial quilt is a quilt made from the repurposed clothing of a deceased loved one. That’s the short answer. Going a little deeper, a memorial quilt both honors the life of someone who has died as well as offers those left behind a way to reconnect through a physical medium. For example, looking at a particular shirt fragment in the quilt can trigger a vivid memory of a shared experience with a lost loved one. Death and loss sever our real time connection with someone we love, memorial quilts restructure that pathway to connection through a beautiful, tactile, intensely personal object.
Tell us about the first memorial quilt you ever made.
The first memorial quilt I ever made was for a close college friend whose father died while we were still in school. He was an L.A. attorney and through a host of unfortunate circumstances, the only memento she was able to retrieve from her father’s home was a small collection of his neckties. At the time, I was newly enamored with quilting, so when she asked me what she was supposed to do with a bag of her father’s ties, I offered to make them into a quilt. When I brought the finished quilt over to her house, I was struck by the power of her emotional response. In our conversations that followed, she expressed how comforting it was to be reminded of her dad every time she walked up her stairs past the quilt.
Have you ever made a quilt for someone you loved? What was it like to work on a quilt for someone you were close with?
Not long after I made the first memorial quilt for my friend, my grandmother died. I was very close to her and her death affected me quite deeply. After her memorial, the women in the family gathered together in her room to go through her closet – a collective ritual that so many of us go through after someone’s death. This is the same grandmother artist I mentioned earlier and she loved fashion and wasn’t afraid to wear all kinds of crazy stuff. So uncovering her closet full of treasures felt akin to opening up her personal diary. We found long, white leather gloves, girdles, dickies, lace, Pucci print dresses, fur stoles, and numerous pairs of unworn shoes from the 50’s, still in their original boxes. As my memories of moments we shared together were triggered by the things I found in her closet, I began to set aside four garment groupings of what would become four different memorial quilts. Being able to work on this series of quilts, to be able to handle materials that my granny had touched and worn herself, was a deeply grounding experience. My grief was transformed from what had felt like a desperate, clawing sensation to one of acceptance and even joy, surprisingly.
Why did you decide to offer this as a service to the public?
After completing my grandmother’s memorial quilts and the one I made for my friend, it was so clear to me how instrumental they were in healing and transforming grief. As I told people about these memorial quilts, I began to hear more and more stories about keepsakes from loved ones that they wished could be transformed into something new. Or they would confess with regret how they had given all of their mother’s dresses away. It became very clear to me, very quickly that I had something to offer.
It’s a sincere honor to be entrusted with keepsakes that carry such an intimate connection to someone else. I know what it’s like to work hands on with materials that meant a lot to me, so I work very hard to connect personally with all of my clients from the very beginning to establish a level of trust. In many cases it’s long-distance, and I want people to feel comfortable when they ship off their materials. I experience the materials that clients send to me as a treasured loan – I’m handed a small window into someone else’s life that I get to rework into something new and beautiful. It’s a delight.
What’s the most interesting item you’ve ever included in a memorial quilt?
There have been many interesting stories attached to the clothing that has made its way into my quilts – usually they are associated with the garments that highlight a person’s interests or life experience. The one item that stands out for me is less about its story as it is about my response to it: it was the only item that I didn’t want to cut apart. The garment was a man’s, Italian-made shirt that, in and of itself, was so beautifully made, it was all I could do to make the first cut. Of course once it was in pieces, I featured it prominently in the quilt, giving it star status.
Are there any quilt “stories” that resonate with you more than others? Quickly tell us your favorite story.
This work is so personal, not just for my clients, but for me as well. So, honestly, each quilt story resonates with me in its own special way. I remember one client’s husband who had been a hotel owner in Bermuda, and when he died, she sent me all of his dress shirts and ties. She explained to me that these were the clothes he wore each day as he greeted his guests, and he had been very intentional about selecting ties noteworthy enough to spark a conversation. They were amazing. I decided that for every other block, I would pair a different shirt and tie together, sewing them into individual “conversations”. I named the quilt Richard’s Conversations. I would have loved to have chatted with him over a cup of coffee in Bermuda, wearing one of those ties.
Have you ever worked on a quilt that was difficult or particularly emotional for you?
Surprisingly, not, only because the nature of my role is about hope and healing. I believe in embracing the grief in others and recognizing their loss. That’s different than internalizing their loss and letting it affect the clarity and focus of my creative work.
Aesthetically speaking, do you have a favorite quilt?
I was particularly excited about Remembering Lewis because of the way I was able to use the color gradation from white to black between all 15 shirts that make up the quilt. I love how the orange highlights from one shirt create a ball of energy in the quilt center. I think it’s an incredibly handsome quilt that captures the vivacious and dignified spirit of the man it honors.
About how long does it take you to make a memorial quilt?
It definitely depends on the size, but from the time I receive all of the materials and a quilt pattern is chosen, it’s roughly 12-16 weeks. After I finish piecing the quilt top and its back, they go to my professional long-arm quilter to be quilted. We have been working together for many years, and she has quilted virtually all of my memorial quilts with great care and respect.
What is the creative process between you and the client like?
The process is personal as well as creative. In the beginning, I like to get to know my client’s story: whom the quilt will be honoring and how they are related. My clients share a little bit about their loved ones’ lives and any particular memories that they hold dear. In the beginning, I simply listen. Each detail that a client shares affects how I approach the look of their quilt. We then discuss the design and function of the quilt – will it be a wall hanging or a functional bed quilt, etc. Once I have received their box of materials, and we finalize the design, I start the sewing process, which involves the careful, time-consuming deconstruction of each item. I send email updates on my progress as I assemble the quilt. Sometimes a border fabric has to be chosen after the main body of the quilt is completed, and I consult with clients at that juncture. So it’s really a give and take: even when I’m working alone in the studio, I’m thinking about the stories my clients shared at the start of the process.
If someone were to make a memorial quilt for you, what would it be made of?
You mean when I die, what would I like my memorial quilt to be made out of? That’s a great question and gets to the heart of what I believe this work is all about. The answer is, it doesn’t matter what I would want. Whoever ends up going through my closet, presumably someone close to me, will have their own memories that serve as a gateway to what they might choose as their keepsakes. One of the four quilts that I made from my grandmother’s clothes combined her everyday blue jeans, button-down striped shirts, and a pair of well-worn gardening shorts. She certainly would not have chosen those items herself and would even have fought hard against including them, but it’s the quilt I treasure the most. Every time I look at it and see those gardening shorts, I can see her standing over her rose bush, pruning shears in hand, hairdo flying every whichway, inspecting her beautiful flowers. I look at the quilt, and she shows up, brightening my day.
If you haven’t already, go and check out Lori’s website to learn more about her and her quilts!
We are hoping you have found some inspiration in Lori’s work. Leave a comment to let us (and Lori) know what you think! Or share with us your own creative endeavor to remember your loved one.
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