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The Shipwreck Rose: Small Flowers

Wed, 09/27/2023 - 18:00

Everyone has something they cannot resist buying, and mine is vintage quilts. I have friends who can't resist a snow globe or bobblehead, who collect bric-a-brac shaped like toads or mice — even a distant relation who clutters her top drawer with a collection of so-called "funky socks" intarsia-knit with saucy sayings like "Save Water Drink Wine" or "Stubborn A.F." — and, I say, who are they to judge? At my price point, the vintage quilts I buy are slightly stained or a bit tattered, sure, but they are put to actual use on actual beds in my actual house.

My interest in quilts dates back to middle school, when I was 12 and "Anne of Green Gables" awoke my consciousness to romance, dandelion wine, flowering fruit trees, high-button boots, and country things. Quilts and quilted clothing had been in fashion earlier, in my 1970s childhood — my generation was subjected by our mothers to patchwork dresses and granny-square sweater vests — but by the time I was in seventh grade, the patchwork look was definitely out. "Anne of Green Gables," however, captured my imagination in a particular way that made me interested in the distant past, and in trying to imagine what it felt like to inhabit another room in another century, and this was the reason I thought a lot about fabric. 

My seventh-grade cohort wasn't sophisticated in the way that today's seventh graders are. We couldn't identify the label of a European design house if you held a pistol to our head. We ordered our corduroys from the Sears catalog and bought our cotton turtlenecks with little whales or hearts on them at Brill's on North Main Street. But we were classist enough to be snobby about polyester. Kids who wore polyester stretch pants were to be mocked behind their backs. "Anne of Green Gables," however, delivered an epiphany about fabric arrogance in seventh grade. I realized this: It would've been not just cruel but idiotic in 1880 for a schoolgirl to have made fun of another schoolgirl for wearing common calico, and, that being so, wasn't it not just cruel but idiotic to torment someone in 1980 for wearing common polyester? That was my deep pensée, at 12, and don't let your adolescent offspring ever try to convince you that there is no point to reading literature.

Floral prints wax and wane with the passage of time. This is the same waxing and waning you see with the cuffs of jeans, their belling and shrinking at the ankle, or the float upward and downward again of hemlines; it's all cyclical, like the phases of the moon and the tides. 

In the early 1980s, fashionable florals were small scale and cottage-quaint — Laura Ashley's dainty nosegays. Today, customers and sellers on use the descriptor "ditsy" for this sort of fabric design: ditsy prints. Middle School was the ditsy era for Generation X. At the East Hampton Middle School, in the steamy confines of the home economics room down in the twilight murk of the basement — narrow windows too high above our heads to be looked out of, the radiator banging, and a powerful fug of B.O., tuna fish, and unwashed gym pinnies — we were taught to use sewing machines and quilt. We adjusted the thread tension and stitched quilted panels depicting scenes of our own choosing from scraps of ginghams, checks, and ugly primary-colored twill: a barnyard scene, a beach scene. . . . We also learned the art of quilling, twisting strips of rainbow-bright paper into itty-bitty petals, leaves, and flowers and carefully pasting them down to create a bouquet picture for framing and presentation as a gift on Mother's Day. I was terrible at quilling. No patience.

As the 1980s unspooled and the ethos of the Me Decade gave way to that of the Greed Is Good Decade, the floral prints that bloomed madly on everything from bedding to party dresses grew bigger and bigger. Do you remember the blowsy roses of the "Rock You Like a Hurricane" years? Couches and grown women, alike, were covered in bombastic chintz roses scaled for the Trianon Palace at Versailles. 

Waxing and waning. The phases of the moon. After the gum-cracking, coked-up-debutante 1980s, flowers were hardly in fashion in the 1990s at all. These were the sad-flower years. Imagine a mustard-yellow "floral print" in which the floral in question is nothing but a black-sketched outline of a calla lily, the funeral flower in repeat. That was the 1990s: minimalist and droopy (even the flat-ironed hair was droopy!), with an Eeyore-esque resistance to joy. A lone white orchid in a black ceramic pot was the most chic purchase from the florist; or a tight bunch of monochrome pink roses formed into a smooth dome. I plan never to revive the floral prints of that decade. I'm not having it. I prefer a mixed bouquet. 

Anyway, having spent a lifetime looking at fabrics and trying to imagine what it felt like to live in the material world while wearing a dress of dimity or cambric or society silk, I have gotten pretty good at recognizing what era a print or pattern is from, and this knowledge aids me in my quilt-snatching. Some people enjoy the New York Times crossword puzzle each morning in the same way I enjoy out-sleuthing other quilt-buyers. These days I am, regrettably, on a budget — ditsy, not Trianon — but I persist in quilt-browsing over my oat milk latte. I go online and place lowball bids on old quilts knowing I can't actually buy; and when I do buy, I don't want to pay more than $37 for a quilt that might sell for $500 or $600 at an antiques fair here in One Percentville. I don't want to tip off anyone out there who might outbid me, but, hint hint, you can get great bargains on quilts from the 1930s through 1960s online at Goodwill's auction website. The descriptions appended to the quilt auctions by the Goodwill staff, who work out of stores around the country, from Spokane, Wash., to Oklahoma, do not include estimated years of manufacture, so you have to have good eyeballs for dating the fabrics. 

My favorite decade, fabric-wise, is the 1930s. I didn't always love the 1930s aesthetic. Back in the noughts, when I lived the highball-cocktail life in Manhattan, I preferred the fabrics of the 1940s, brassier, kickier bark cloths and rayons. Earlier, in my college days of Alphabet City and "The Pee-Wee Herman Show," of course, like all the cool kids, I dug the kitsch of 1950s and 1960s novelty prints. But now, in my 50s, I don't want a campy Atomic Age novelty fabric upholstering either my couch or my posterior and have grown to appreciate instead the softness of the optimistic, pretty "Pennies From Heaven" cottons of the Depression. You don't like to use the word "mellow" — I don't like to use the word "mellow" — but I do love a 1930s pastel floral faded further by age. 

My son is now a student in the eighth grade at my alma mater, the East Hampton Middle School. It's a great comfort to me that that excellent old building on Newtown Lane — stout, solid, sound — has not yet been torn down and replaced. Last week, I attended a meeting in the very same basement classroom where I'd learned to quill and quilt. The floors were glossy, the old wood-casement windows have been replaced, and there is air-conditioning. It's only September, and maybe the overwhelming B.O. I remember — which the building once wore like a fuzzy cardigan sweater — will return by the time the snow falls, but the place looked and smelled much cleaner than it did when I was there. 

Teddy is a fine litigator, for a boy of 13, and he argues forcefully that reading novels is a waste of his time. He says there is no point to reading literature. He is unbudgeable. He scorns all history texts, as well, spanning the entirety of human civilization. But I am hopeful. His health class — held in what was once the English classroom of Ms. Dickson, if I'm not mistaken — is reading "Go Ask Alice," of all things, this semester, and I am watching Teddy surreptitiously through my parental side-eye as he sits at the table on the sun porch after dinner and reads, his eyebrows shooting up and down, and up and down again, as he turns the pages.

Perhaps you remember "Go Ask Alice" from your own school days? It's the sensational, supposedly true 1977 cautionary tale of degenerate drug use in the post-hippie era, featuring heroin, rape, L.S.D., child prostitution, and the psych ward. No rhapsodies about apple blossoms or cherry blossoms or taffeta dresses, but an eye-popper nonetheless.

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