Patchwork Pastime

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

The rain broke on an early April day, so Denise Backstrom and her team went to work.
They spread plastic sheeting over a rail fence in her front yard, then hung quilts and table runners in a line. More than 40 patchwork pieces represented some of the work Backstrom’s done since discovering her pastime three decades ago.
“It’s kind of my life running through these quilts,” the 53-year-old said, walking along the newly decorated fence.
She took a class in 1982 and learned how to make quilts by hand. Many quilts and surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome later, a sewing machine is required.
Creating quilts is work, but that’s not how Backstrom sees it. A good night is hanging out in her sewing room from 7 p.m. to midnight.
“A bad night is not getting there at all. There are more good nights than bad nights,” she said. “But I’ve always been careful not to make this a business. It’s my joy. It makes me happy. It’s fun.”
Part of the art is playing with different designs and colors. You would’ve had a hard time finding a portion of the rainbow that wasn’t on display on her fence that day. Backstrom’s gone through gray periods and she’s experimented with black, but only because they make the other colors pop.
“I like to obsess about color,” she said.
Her quilting friends call her “The Arbiter of Color.” It may not be the catchiest of nicknames, but it fits.
“She has the final word on what goes together,” said Jane Miller, a friend and fellow quilter. “She has a talent for it.”
For a time, Backstrom’s husband, Jim Fitzgerald, lived in Shanghai for business and had a furnished apartment. The bed incorporated pinkish-red fabric and yellow pleather. It was a challenge to create a masculine quilt from those twin inspirations, but she had the entire flight home to plan and scheme.
“I did a log cabin pattern. Usually red or orange represent a fire in the hearth at the center of the cabin,” Backstrom said. “I used yellow. It’s a candle in the window.”
Sometimes, she directs her obsession toward finding a variety of shades of a single hue. She’s unleashed herself on indigo for one quilt, and let herself go crazy with greens for another.
“They refer to Ireland as having 40 shades of green, and there are 40 shades of green on this quilt. That was fun,” she said, caressing the quilt she made to commemorate a family trip to the Emerald Isle.
Starting a tradition
Backstrom sought out quilting on her own, and other than those early lessons, she’s self-taught. There’s no family lineage handed down from generations back, but that’s something she’s hoping to change.
Allison Wagner, Backstrom’s 29-year-old niece, has been soaking up knowledge in the hopes of starting an honest-to-goodness family tradition.
“Aunt Denise taught me how to do a couple of quilts,” Wagner said. “I have a sewing room, but I haven’t done anything like she has done.”
Wagner is a French teacher in Ohio and has spent a few spring breaks with her aunt. After her most recent trip, she took home one of Backstrom’s sewing machines, along with her lessons.
“She’s inherited ‘Tina Berina,’” Backstrom said. “I name all my machines.”
Quilting also encircles Backstrom’s friends. She’s made numerous quilts to give away, and she’s teamed up to create mini-masterpieces.
“Jane (Miller) and I have gotten on two different machines and worked on the same project before,” she said.
Catherine Crews helped get the 40 or so quilts to the fence, but she was focused on one that didn’t make the front yard exhibit. She saved old T-shirts that her son had long outgrown, and she and Backstrom turned them into a quilt.
“She was the chief,” Crews said. “I was the Indian.”
The project was supposed to be finished by December in time for Christmas, but that didn’t happen.
“I was trying hard for Christmas, but couldn’t make it,” Backstrom said. “I told her when I realized it. Usually, when I quilt for people I do it at my own pace, slowly.”
There’s a lesson: Slow and steady overflows your home with quilts. Backstrom’s friend, Marguerite Johnson, asked to see her creations years ago.
“I told her, ‘Marguerite, it’ll take three to four hours,’” Backstrom said.
“I didn’t believe it would take that long,” said Johnson, who knows better now.
April rains weren’t expected to hold off all day, so Backstrom and her team had to go back to organizing the quilts to fit into the house. No easy task.
But while her work was out shining in the sun, Backstrom got to stroll through three decades of effort. She smiled, as she thought of family and friends, and showed her pride, as she remembered challenges conquered. She cried a little, too, thinking of losses along the way.
Her reactions made perfect sense. After all, pieces of Backstrom’s life were on display that day.

Click video to hear audio