Quilts of love: Sandra Presley stitches memory quilts

By KAITLIN GEBBY
Posted 8/12/19

Sandra Presley made her first quilt when she was in fourth grade. Coming from a family of quilters, she had the skills but rarely used them. However, she really picked up the habit when she was …

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Quilts of love: Sandra Presley stitches memory quilts

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Sandra Presley made her first quilt when she was in fourth grade. Coming from a family of quilters, she had the skills but rarely used them. However, she really picked up the habit when she was recovering from chemotherapy treatments. 

In 2011, Presley underwent treatment for ovarian cancer. When she came home from the hospital, she started sewing memory quilts for her friends and acquaintances. 

“I would get bags of old T-shirts and clothes that their parents wore, and I would use the fabric to make a memory quilt,” she said. “Seeing the look on their faces when they see little bits of fabric, they have memories with them and it all comes flooding back when they see it.” 

She recalled a scrap of pink fabric, that, when returned to its owner in the form of a quilt, she discovered  was once part of a white T-shirt. 

“They explained to me it was their father’s shirt that had been dyed pink after her mother passed away and he had to do all the laundry,” she said. “It’s a funny thing how important these fabrics become to us, but it’s right there on display for people to remember and appreciate the memories.” 

Unlike the quilts of hers that have been accepted into traveling art shows, Presley said these memory quilts can either be displayed or used to cover up, allowing loved ones to warm themselves with the memories of those who have passed on. 

When she was recovering, her husband purchased a longarm quilting machine for her. It was an investment. She said she wasn’t sure she’d be around long enough to appreciate it. 

Now eight years after her 2011 treatment, she said making the quilts was “therapeutic” during the healing process.

Today, she creates her work in the basement of their home in Charleston, where her longarm machine and scraps of fabric lay among her detailed, finished works. 

Since her diagnosis in 2011, Presley’s creations have come a long way. One of the first pieces she entered into a show was a green quilt that displayed a friendly girls’ date with her three closest friends and herself. 

With the help of her friend Kimberley Johnson, a fellow quilter, they surprised their small group with the quilt at a show they traveled to together. 

“When we rounded the corner, one of my friends saw the quilt and started to say, ‘Oh, you should do something like this.’ Before she could finish her sentence, she realized it was mine, and that was her,” she said, pointing to her friend on the quilt. 

Her quilts are a reflection of her world. Presley has sewn detailed patterns of her husband, her children, their travels and even preserved their small, childhood drawings in a quilt. 

“I hate the idea that a picture, a drawing, something that should be seen and on displays is folded up somewhere in a box,” she said. “I think when you put it in a quilt, you just have to display it.” 

Her interests shifted to recreating photographs taken in nature. She recently finished a series of tapestries inspired by photos taken in the outdoors. 

Her most recent work, “Big Bison,” is the third installment in the series and was recently accepted into QuiltWeek, a nationwide show put on by the American Quilter’s Society. “Big Bison”  will be on display in Paducah, Ky. in September. 

Presley said she was “so surprised” when she found out her work had been accepted. It’s one of the highest honors in the field. 

“For someone like me, having my work on display with a program like this means a lot,” she said. 

Nearly 700 works from artists around the world will be featured during QuiltWeek with the addition of special exhibitions and cash awards. 

Starting four years ago with her first personal art piece of herself with her friends, Presley said she is still honing her craft. 

Like a fabric mosaic, most of her pieces are created from hundreds of scraps of fabric cut from a larger pattern and sewn to the piece to create texture and dimension. But she is looking to explore dying fabrics to achieve the desired color. 

Nevertheless, it seems Presley is just beginning this new chapter of her life. 

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