Quilter stitches together memories
October 27, 2013 2:00 AM
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LOYALHANNA TOWNSHIP — The threadbare shirt a man’s father, now deceased, dressed in for years, though it went out of style before his children were even born.

A boy’s pair of jeans, now too small, holes in the knees and grass stains holding the memory of pickup games and trips to a favorite fishing hole.

The time-faded dress a woman wore the summer evening she went on the first date with the man she’d marry.

Treasured clothing items like these, Juliann Rager cuts to pieces.

Her actions, however, belie the thoughtful intent behind the destruction.

Rager, 38, of Loyalhanna Township, is making handmade quilts by piecing together scraps of clothes that have outlived their usefulness but still carry sentimental value.

“People want to make sense of their memories,” she said. “We keep things that have meaning and value that you don’t know what to do with at times.”

Now she does know what to do with those things, drawing inspiration from both her own life and her own closet.

In April, she took to the project in earnest, naming it “Once Upon a Time Quilts” and starting a blog and a Facebook page with vivid photos and detailed write-ups. There she showcases a braid-patterned quilt, inspired by one of her nieces.

Wedding memories and clothes packed away proved to be a match made in heaven for one of her latest projects.

Rager has gathered a sampling of clothes worn at the Ocean City, Md., beach ceremony where she and husband, Scott, exchanged marriage vows. The colors evoke an oceanscape, with sand-colored khakis, a deep blue denim dress and a simple white gown the color of wave crests.

“The whole energy of that day is in the clothes,” she said.

Turning up the hem of her wedding dress, she revealed tiny flecks of sand, still clinging to the seam.

An avid seamstress, Rager came up with the idea to transform much-loved clothing into handmade quilts several years ago. But before her scissors even make a single snip, she learns as much as she can about her subject.

“I take notes of their stories. My goal, in hearing their story, is to somehow translate that into the design of my quilt,” she said.

Though she takes a unique approach, she also draws inspiration from a patchwork of influences. Rager stresses that the idea behind quilts like hers is one that has existed for hundreds of years.

“The idea of giving clothes a second life as something else is not a new concept at all,” she said.

It was only in the last century or so that people began to buy fabric specifically to make quilts, she said. Before then, using scraps from clothing to make quilts was the norm.

“Nobody would go and buy fabric to make a quilt — they used whatever was left,” she said. “Nobody threw anything away.”

The quilt endeavor, she said, blended seamlessly into her household, since she and her family have strived to live a lifestyle that is economically sound and rather sustainable.

“It’s just the principle of being a good steward of what you have, living below your means and creating at least as much as you consume, if not more,” she said.

Another common thread running through Rager’s work is family. Nowhere is that more clear, perhaps, than in a quilt she is making from old Hawaiian shirts. She drew her inspiration from her parents.

The couple met in 1967 when her father was serving in Vietnam. The two had to part not long after they married, due to military and work obligations.

After being a world away from each other for nearly a year, they came up with a plan to meet.

“He flew east from Vietnam to Hawaii and she flew west from California to Hawaii and they met at Christmastime,” Rager said. “So Hawaii and Hawaiian-themed stuff has always been special to them.”

The quilt came to be in the spring, when Rager’s mother asked her to make something with her father’s Hawaiian shirts. He passed away in 2009 and, while she had given away many of his clothes, it was hard to part with the last few.

Rager went right to work, finding a traditional Hawaiian quilt pattern to accent the brightly colored squares. She compares making the intricate Hawaiian designs to making paper snowflakes, as both are first folded to create a symmetrical end result.

“You cut it out and there is this beautiful mirrored image,” she said.

The fabrics aren’t the only intricate parts of the project.

Her mother wove a tapestry rich with recollections as she shared with her daughter the story of her marriage.

“Her memories were awakened,” Rager said. “She was in the moment and she started going back in time. The stories started coming out.”

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