A quick warning—The story of Alias Grace (both novel and Netflix series) is historically accurate, violent, and unsettling. Quilts play a fascinating role. Be advised, this article contains spoilers.
I’d read Alias Grace many years ago, not long after the novel published in 1996. Margaret Atwood was—and is—one of my favorite writers. And though I came to quilting a few years later, it has shaped my life.
This TV series was not something I was going to take lightly.
In the Netflix series Alias Grace, Grace Marks (the main character) says there are three quilts a woman should make before she is married: Tree of Paradise, Flower Basket, and Pandora’s Box.
Did this startle anyone else? The truism I’d heard was that a woman should make a Double Wedding Ring before she is married, because all those curves and intricate pieces would equip her with the necessary quiltmaking skills she’d need in starting a household. (Substitute “becoming an adult” for “getting married,” and I can work with that.)
I paused the show, leaning in toward my computer screen to study the quilts dancing on the clothesline. Sure enough, there’s a Flower Basket quilt, wafting in the breeze. I see Bow Tie quilt blocks, too, but surely that’s not it…
Later, through Pinterest, I discovered a Jelly-Roll friendly version of Pandora’s Box in Pam & Nicky Lintott’s Jelly Roll Quilts. It’s a framed four-patch—hmm.
A later perusal of my trusty copy Barbara Brackman’s Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns shows ‘Pandora’s Box’ to be a variation of Tumbling Cubes patchwork, involving set-in seams. Ah!
I study each quilt as it appears on screen, the first episode running heaviest with them. As the series wraps up, I can recognize each quilt instantly, knowing exactly what scene it appeared in earlier. I start to wonder—did they have limited access to era-appropriate props, or does it mean something that (SPOILERS AHEAD!) the Pineapple quilt from the bed shared by Grace and Mary Whitney, shows up later on a quilt rack in Mr. Kinnear’s bedroom? What is the significance of the nine-patch quilt, the one she sleeps under after Mary’s death? She sleeps under that quilt, too, when she moves to the Kinnear estate. Did she bring it with her, and what would THAT mean?
This being a Margaret Atwood story, I’m inclined to read meaning into the presence of each quilt. She is not a writer to leave something that emotionally resonant accidentally lying around. In her hands, household items become dense with deliberate meaning. (I had to edit out an entire tangent on Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye here; let’s stick with Alias Grace, shall we?)
As Grace talks to the doctor (in a sewing room a far sight fancier than any I’ve seen, let me tell you), she stitches Log Cabin blocks by hand. The quilt Grace is making is for the governor’s daughter, who is getting married. It’s a utilitarian quilt, she tells the doctor, nothing fancy, but it will serve the new bride well for the everyday. She explains how the center of the block is traditionally red, to symbolize the hearth fire (something I’ve always loved about the Log Cabin block, myself).
She’s making a sunshine-and-shadows Log Cabin, with black and white fabric to box in that red hearthstone.
And because I’m trained to read into things—because I expect meaning—I watch her hands as she stitches. Is there a pattern to when she stitches on the light versus the dark? Does she lie to the doctor when stitching dark, and tell truths when she stitches light? Vice versa? Am I assigning meaning where there is none? And how in the world does she get those quilt blocks so stiff? What kind of starch did they use back then—potato starch?
I mirror the doctor, studying the nuance of every word Grace speaks and every action she takes. And I’m equally ignorant of the practicalities of world as he is (him, because he is an upper-class male; me, because I’m living 150 years later). We are both voyeurs into Grace’s life. He, at least, has the (perhaps flimsy) excuse of seeking to help her. I, at least, have the (perhaps flimsy) excuse that this is fiction.
I feel somewhat guilty, peering into her private world, but I don’t look away. In fact, as the needle bites into the fabric, I am mesmerized.
What quilt would you make for yourself?, the doctor asks.
She lists a few—Job’s Tears, Tree of Paradise, Old Maid’s Puzzle. A little too appropriate, wouldn’t you say? Those are all quite different, stylistically and in degree of complexity. I believe Grace is playing into how the doctor sees her, how we see her, giving him the answer he wants.
Some may find the story of Alias Grace frustrating, because they don’t receive the pay-off they were expecting. (Rest assured, neither did the doctor.) For me, when we learn in the final episode which quilt Grace does make for herself, with Grace telling the doctor (telling us, really) about the pattern she chose, the significance of the changes she made to it, and the three fabrics she saved for it… THAT is the pay-off. That, dear readers, is why we quilt: the painful and joyful pieces of life, stitched together.