Inch by Inch




"An inch is an inch is an inch," I said.

"Some inches are different," she argued.

"There has to be a standard," I said. "Every ruler you have shows an inch as an inch," I argued.

"Some of the inches aren't long enough," she said.

"What kind of inch isn't long enough?" I asked. I never should have asked. If I had kept my thoughts to myself when she said she was going to need another ruler, when she had eyes on a triangular ruler she had seen on another of those quilt shows on television, when she said 45 degrees and 90 degrees weren't enough for her, I would never have been in this discussion with her or involved myself in an argument about measurements.

"An inch and a eighth," she said. Then she quickly added, "And an inch and a quarter."

"Booblydefoo," I said in return, hoping to end the discussion right then and there. What I said was no answer, but I was in above my head, sinking fast in her world of quilter's measurements.

She left my side quickly and ran down the hall to her sewing room. I was sorry to see her go, but I was glad the argument was over, but it was not to be. She returned in a moment carrying a six-inch ruler.

"Here," she said, and she handed it to me.

"Well ,what?" I asked as I took the ruler.

"It's more than it's supposed to be by your standards," she said.

"It's a regular six-inch ruler," I said.

"It adds a quarter," she said.

I looked at it and measured off six inches. "It's a regular ruler," I said. But I was suspicious. "Is this a quilting ruler?" I asked.

And, of course that was the question. A ruler is for measuring and drawing straight lines. I learned that in kindergarten. And I believed that all my life--until that day when my wife turned into a quilter. Then all I had learned no longer seemed true. I entered into a different world, one in which a ruler was something the same and yet altogether different. It started two years before with her simple request for a square ruler.

"I never heard of a square ruler," I said back then. "Rulers are long and skinny and if they're really long, then they're a yardstick. I didn't know what a stick a meter long was called, even if it was spelled metre. So, maybe it was a meter stick or metre stick. "Who are you trying to kid?" I asked her. Ha, I said to myself.

"It's for quilting," she said.

"You need a square ruler to measure squares?" I laughed. "And you probably need a triangle ruler to measure triangles?" Ha, ha.

"Exactly," she said.

"How exactly?" I asked. Something odd was going on. Something didn't measure up.

"Exactly how is what I have to learn to be a quilter," she said.

"So you need two new very strange kinds of rulers to be a quilter?" I asked.

"More," she said.

And that was how in our normal little house on a normal street in a normal town, she began a ruler family. Now, two quilting years later, which are way, way different from regular years, her extended family of rulers are everywhere. A handful at first, then a dozen, then a drawer full, then a closet full. She can measure patches and strips and squares and triangles and blocks and fat eighths and fat quarters and half yards and yards and more. Oh, yes, much more. She has 30-degree angle rulers and 60-degrees rulers and 90-degree rulers, and many special rulers for all kinds of odd cutting and measuring. And they are busy rulers, covered with lines and grids and marks and degrees.

"Yes, it's a quilting ruler," she said, bringing me back to the present, and she turned the six-inch ruler sideways and showed me a fat lip. The lip was on the ruler. "This ruler has an extra quarter inch along the side for cutting the quarter-inch allowance. I also have another ruler that adds an eighth of an inch for paper-piecing small pieces of fabric together."

"Seams get allowances?" I asked. I knew what she was saying. It was the first thing she had ever tried to tell me about cutting fabric, long before she was a quilter, when she was cutting out patterns for clothes. Way back then, things she told me about sewing made some kind of sense. Now I'm not too sure I have any sense left.

"Quarter inch," she said. "For piecing," she said. "To make a quilt," she said.

Now, if there is one thing I have heard time and again when people talked about quilting were those admonitions, those stern warnings about the possibility of dire consequences and chaos in the quilter's life, that one thing was the quilter's expression to add a quarter of an inch when cutting out fabric for a pattern. Oh, yes, of course, there were exceptions. There were smaller and larger allowances, but for two years I had been battered by "Quarter inch. Quarter inch. Quarter inch." Every ruler she had, every grid, every square and triangle measure, all had quarter inches. Her sewing machine feet had quarter-inch guides and quarter-inch markers. Every time I look at a piece of fabric or even when I look at her quilts, I see a quarter-inch angelic halo around everything. At first I thought I was getting cataracts, which are no laughing matter, but then I realized the halo was exactly a quarter of an inch. I needed no ophthalmologist. I just needed to stay away from quilts for a while.

"So I'm going to need this new ruler," she went on. "It's for measuring and cutting triangles for a new quilt I'm making."

"None of the rulers you have now will work?" I asked.

She didn't answer. She just looked into that encyclopedia of facial expressions she had tucked away in her brain and pulled one out and gave me a look that very definitely told me she needed the new ruler.

"I need it," she finally said.

"Another mouth to feed?" I said.


"Never mind." Give a quilter an inch....

She ordered the ruler.


Copyright 1999 by A.B. Silver

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