I smelled the smoke as soon as I walked into the house. The smell was sharp and acrid and seemed to be permeating the house. I looked for smoke, but there was none I could see.
"Honey, are you home?" I looked into an empty kitchen. There was nothing burning on the stove. I looked in the toaster oven. No burnt toast there. The smell became fainter the farther I went into the kitchen, so, naturally, I turned and headed toward Darling Wife's Quilting Queendom. As I did, the smell became strong. It smelled like burnt clothes.
"This house smells of burnt clothes," I said as I walked into her sewing room.
"Hi," she said. She was standing by the window holding a piece of cardboard toward the sun which was streaming brightly through the glass.
"I smell a fire," I said. "Do you need me to call the fire department?" I looked around but saw no flames shooting out of the sewing machine. I ran my hand just in front of the soleplate of the iron. It was cool.
"No," she said. She continued to hold the piece of cardboard to the sun. I looked at it. The cardboard was covered with several pieces of fabric. One half of each piece of fabric was covered with a second strip of cardboard.
"I won't ask what that is," I said to her. She didn't seem in a panic about any smoke or fire, and I didn't see a brigade of firefighters chopping holes in our roof or flooding the house with water.
"Don't ask," she said.
"All right, what are you doing?" I asked.
"I testing fabric," she said.
"Oh, that's good," I said, and I turned to leave before she drew me into her quilted web and tortured my head with some explanation I would never understand. I tried to run, but my feet were already entangled in one of the piles of fabric that filled her fortress.
"Fiber content," she said.
"I eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and grain bread," I said immediately. Was fiber connected to the smell I smelled?
"You're not paying attention again," she said. "I'm not talking about the basic food groups."
"I didn't think so," I said. How could I not know that only quilting would be discussed with this woman?
"I have to test all my fabrics," she said.
"Test them?" The only tests I knew of were what fabric costs, what color or pattern it is, what it feels like, and how it will look when its chopped up into confetti and then sewn together again into a quilt of some kind.
"I'll show you the first test," she said, and with that she put down the piece of fabric covered cardboard she had and led me to her small desk and pointed to a small candle in a brass candle holder.
"You have some kind of prayer ritual in here for your fabric?" I asked.
"It's to test for cotton content," she said.
"It looks like a candle left over from the Halloween pumpkin," I said.
"That was before. Now it's for testing to see if some of my old fabric is cotton or polyester or a blend of synthetic fibers," she said.
"You use the candle for light to see what kind of fabric it is? Wouldn't a bright light be better."
"I burn it," she said.
"You burn the candle? I hope it's not at both ends." Though that would give off more light, I thought.
"I burn the fabric in the flame. If it's cotton it burns fast and clean, but if it has any synthetic threads in it, they will melt and ball and burn you if you touch the burned end.
"You burned your finger?"
"Just a little. It's all right now." She held up her finger to show me. It looked all right.
"So the smell in the house is all your burned up stash?"
"Just a few snippets from fabric I wasn't sure of," she said.
"You're sure now?" I wasn't so sure about anything.
"Yes," she said. "Now I'm testing for fading in the sun. I covered half a dozen pieces of fabric with cardboard and the other half dozen are exposed to the sun. After a while I compare the covered side with the uncovered side."
"But you don't put your quilts in the sun. You put them on the bed or on the walls," I said.
"Even indirect light can fade some color out of some fabric."
"Any other tests? I was already in over my head.
"Thread count," she said.
"You count all the threads in all your stash?" She was on the edge of some precipice about to fall off.
"I just count the threads in one inch of fabric," she said matter-of-factly. With that said, she showed me another piece of cardboard on which she had drawn a grid of several one-inch squares. I thought then about investing in some cardboard company. If all the quilters in the world tested their fabric, that would be a lot of cardboard. "The more threads the less the fabric will shrink when it's washed," she said.
"What about that little hole in the grid?" I asked. One of the squares had been cut out.
"I can put the cardboard over the fabric and count the threads in the one-inch hole."
"Why would you want to do that?" I asked. It seemed a good question.
"I can't go to a fabric shop and cut out pieces of fabric for testing. With this I can just put it over a section of fabric on the bolt and count."
"Any other tests?" I asked. I was getting testy.
"Colorfastness," she said. "Rub this," she said as she took a piece of white fabric and handed it to me.
"Do you want me to rub your back?"
"Just rub it over this piece of blue fabric," she said, placing a small piece of blue fabric on her desk. I rubbed. "Now look at the white piece." I did. "See how the blue rubbed off?" I looked. I saw a blue smudge on the white fabric. I guessed the blue wasn't colorfast.
"I'm leaving now," I said before she got it into her head to test me.
"What about the other tests?" she asked. "What about washing tests?"
"I trust you to do them all," I said. As I left her room, I sniffed one last remaining wisp of smoke in the air. I couldn't tell if the smell was from burned cotton or nylon or polyester or rayon or wool or some blend. I didn't want to know then. I don't want to know now.
Copyright 1999 by A.B. Silver
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