A Sensory Experience
Tommie Wells with her family album quilt based on the Castle Walls pattern. "This is a very special quilt for me," says Tommie. "I drew the pattern off a quilt my grandmother made for my aunt's hope chest. Every girl had a hope chest in the 1930s! I made this quilt for my granddaughter. It has scraps from the shirt I wore to the hospital when she was born."
Detail of the Castle Walls quilt that Tommie made for her older granddaughter, Katie. Tommie describes these blocks this way: "Laurie is my daughter and Katie's mother. The scraps in Katie's block are from things I made for her while we were waiting for her to get here. The scraps in Laurie's block are from maternity clothes Laurie made to wear while pregnant with Katie. Most of the scraps have a little history like this, and it will be written up and given to Katie along with the quilt."
By the time Tommie Wells was eight-months old, she was walking and talking. The precocious Fort Worth, Texas native seemed to have hit the ground running, so to speak. Perhaps it was because things came so easily to her that no one—not even her mother—believed Tommie when she told them, around the age of four, that she couldn’t hear.
At 13, prompted by Tommie’s behavioral difficulties in school, the family doctor suggested that she see an ear specialist. But Tommie did so well academically that her mother was convinced she “could hear when she wanted to.”
It wasn’t until she was 20 and in nursing school that Tommie was seen by an audiologist, whose testing showed that Tommie was profoundly deaf. The year was 1959, and by then, even the most powerful technology available at the time could not help her. Tommie doesn’t know why she started to lose her hearing, but since her own daughter also has gradual hearing loss, she suspects it may be a genetic condition.
Like many deaf people, Tommie is visually oriented. And she is especially oriented toward quilts. She grew up in a family of quilters who quilted together on frames set up outside in nice weather and, during the winter, on frames suspended indoors from the ceiling.
Unfortunately, she was not encouraged to join in, being told that her quilting looked like “basting stitches.” Although she eventually became a proficient seamstress, Tommie didn’t attempt quilting again until she was almost 50, when she took a block-per-month sampler class at a local quilt shop.
“It was way too advanced for someone just beginning. I hung on, though, and did make the 12 central blocks, but still have not finished that quilt and it has been over 20 years now. I hope to get it done one day. A few years ago, I went to a class on strip quilting. It is so easy, and that is what I have been doing since. If you can use a pizza cutter and sew a straight line, you can make strip quilts!” laughs Tommie.
She has come a long way since those early days when she was not allowed to quilt at the frame with her family. “People should do things for the joy it gives them. For many years, I never tried to make a quilt or grow a garden because I could not do them the way my grandmother did. I could not attain the perfection. When I went to the quilting classes, I just steeled myself to accept the fact that I would not make perfect quilts. I never came anywhere close to reaching the perfection of the teachers or even the top students,” Tommie explains. “Now, I have a nice backyard garden and I make my less-than-perfect quilts. They give me great joy and they give much pleasure to others with whom I share the produce of both the garden and the sewing room. Imperfections keep things real. They give the quilts character.”
Active in various organizations for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, Tommie keeps abreast of new developments related to deafness and in 1989 got her first cochlear implant. In 2007, she got her second one. (A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted electronic device that bypasses damaged structures in the inner ear and directly stimulates the auditory nerve to allow some deaf individuals to interpret sounds and speech.) She has made and donated four quilts to the Hearing Loss Association of America to use as fundraisers at both the state and national levels.
“I am very alert and aware of my surroundings. I think that has everything to do with being deaf. I am affected by smells and aware of them, maybe more so than hearing people. That, too, may be due to being deaf. I do think when you can't hear, you depend on other senses and do compensate in that way.”
Whether deaf or hearing, any quilter can relate to Tommie’s passion for making quilts. “I love the creativity. I love going to the fabric stores to look at all the beautiful materials. I love thinking about how to use them—the patterns, the colors—to make a quilt. I have so much fabric and so many quilt projects planned. I know I will never get them all made. Still, I keep buying more fabric. I told my daughter that when I die, she and the granddaughters can open a fabric store!”
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Column 142: Huipil Patchwork Quilts
Column 141: Tom Korn’s Military Medal Quilts
Column 140: The Return of Double Knits!
Column 139: Passage Quilts
Column 138: Home of the Brave Quilts
Column 137: The Story of Fabric Yo-Yos
Column 136: Christmas in July
Column 135: Trifles
Column 134: Deaf Initiatives—Communicating Through Quilts
Column 133: My Betty Boop Quilt
Column 132: Maura Grace Ambrose
Column 131: All You Need Is Love
Column 130: Chicken Linens
Column 129: The Quilted Chuppah
Column 128: Patchwork Around the World: Yoruba Dance Costumes
Column 127: The Bowers Co-Op Quilts
Column 126: Fon Appliqué and Haitian Voodoo Flags
Column 125: The Quilt Garden at The North Carolina Arboretum
Column 124: Harriet Powers and Handful’s Mauma
Column 123: Quilters de Mexico
Column 122: An Appliquéd Surprise
Column 121: Matisse’s Fabric Stash
Column 120: Soogan—The Cowboy’s Quilt
Column 119: The Ron Swanson Quilt
Column 118: HClarkdale, Georgia—A Thread of History
Column 117: How WWI Changed the Color of Quilts in the United States
Column 116: Wagga—The Bushman’s Quilt
Column 115: All in the Family
Column 114: The Alabama State Quilt
Column 113: Balloon Quilts of Albuquerque
Column 112: The Family That Quilts Together, Stays Together
Column 111: Two Rivers, Three Sisters
Column 110: Quilters Helping Quilters
Column 109: Community Cookbooks and Fundraiser Quilts—Parallel Histories
Column 108: Quilting to Freedom
Column 107: National Quilting Day
Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
Column 105: A Call for a National Juneteenth Commemorative Quilt
Column 104: Dominoes
Column 103: 1936 Texas Centennial Bluebonnet Quilt
Column 102: Helen Blackstone, A Texas Quilter
Column 101: Montana CattleWomen Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 100: 100th Suzy's Fancy Column!
Column 99: Montana Stockgrowers Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 98: The Tobacco Sack Connection
Column 97: Meet the Sisters Who Are State Fair Quilting Queens
Column 96: The connection between fairs and quilts.
Column 95: Her Mother Pieced Quilts
Column 94: Rebecca Barker’s Quiltscapes
Column 93: The Thread and Thimble Club Mystery
See other archived columns here