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 90: Leitmotif for a Lifelong Love Affair
Column 89: Quilting in The Bahamas
Column 88: Joan of Arc: A Quilter's Inspiration
Column 87: Home Demonstration Clubs and Quilting
Column 86: Linzi Upton and the Quilted Yurt
Column 85: A Bounty of Quilts
Column 84: Desert Trader
Column 83: Quilts and the Women’s Liberation Movement
Column 82: Replicating the Past: Reproduction Fabrics for Today’s Quilts
Column 81: Why So Many Quilt Shops in Bozeman, Montana?
Column 80: Southeastern Quilt and Textile Museum
Column 79: 54 Tons of Quilt
Column 78: Ollie Steele Burden’s Quilt Blocks
Column 77: Quilting with AMD
Column 76: Maverick Quilts and Cowgirls
Column 75: The Modern Quilt Guild—Cyberculture Quilting Ramps Up
Column 74: The Membership Quilt—Czech Quilting in Texas
Column 73: Maximum Security Quilts
Column 72: Author: Terri Thayer
Column 71: The Christmas Quilt
Column 70: New Mexico Centennial Quilt
Column 69: Scrub Quilts
Column 68: “Think Pink” Quilt Raises Funds for Rare Cancer Research
Column 67: Righting Old Wrongs.
Column 66: 100 Years, 100 Quilts - More on the Arizona Centennial.
Column 65: Arizona Centennial Quilt Project
Column 64: Capt. John Files Tom’s Family Tree
Column 63: The Fat Quarters
Column 62: Quilt Fiction Author: Clare O’Donohue
Column 61: Louisiana Bicentennial Quilt
Column 60: The Camo Quilt Project.
Column 59: Thread Wit
Column 58: Ralli Quilts
Column 57: Preschool Quilters
Column 56: The Story Quilt
Column 55: Red and Green Quilts
Column 54: On the Trail
Column 53: Quilt Trail Gathering
Column 52: True Confessions: First Quilt
Column 51: Quilted Pages
Column 50: Doll Quilts
Column 49: More Than a Quilt Shop
Column 48: Las Colchas of the Texas-Mexico Border
Column 47: Literary Gifts
Column 46: A Different Way of Seeing
Column 45: Sampling
Column 44: Hen and Chicks
Column 43: A Star Studied Event
Column 42: Shoo Fly Pattern
Column 41: Awareness Quilts
Column 40: Tivaevae
Column 39: UnOILed UnspOILed Coast Quilt Project
Column 38: Katrina Recovery Quilts
Column 37: Quilted Vermont
Column 36: The Labyrinth Quilt—A Meditative Endeavor
See other archived columns here