300 Quilts · Patterns by Elizabeth of OPQuilt · Quilt Finish

Quilt Finish: Aerial Beacon

To get across great distances, way back in the day, early airplane pilots would focus on visual landmarks, or sometimes lit bonfires if they needed to find their way in the dark: “In February 1921, an airmail pilot named Jack Knight put this to the test with his all-night flight to Chicago from North Platte, Nebraska. Knight found his way across the black prairie with the help of bonfires lit by Post Office staff, farmers, and the public” (from here). When I found this Aerial Beacon block, it sent me gathering information about this idea: that there were physical beacons to guide those airmail pilots before we had modern navigation. Really? I’d never even thought about this.

An early map showing one of the routes across the United States.

Many aerial beacons were atop tall city buildings. This is from a vintage postcard of Chicago.

Some aerial beacon were little huts with a number painted on the roof. They were next to the tall beacon, with a concrete arrow pointing on to the next one. These are still found in the United States on hilltops, beside cities, although there are very few extant arrows.

This quilt began with these French Bee fabrics by Renee Nanneman. I kept trying to think of names for the bees, and thought up “sky pilots.” Nope. That’s an established term for clergymen/women, which I also didn’t know. So I kept looking, and then found this:

A traditional block, which would let the bees show off nicely, as well as the coordinating fabrics. I loved those four big triangles; sort of like propeller blades (another reference to flight). So I made my first block, wondering if could I even do this? I chose to make this a foundation paper-pieced block, so as to get those snappy points and to keep everything in place (pattern coming next year some time).

ultra-high radio frequency waves (RFID, or radio frequency identification)

Then, thinking about the idea of RFID waves, and the communications that replaced the aerial beacon huts, I referenced them with a waved border made with bias binding. It was a good exercise to figure it out, and I love how it looks.

Jen of Sew-Mazing Quilting went the extra mile in the quilting. I had many strong colors in the blocks and a very light border and backgrounds and I asked her to use Superior’s MicroQuilter thread in silver (7007). Bob Purcell (who founded Superior) told me it was their best blender, and he was right.

late-night sewing

I did begin making the blocks way back in October, first thinking about a design with nine blocks. But there was so much fabric left from each French bee color, that I made more. And took trips to Utah. And tried to sew. And took trips to Utah. And I kept trying to write the pattern, because it was such a fun block. And took a final trip to Utah. Then unlike those early pilots ferrying mail, in the next few weeks I felt more than once like I had lost my way. This quilt spent a lot of time wadded up in the corner, as I just didn’t have the moxie to work on it.

I even had the backing ready to go as I dithered and dithered about whether I should quilt it myself or not. I finally realized that given my current state, you-know-what would freeze over before I got around it it. When Jen returned the quilt, it sat some more time. Finally this past week, I found my way to binding it. (Binding is a lot less stressful since learning this trick.) And then I indexed it: Quilt #273.

the back of the quilt, held by the best Quilt-Holding Husband, at a local park

Since I often write about my own life on this blog, I will share that I have often wondered how I would react when my mother died. I thought about it off and on in my life, sometimes thinking I’d be perfectly fine and then other times thinking I’d be a total wreck. My mother lived to be 94, so she had been with me my entire life and really, truly, I liked her a lot. Yes, we had our differences, and no, she was not perfect, but in her later years (before it got really hard for her), we had an easy camaraderie. The truth is many days I am perfectly fine, and at other moments, in other days, I’m quite tender around the edges, breaking into tears. You probably know how it goes. When I was a teenager, Dad got all the credit, but I came to realize — and even more now that she is gone — that she did all the heavy lifting of relationships, of sending me little gifts, of checking in with me. I always knew she was my best cheerleader.

I had a chance a couple of years ago, after a presentation with the Utah Valley Quilt Guild, to go up to her condo and give her and Dad and one of her friends a mini Guild Presentation. Her eyesight was failing then, but we passed around the quilts so she could look at them up close and feel them; she enjoyed it all. She apologized that she didn’t have more of her friends there, but that wasn’t who the show was for.

It was for her, my mother, now my very own aerial beacon.

Other posts about this quilt:

Bias Binding Fun

the label, a simple one this time

20 thoughts on “Quilt Finish: Aerial Beacon

  1. Elizabeth this is another stunning quilt, an amazing piece of history memorialized and I can only hope that you find your way back to finding the joy in your quilting adventures. As I rediscovered last year grief can rob you of the joy in the simple pleasure of putting needle to thread, but with time and the shared memories of your mother you will get to a new point of creating and sharing. Just be gentle with yourself. 🤗

  2. So sorry about the loss of your mom. I’m so glad you had her to be your beacon. “Tender around the edges” is the very best description of heartfelt loss.

    Love your new quilt: the bees, the pattern, and that border. Is this what you made the red bias for originally? You’ve really given me a good idea. Thank you again.

  3. Oh, Elizabeth, your 🐝 fabric is beautiful along with the design of the quilt. Yes, your very own aerial beacon, what a lovely title. You know she is and is also so proud of you 👍. Sending big hugs my friend 🤗

  4. I’m going to borrow “tender around the edges,” as I’m in the thick of saying goodbye to someone I love dearly. As you, I’m ok and then suddenly I’m crying watching a movie that isn’t sad at all.

  5. What a lovely quilt and way to feature the prints. I’m glad that you kept going and made more than your originally planned 9 blocks. I’m also glad that you sent it out for quilting and were able to find the energy to get it bound and finished. I found that when I’m in deep grief that I just don’t have the energy to work on quilting, either. I like being around the fabrics, but having the energy to complete anything has taken me months to recover. I like how this quilt serves as a beacon to remind you of so much (it’s much like my own quilt / design Beacon). Oh, and that the arrows still exist? Now that’s really cool!

  6. An interesting history lesson, a good process retelling, and a huggable reflection. Sending thoughts and prays your way, Elizabeth.

  7. Love this quilt and look forward to the pattern! Mostly I love the tender words expressed about your mother and your loss. As a woman in her mid 60’s I have experienced several losses, a brother, both parents and most recently my husband; but through it all those tender memories remain and help see us through. Continuing to pray for you.

  8. This was a lovely post. Your memories and quilt brought back so many memories of my own. My dad spent his life involved with airplanes and aerospace. Not only is this a beautiful block, but this history is also wonderful. Here’s to all our aerial beacons, especially your mom.

  9. Great finish even if it took awhile. You had a lot to deal with last year and you will continue to experience those ups and downs. Your words today nearly brought me to tears as I remember my own mom and how she was the driving force in my family. Her strength is something I admire and aspire to today. I enjoy hearing the backstory when you post about your quilts and always learn something new. Love the image of the concrete arrow. Imagining those types of directional markings normally seen on paper as real 3-D forms scattered around the world is a fun thought. Take care.

  10. Hi Elizabeth,
    I always look forward to your posts. I love the bees and I really like the block design.
    Keep on quilting,

  11. That is such a great quilt Elizabeth! I love how you finish your quilts off with a distinctive and striking border. I wish I could do that! I love the bee fabric. And the block reminds me of one I made in 2020. It appears in my Sentiero quilt from a pattern I found here:
    It seems her inspiration came from the Barbara Brackman encyclopedia. Yours is far more complicated than mine, with some well placed equilateral triangles.
    Your words in honour of your mother are beautiful!

  12. What a wonderful post, thank you! You have done a stellar job on this quilt and I cannot wait for the pattern (love that it’s paper pieced). And I feel confident your mom would so enjoy that you’ve made and named a quilt Aerial Beacon, seeing so clearly now that she truly filled that role in your life. Continue to be gentle with yourself – don’t you suspect that’s what she would tell you?

  13. This post is like an illustrated essay and was so enjoyable to read! I love the story about aerial beacons. Your wonderful block and quilt fit the concept perfectly as does your segue to the recent loss of your mom. I think it is very typical, after losing a mother who lived a long and good life, to feel “normal” most days, but “tender around the edges” (love that phrase!) on others. Thank you for sharing and wishing you happy stitching!

  14. Oh, Elizabeth, I always learn so much from your posts, thank you! I love this quilt and the fact that it’s paper pieced makes me love it even more.
    Our memories are amazing things, they pop up sometimes when least expected but I have found that they, like ourselves become less “tender around the edges” with time and we can enjoy them without tears…most of the time. I have to admit, your post today brought a few tears, I always have to remind myself that’s ok, it is what is needed at the time. Big hugs to you!

  15. Well! Those are some interesting details, and I like the quilt, too. I’m sure I think of my own Mother every day and always will. And yes, most days I’m fine but the grief still gets me occasionally, even after many years. Best wishes as you navigate this stage of your life.

  16. I love the quilt and the history you give. The history was all new to me. Here’s to strength as you deal with grief. I once heard a speaker compare/contrast grieving and labor. In labor, the moments get increasingly closer and more intense; in grieving they progressively get further apart. Never gone, but more manageable.

  17. Such an interesting quilt you’ve made! You put so much effort into researching it, and thank you for sharing that! Though I’d seen a couple of those beacon photos before, I guess I never knew what they signified. I appreciate your explanation of how those pilots got around in the dark. As for your translation of that into a quilt, it’s great! Your fabrics work so well in the block, and I love that you FPPed it. Good precision there too. And the waves in your bias tape border also communicate the quilt’s significance. (Did you get my pun there?) I’m truly sorry about your up and down emotions about losing your mother. It’s so difficult to move beyond that. Giving her an almost-private quilt program is a special memory to hang onto.

Your turn to have a say:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s