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Quilting: A modern tradition

Article by Diane Alexander

Quilts – August 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Quilting is no longer a half-forgotten skill relegated to old-fashioned grandmothers and dusty attics. At a recent organizational meeting for the eighth annual Chaffee County Quilt and Textile Show (June 25-July 4), the women were feisty and the talk was animated.

Is quilting an art? The answer, from the eleven quilters gathered at Bev’s Stitchery in Buena Vista, was a resounding “Yes!”

“Quilting takes creativity,” said Barbara Barr, “and many award-winning quilters have been other kinds of artists before they took up quilting. The tactile aspect to quilting, being able to feel your artistic creation with your hands, is very inviting.”

“Besides,” another added half in jest, “do you know how hard it is to get your corners to match?”

Although the women at the meeting gather annually to plan the show, they have no name for their group, and anyone is welcome.

Before this session came to order, several works in progress were shared and praised, and technical problems got discussed. As the meeting progressed, most of the women sewed very small — to the uninitiated observer, horribly small — pieces of cloth together, patiently making tiny, even stitches. Using a sewing machine is not considered cheating, though, and many quilters employ one extensively, even if some purists won’t touch one.

Quilting has been around for a long time: Chinese jackets, Egyptian and Aztec warriors’ tunics, mats and coverlets of Rome and Asia. Medieval knights wore quilted garments under their armor — or in place of armor if they were poor knights — and quilted bedcovers became a popular art form in l4th-century Europe. It wasn’t until quilting came to North America with European settlers that it developed into the unique artform it remains today, distinctive for its use of small bits of colored fabric to form elaborate designs.

Why did pioneer women go to such lengths to produce intricate quilts when they surely had their hands full with other chores? Modern quilters came up with many answers.

Quilts were necessary not only for warmth in ill-heated dwellings, but also provided a use for scraps of cloth left over from sewing family clothes or remnants from household fabrics-that were not thrown away in frugal times. Quilt designs began as simple patchwork shapes or “crazy quilts,” but designs evolved that resected pioneer experiences.

“You can’t make a woman not be creative,” said one quilter, and creativity and pioneer experience are reflected in quilt-pattern names: Log Cabin. Shoo Fly, Turkey Track, Lone Star, Melon Patch.

Another woman said, “That was about the only artistic outlet for women 100 years ago. If the women in sod houses had stayed up all night painting or sculpting, they would have been ridiculed.”

Perhaps more than many other forms of art, quilting holds an intimate connection to the artist’s emotions. In the old days, pieces of fabric from the clothing of a dead relative, or someone left back east who might never be seen again, were thoughtfully sewn into a quilt to serve as a tactile and visual reminder of a loved one.

A quilter told of women who had created special designs to help them cope with death or divorce; the process of planning, designing, and sewing the quilts helped the women cope with their grief.

The most striking example of quiltmaking as both therapy and a memorial is the AIDS quilt: 27,000 squares, each devoted to a victim of AIDS. This quilt is made of 12’x12′ sections which can be connected for display: if it were all in one piece, it would cover 16 football fields. The squares are each 3’6′ — the size of a grave and carry the name of the deceased, along with various representations of personal memories: pieces of clothing, jewelry, photographs, even a small portion of cremated ashes. Each week, about 50 new squares are added.

Along with the therapeutic value of creating a work of art, the women at Bev’s Stitchery stressed that sharing the creative process with their quilter sisters was half the fun. Ideas get shared, new creations are admired, technique is discussed, and the friendship and support of others enhances the entire experience.

These women have been quilting for anywhere from six months to 40 years. Some sew only traditional patterns. Others create exuberant designs. Whatever the skill level involved, there is an atmosphere of respect for each other’s work. Although talk during the meeting was lively, the women were quick to point out that they don’t gossip — topics of community interest are shared, and laughter is common.

“My husband said if I bring any more fabric home, he’ll leave,” said one woman. “I sure will miss him,” she added, paraphrasing a bumper sticker.

The works at the Chaffee County Quilt and Textile Show were a testament to the ingenuity and creativity of the artists. The intricate designs, imaginative use of color, and painstaking attention to detail made for a fascinating exhibit even a nonquilter could appreciate. Some were antiques sewn many years ago; others were strikingly modem and non-traditional. Bev Zabloudil, owner of Bev’s Stitchery and a prime organizer of the event, stressed that the show, which is not Judged and open to anyone, has a completely different display each year.

Explanations for the allure of quilting are varied: the need to be creative, the fun of choosing colors and patterns, the perpetuation of an ancient and traditional art, the therapeutic value of bringing a design to fruition, and sharing the whole process with others.

Perhaps quilter Janet Pugh summed it up best when she said she liked the old saying, “The wisest way to use your time is to make something that will outlive you.”

Diane Alexander is a free-lance book editor in Buena Vista.