Pastimes: Quilting resurgence merges art and craft
Nothing reflects the down-home comfort of a slower, simpler time better than Grandma’s well-worn and cozy quilt. But even as the world speeds up at an exponential pace and everything goes the way of sleek and shiny, quilting has seen a resurgence that is taking the art form into new territory—and attracting more and more Wester New Yorkers every year.
“It doesn’t show any sign of tapering off,” says Elaine McClory, a member of the Morningstar Quilt Guild and co-chair of the group’s upcoming Harvest of Quilts show October 5–6 at St. Matthias Episcopal Church in East Aurora. After twentieth-century industrialization turned quilting from a necessity into a disappearing hobby (except among the Amish), quilting picked up again in the 1980s, then soared through the ’90s and 2000s, as rising interest and the availability of better quality fabrics drove the opening of specialized quilt shops and the formation of guilds like Morningstar. There, quilters can exchange ideas and fabrics, take lessons on styles and techniques (from members as well as nationally recognized instructors), and enjoy the camaraderie of quilting together. Morningstar caps its membership at 100 and maintains a waiting list. (The group originally formed by splintering from another group, the Southtowns Piecemakers, which had experienced overwhelming growth; the Piecemakers now number 150, and other area groups can be just as large or larger.)
“It seems to attract a very generous-of-spirit type of person—people who care about other people, who are upbeat,” McClory says. “And some are very talented artistically. There are quite a few, as you get into the higher levels of quilting, who have art degrees. They just love the art part of it—the patterns, the colors, the creativity.” Yes, it’s still mostly women, but male quilters are out there, too.
A common thread among all area quilting guilds is a sincere commitment to community work. Last year, Morningstar and its charity-focused auxiliary group made and donated more than 150 quilts, comfort pillows, and other projects to worthy WNY causes. Anne Wasmund, who chairs Morningstar’s charity quilt efforts, notes that one project, with the hospice unit at the Veterans’ Administration hospital, is especially touching: The quilts comfort vets in their final days, cover their bodies as they exit the ward, and then go home with the vets’ families. The outpouring of support is momentous: “The women are incredible in their time and their efforts,” she says.
Quilts range from their simplest form—two layers of fabric sewn together with padding batting in the middle—to intricate patterns or free-form designs with challenging hand- and machine-sewing techniques. Some utilize new fabric; others may be made from old clothing or scraps. Styles are constantly evolving and vary from the traditional, which are based on repetition of pattern blocks (with names like Wedding Ring, Storm at Sea, and Drunkard’s Path), to art quilts, which eschew the constraints of predefined patterns and conventional notions of design. Some are abstract; others evoke landscapes like a painting. The most extreme example McClory has seen was an art quilt made of used Band-Aids. (“It was really ugly,” she admits.) A quilt may have only two colors, or hundreds.
McClory notes newcomers to quilting or even sewing in general should not be intimidated. “It’s very accessible,” says McClory, adding that even the simplest quilts can be beautiful works, and the educational resources available through shops, guilds, and shows allow anyone to get involved.
At A Harvest of Quilts, visitors can expect to see rooms full of quilts of various styles, with a special exhibit featuring the Keepsake Quilting Challenge Collection, a traveling exhibition of quilts from across the globe that won the New Hampshire-based challenge. A member-made quilt will be raffled, and the show will include technique demonstrations, supply and book vendors, a boutique of quilted items, and more. The $5 admission partly funds Morningstar’s charity quilting efforts. Like most area quilt guilds, Morningstar hosts this show biennially.
Because of the cost and time that goes into a quilt—an average-sized quilt may take anywhere from forty to hundreds of hours to complete, and use $150 or more in materials—artisanal handmade quilts are generally made for loved ones or for art’s sake. “People wouldn’t be able to sell them for what they put into them, so they generally keep them or give them as gifts,” McClory explains.
So what makes quilting worth all that money and time? “Just the fun of doing it,” she says. “The fun, and making a special gift for someone you care about, because you enjoy the process of making it.”
A Harvest of Quilts VII
10 a.m.–7 p.m., Oct. 5; 10 a.m.–3 p.m., Oct. 6
St. Matthias Episcopal Church
374 Main St., East Aurora
WNY sports a number of quilt shops, including:
Sew What? Quilt Shop
(6816 Main St., Amherst; 716-632-8801)
Pine Grove Quilt Shop
(2962 Delaware Ave., Kenmore; 716-873-0774)
Threads of Time
(3133 Sheridan Dr., Amherst; 716-837-1372)
The Quilt Farm
(5623 Feddick Rd., Boston; 716-941-3140)
Amherst Museum Quilters’ Guild
Eden Quilt Guild
Kenan Quilters’ Guild, Lockport
Morningstar Quilt Guild, East Aurora
Quaker Quilters, Orchard Park
Southtowns Piecemakers, East Aurora
(For contact info and more guilds, see the statewide list at quiltguilds.com/new-york.htm)
Jay Pawlowski is a writer living in Kenmore.