Read an Excerpt
True Stories from Quilters
By Sonja Hakala
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Sonja Hakala
All rights reserved.
CIRCLES IN TIME
One long line of fabric, that's how my life story is told.
It seems like a long time ago, when the quilting bug hit me. My first quilt was made in Jerusalem, from velvets bought at a tailor shop in the heart of the city. It was a baby quilt for my friend Aviva's fifth child — a beautiful daughter — back in 1976.
When I moved to San Francisco, I made friends with a woman named Diana, a woman who had been bit hard by the quilting bug. She roped me in through friendship and our mutual love of fabric. She took me to a store called New Pieces, in Berkeley, on one of my favorite shopping streets, Solano Avenue.
Carlberg was the owner then. The store had a wooden stage in back for Friday night concerts. During the week, a harpsichord sat on the stage. The store's name was a play on music and on his partner Judiyaba's quilting. This was in the eighties, 1985 or '86. My daughter was just a few years old.
I remember signing up for a class at New Pieces with Lucy Hilty, a hand quilting class. What a treat. She was a little English woman, round, petite, sweet, and smart. She had us doing the math to get our borders turned out just right so that the pattern flowed. I loved it.
After taking her class I designed a quilt with a smiling fish in the center, a circular border of feathers, and then another circular feather border. On the paper drawing, it all came together perfectly thanks to Lucy's math lessons.
It was another few years before I started to work on that quilt. Okay, maybe more than a few years. It was 1992 and I took it along with me when my daughter and I traveled to Surfer's Paradise in Queensland, Australia, to see Aviva, the good friend whose daughter had received my first quilt. I did a lot of stitching on that trip. I was so pleased to be finally working on it. The plane ride was long and the quilting kept me busy while my daughter, who was eight at the time, slept.
I finished the quilt in time to show it in my guild's biannual show, Voices in Cloth. My teacher, Lucy, loved it, and I was so proud to have it up there for all to see. At my friend Aviva's suggestion, I'd put beads on it — very revolutionary for me — representing air bubbles coming from the fish.
Time passed. I was an active East Bay Heritage Quilters guild member by then, even serving on its board of directors. I retired from my day job when my daughter was in seventh grade to become a full-time mom and quilter. But after several years of retirement, I got itchy to "do something" and took a class on how to find the perfect job. After a few months of "back to work" training and putting together a résumé that suited me, I applied at my local quilt shop, New Pieces, now owned by Sally Davey. Something that Sally told me during that interview stuck. She told me I'd never be a customer again, I'd be forever pegged as a New Pieces employee, always there to help others.
After working for more than thirty years in Corporate America, in the computer industry, I thought I had died and gone to heaven in my new job. I had always been a seamstress but I made my living in computers. Now I was selling fabric to quilters — who loved sewing as much as I did. I still can't get over how lucky I was to have gotten that job.
I studied with more and more teachers, got a photograph of one of my quilts published in a book of Gai Perry's, got accepted in the Pacific International Quilt Festival, got more active in East Bay Heritage Quilters, and really started expressing my inner self in my quilts. In other words, I generally enjoyed all there is to enjoy as a collector of fabric and a quilter.
Years passed — three or four, I don't know how many — and I was as happy working at New Pieces as I had been on my first day there. My daughter, Leila, was growing. The teen years were trying but I had my community of quilters and my work at New Pieces.
My brother passed away the week before September 11, 2001, and I expressed my grief in a quilt that was published in America from the Heart by Karey Bresnahan. Then, when my daughter graduated and moved on with her own life, Sally decided to sell New Pieces. My dear husband, Jack, and I looked over the prospect of buying the business but decided against it. Another quilt or two passed through my fingers and then Sally talked about closing the store.
Well, that decided it. New Pieces and the community of quilters it serves was more important than anything else. I had to buy — so we did.
New Pieces became formally owned by Jack and me on January 1, 2004. When I remember that class I took with Lucy Hilty back in 1985, it seems impossible that I would own this very same shop. It continues to be a gathering place for quilters and teachers from all over the world.
Recently, while at Asilomar with my guild, I finished my daughter's high school graduation quilt — two and a half years in the making and hand quilted free-form à la Joe Cunningham — and I was moved to tears. I felt like I had just run the seven and a half miles of the Bay-to-Breakers race and finished! The folks in the room cried with me because they knew what it meant to complete such an undertaking. There's a piece of woven Japanese fabric on the back of it that cost way more than I normally spend on any fabric. I bought it from Sally Davey when she owned New Pieces. The main piece of fabric on the quilt's top is a creme sateen that I bought from Carlberg when I took that first class from Lucy Hilty.
Now my friend Aviva and my teacher Lucy have passed on, Carlberg and Sally have moved on, and Leila has grown. Yet we are still together through our fabrics, a long line of fabric touching and connecting us all.
SHARONA FISCHRUP lives with her dear hubby, Jack, and their vizsla, Mowgli, in the East Bay area of Northern California. She lives for her daughter, Leila, her mom, JoAnn, and her wonderful family and friends. She also lives for her quilting community — all the folks who share her passion. She thanks Jaye Lapachet for telling her about American Patchwork so she could tell this story. Visit Sharona in person at New Pieces or at www.newpieces.com.CHAPTER 2
A GUY THAT SEWS
JOE ZELLNER, JR.
"You can't do that!"
"Because it won't work out."
"Yes, it will."
"No. Also, you can't cut it that way."
"Because it won't work."
"Yes, it will."
"Fine. Do it your way."
Snip, snip. "Mom? What do I do next?"
That is how my Christmas was this year. After traveling to get together with family for the holidays, we had some time to work on projects. As a fairly new quilter, I didn't know the ropes. But as a "Guy That Sews," I knew I could do anything.
I started sewing young when my mom was making and repairing clothes for us kids. When she was busy working, I would do my own repairs. I enjoyed doing anything with my hands and Mom was glad to have me help out because it kept me busy and out of trouble.
After getting married, life got too hectic to think about much and after not sewing for a long time, I picked it up again as a way to keep myself sane. I mean, what else can you do when your snowmobile doesn't start, there's four feet of snow on the ground, your ice auger blades are dull, and it's thirty below?
So I started finishing my wife's projects. She'd start stuff and then get bored and put it away. I'd find them later and finish them. So I guess you could say that my love of sewing started up again because of my wife.
Making my own hunting clothes was fun. I wanted certain features on my outfit that no one was doing so I'd design my own stuff. Then came presents — gloves for the kids, bathrobes for the women of the family, hunting clothes for the guys.
Our family and our friends' families started growing up. Now there were all these babies! So what do you make a newborn? Well, it just seemed natural to make a quilt for a baby. Hence the argument at Christmas about the quilt I was trying to make.
You see, my mom has made so many quilts, she seems to do them in her sleep. And here I was, doing them on the bias and cutting all these weird angles. And when she told me that I couldn't do them that way, it just made me pigheaded. To me, as a carpenter, nothing is impossible. The stranger it is, the more I enjoy it.
Well, after a lot of frustrating moments, my first quilt turned out okay and they just keep getting better and better. Some day, I'll get back to designing and making clothes. But for now, I'm sticking to flat cloth.
"Mom? Why won't this stupid thing come out right? The points are all crooked."
JOE ZELLNER, JR., is a carpenter who lives in the woods in northern Minnesota. He began quilting several years ago to pass the time during the long winter nights. Construction and creativity are passions of his whether they are with wood or fabric. He owes his love of sewing to his mother, who is an accomplished quilter and seamstress.CHAPTER 3
MISS BECK'S GIFT
I think I must have one of the best jobs in the world. I'm the chief curator of the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, and in that capacity, I have the opportunity to interact with one of the best quilt collections you will find anywhere. The museum's founder, Electra Havemeyer Webb, was an eclectic collector who is credited with being one of the first people who, at the turn of the twentieth century, appreciated quilts as works of art. It used to be that if a quilt was displayed in a museum at all, it was merely decoration for a piece of furniture. But Mrs. Webb insisted that quilts be displayed on their own and hung so that viewers could see and appreciate their colors and patterns as well as the extraordinary talents of the women who crafted them.
Before I moved up to Vermont, my work as a curator focused on the fine arts and I had little experience with quilts. Because of that, I looked at quilts with an eye trained by painting. Consequently, I was attracted to quilts with color that really pops, like an Amish quilt we have from Lancaster County called Concentric Squares. Its slate blue and red squares are nested inside one another and it reminds me of Op Art paintings of the 1960s, because your eyes just can't stay still when you look at it.
My other favorites are among the Album quilts, especially a centennial quilt made by Minnie Burdick in 1876. There are thirty-six blocks in this quilt and each one of them is an original drawing in fabric. There are two scenes from the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, interpretations of Biblical stories such as Noah and the ark, twins in a cradle, bounty from the sea featuring lobster and crab, fruits and flowers, all sorts of animals, and scenes from her hometown of North Adams, Massachusetts. It is simultaneously sophisticated and childlike and completely original.
I'm telling you all of this so that perhaps you'll understand why I was so lukewarm about this quilt that the museum received from a quilter named Ida W. Beck back in 1955. Compared to the zing of the Amish quilts or the originality of pieces like Minnie Burdick's Album quilt, Miss Beck's gift to the museum seemed too subtle to me.
Miss Beck was born in Easton, Pennsylvania, in 1880, and because of health problems, she was a shut-in all her life. There weren't too many outlets for a woman's creativity back then except needlework, so Miss Beck devoted her life to fine embroidery, especially monogramming.
I daresay that the quilt she gave to the museum is probably the best work she ever did. It's 94 × 90 inches of quilted and embroidered cotton. The background is cream colored, and on this canvas, Miss Beck embroidered eight different versions of the alphabet, each one in a different type of lettering, with a large alphabet monogram in the center panel. There's a tree of life centered on the bottom edge that's decorated with an alphabet and flanked by interpretations of the four seasons. This incredible array of embroidering prowess is framed by a scalloped edging of soft pinks, blues, yellows, and lavenders that in turn is framed by dark green fabric attached with a feathered edge. There are six scallops on each side — twelve in all — and each one presents the name of one of the months of the year decorated by appropriate flowers.
As I said, it is extraordinary, but it just didn't have the same appeal to me as others in the collection. That's why when I put together an exhibit of 100 Masterpiece Quilts, Miss Beck's piece did not make my first cut.
But a funny thing happened on the way to hanging the exhibit. We have a building dedicated to quilts on the museum grounds, and before the Shelburne opened for the season that May, we were quite busy putting these fabric masterpieces on display, hanging each so that it would be seen to its best advantage. Somehow, when we were all done, I ended up with this gap in the exhibit. With opening day so close at hand, I didn't have time to reconfigure the exhibit or make any adjustments. It was easier to add a quilt and I thought that Miss Beck's gift would fill up the spot nicely.
Here at the Shelburne, we always try to include an educational component in our special exhibits because we've found that our visitors have so many questions about our collections of dolls, witch balls, hatboxes, tools, carriages, carousel figures, weather vanes, glass canes, and antiques. So long before the 100 Masterpiece Quilts exhibit opened, I'd contacted the Champlain Valley Quilt Guild to ask if any of the members would be willing to appear regularly at the Shelburne and bring whatever they were working on. That way, visitors could see how quilts are made and the guild members could answer questions.
The quilters also acted as guides, showing off the masterpieces in the exhibit. It wasn't long before I heard back from them that people loved all the quilts but the favorite one of all was, you guessed it, Miss Beck's. People would "ooh" over the Amish quilts and "aah" over the Album quilts, but the sound that accompanied the sight of all that embroidery and exquisite quilting was one of undeniable appreciation. It just goes to show that curators don't know everything.
So, I've learned to look twice at the individual pieces in our quilt collection and nurture an even greater interpretation of the many talents and skills of their makers, especially Miss Beck.
HENRY JOYCE was the chief curator of the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. He's the author of several books about the museum's many collections, ranging from Impressionist paintings to decorative hatboxes and everything in between. You can find out more about the Shelburne on its Web site, www.shelburnemuseum.org.CHAPTER 4
THE STORYTELLER'S DREAM
Every quilt has its own share of memories, some funny, some very personal, some just downright eerie. While each of my quilts prompts its share of these memories, there's one in particular that's a storyteller's dream.
I was just learning the art of quilting when I purchased some quilt design software. I was anxious to start using my new computer program and found it to be very straightforward, but my lack of quilting experience was a major hindrance to the design process. Now I'm a huge fan of Dear Jane blocks, the ones based on the dizzying array of geometrics originally sewed by Jane Stickle in Vermont in the mid-nineteenth century. It was a challenge but eventually I designed a quilt packed full of her patterns with the feel of an Irish chain.
With a printout of my impending masterpiece tucked under one arm, I drove to my local quilt shop to pick out fabrics with the enthusiasm of a new mother. But as I wandered among the stacks and shelves of beautiful fabrics, I became more and more confused. Lacking a natural eye for color and a background in quilting, my enthusiasm turned to bewilderment. Then, just when I was feeling hopelessly lost, a very kind and very experienced saleslady approached, asking if I needed help. Her name was Leslie and she was an angel. I showed her my design and asked for help picking out fabric. Leslie was less than enthralled with my design but nonetheless, she set out on a mission to find the perfect fabrics.
Excerpted from American Patchwork by Sonja Hakala. Copyright © 2007 Sonja Hakala. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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