Karen Liska moves quickly from one side of her Bernina long-arm quilter to the other, explaining the mechanics of the partially computerized machine that takes up much of her studio.
Its metallic, crane-like arm and sewing head look suspiciously like the top half of a sci-fi praying mantis about to gobble up the yards of colorful fabric stretched beneath it. “Right now, I’m working on making quilted table runners as gifts,” she says, illustrating how the machine allows her the freedom to move its sewing head across yards of flat quilting fabric.
Liska is one of a new generation of quilters who use advanced, computerized sewing machines that can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $40,000 and look nothing like their grandmothers’ Singers. Still, the connection between generations is obvious in the design and feel of the quilts themselves. Many of today’s quilters have ancestors for whom quilting by hand was a way of life. “I have a quilt that was passed down through the family on my mother’s side by my third great-grandmother from Kentucky,” says Liska, who lives in Kennett Square. “I have other family quilts, as well.”
A few days later, in a windowless storage room at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, Laura Johnson opens a dozen boxes, each containing a carefully folded historic quilt. It’s just a small sample of the 300 or so in the museum’s vast collection. “They range from the 1600s to the 20th century,” says Johnson, Winterthur’s curator of textiles. “H. F. du Pont loved textiles, and he particularly liked the colors and textures of quilts. When a guest arrived, there’d be a show quilt on the bed—but the staff would quickly replace it with a regular quilt.”
Johnson further explains that du Pont, whose home and collections make up the facility’s historic core, was resourceful in how he used quilted material. He’d cut up quilts to use as upholstery, sometimes displaying the more mundane back because the color matched the rest of the room’s décor. “Think of a quilt as a fabric sandwich, with a top, filling and backing,” Johnson says.
And think of the action of quilting as the process of putting together that sandwich. The elaborate stitching that holds the sandwich together is one of its defining elements. A quilt can have many purposes, functional or decorative. “Early quilts from ancient China and Mesoamerica were used as a type of body armor,” Johnson says. “Early American quilts were often used as clothing. This one was originally a petticoat.”
“Wasn’t that awfully heavy to wear?”
I ask. “Yes, but think of how warm it was,” notes Johnson.
Kathy Irvine grew up in Southern California, which one would hardly think of as quilting territory. “My grandmother was a piecer and a hand-quilter in the 1950s,” she says. “As children, we played with scraps of fabric and pretty buttons. I started seriously sewing in about the seventh grade.”
Today, Irvine’s Wilmington studio is filled with fabrics, quilts in progress and books about quilting. There’s also a Brother sewing machine with an attached computer screen. “Every quilter has a fabric stash,” she says, opening the door to a long closet, its shelves stacked with hundreds of pieces of cloth.
Irvine is a “piecer”—someone who arranges and sews together swatches of cloth to create the colorful, artistic tops of the “fabric sandwich.” Then she sends it away to another artisan for the filling and backing.
Although quilting is complex in its history and heritage, its techniques and usages can be boiled down to three basic types: piecing, whole-cloth and appliqué. With piecing (or piecework) quilts, various pieces of fabric (historically remnants of garments sometimes cut into squares) are sewn together for the top. Whole-cloth is a single piece of fabric that may have a print of something that emphasizes the stitching. Appliqué is where a whole-cloth or pieced quilt is decorated with other things sewn onto it.
As an example of a variation called channeling, Johnson points out a whole-cloth quilt from the 18th century called a Calamanco. The quilter would pre-stitch channels on the fabric, then push or pull stuffing through the channels to create a raised pattern. Johnson also shows off a compass quilt of Quaker origin and a Baltimore album version made by multiple seamstresses, with each piece signed in stitching by its creator. Another quilt with a “turkey-red” color identifies its Camden, New Jersey, origins. It’s worth noting that Winterthur offers specialized tours of its quilt collection by reservation.
Quilting remains a social activity. “We call them quilting bees today,” Johnson says of the stitching get-togethers. “In the 18th century, they were called quilting frolics.”
Today’s quilters also get together regularly with local groups to work on quilts for charity. “Sometimes there are round-robins of small friendship groups that make a quilt with a theme,” says Irvine.
Not all quilters are women. Gwynedd’s Guy Bush started quilting years ago as a relaxing artistic outlet. He later taught his wife, Suzanne, the craft. “But we don’t quilt together,” says Bush, who makes piecework quilts mainly for family or charity auctions. “I really don’t like appliqué.”
Irvine, Liska and Bush also attend national or regional quilting shows to buy cloth, as there are few local fabric stores these days. Both grandmothers, Liska and Irvine hope to continue the long family heritage of quilting. “I’m repeatedly giving family members quilts of all sizes, starting from the very smallest baby quilts to larger, king-size bed quilts,” Liska says. “Grandchildren included.”
Irvine echoes this. “I’ve made many baby quilts for our two grandsons, each of them with a personalized message label from ‘Granma,’” she says. “I’ll live within them forever. That’s part of my legacy to them.”
Related: A Bride Honors Her Father at This Winterthur Wedding