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Discover Mid-America —October 2004

Practical folk art has enthusiastic devotees. By Ken Weyand.
The Space Quilt by Sue Nickels, Ann Arbor, MI and Pat Holly, Muskegon, MI. This quilt won the American Quilt Society's 2004 Bernina of America, Inc. Machine Workmanship Award. (AQS photo by Richard Walker)

To view a calendar of upcoming quilt shows, click here.

"What do you know about quilts?” my wife asked when I told her I would be writing about quilts.

Her implication was “not much,” and I had to admit she was right. My connection with quilting had been largely limited to sleeping under a well-used family quilt when I was a farm youngster, in an unheated north bedroom where a loose window allowed snow to drift in on winter nights.

After consulting quilt books, viewing Internet Web sites and talking with quilt collectors and retailers, my appreciation of quilters and quilt making has increased. It’s easy to see how quilt making fascinates and delights collectors. No longer just utilitarian objects for insulating against the winter cold, quilts have become popular folk art with several types available in hundreds of patterns.

Surrounded by myths and misconceptions, quilt making has experienced at least two revivals in the United States since colonial days. Collector clubs and shows throughout the Midwest keep the art of quilt making alive. Two major organizations coordinate and support their efforts, sponsoring large shows and promoting the art to new enthusiasts. Antique shops make quilts available, along with books and price guides. For many people, quilts and the craft that goes with creating them will never go out of style.

Quilt history

Most historians agree that quilting began in pre-colonial Europe, when padded and stitched garments were worn under outer layers of fashionable silk and other fabrics. In the American colonies, fabrics imported from Europe were used in quilt making. Because of the lack of fabrics available, there was little or no quilt making in America until the 1750s.

When we think of early-day quilt making, many of us picture colonial women of modest means quilting by their fireplaces or joining with others to hold quilting bees. Researchers have concluded that this picture may not be accurate. The reality is that fireplace light would be too dim for needlework, and most colonial women would have been too busy with other tasks during daylight hours to engage in quilting.

The same researchers say that women of wealth, who had more leisure time, would have done much of the quilting in colonial times. The popular notion of quilting bees being common in colonial times has largely been debunked by researchers, who claim quilting bees came about later when manufacturers made fabrics more widely available.

The Amish are one group of artisans that continued a tradition of quilting brought with them from Europe. The oldest surviving Amish quilts date from the early 1700s in Lancaster County, PA. Amish quilts, made with solid-color fabrics, date to the 18th century and were originally created as utilitarian coverings. Now valued as folk art, they are in great demand by collectors.

The Revolutionary War limited the availability of European fabrics. In the late 1700s, patriotic prints were being produced, many using patterns that included the eagle, which was adopted as a national symbol in 1782. The late 18th century also brought the 1793 invention of the cotton gin, making cotton widely available to quilt makers.

The pioneer era of the early 1800s introduced block patterns, new and cheaper dyes, power looms and other new patterns. By the 1840s, the textile industry in America was producing affordable fabrics that allowed quilting to flourish. Steamboats were delivering printed fabrics from eastern manufacturers to settlers fanning out across the country.

The invention of the sewing machine in 1850 and its increased use in the home brought machine stitching to quilting. Improvements in the “stitching machines” a decade later made them more practical and widespread.

Country Meadows Antique Mall

The Civil War years made quilting an important enterprise as wives and mothers stitched coverlets and quilts for soldiers. Quilt making continued to flourish into the new century. In the early 1900s, flour-milling companies began producing feed sacks with printed patterns. Many families, particularly those in rural areas, took advantage of this ready supply of printed fabrics to make everyday dresses, children’s clothing, towels, curtains and quilts. As the years passed, woolen mills improved their procedures, eliminating seed particles and other impurities.

World War I put many women in the workforce and quilt making took a recess. After the war, a revival of quilting introduced nursery characters, baskets, birds and flowers as quilt patterns. The Great Depression of 1929-39 again caused the use of feed sacks and scraps to be used for quilting and clothing projects. This frugality continued into the 1940s with World War II.

Like World War I, World War II put many women into the workforce, and quilt making suffered a decline. Although machine-made quilts were sold in department stores as early as 1950, quilt making continued its decline in the U.S. through the 1950s and 1960s.

The Bicentennial of 1976 created a second quilting revival with many patriotic themes. Quilting benefited from the renewed interest in traditional crafts and folk art.

Two organizations promoting quilting are the American Quilter’s Society in Paducah, KY, and the National Quilting Association in Ellicott City, MD.

The American Quilter’s Society museum, which opened in 1991, houses a large collection of quilts, with traveling exhibits, workshops, festivals and more. New and antique quilts are included. The AQS hosts an annual quilt exposition each August in Nashville. The American Quilter magazine is published five times a year by AQS, along with several quilting books.

The National Quilting Association, Inc. was founded in the Washington, D.C. area in 1970 by seven women. Their office and gallery are located in Ellicott City, MD. Local chapters flourish in 50 states. The NQA publishes a quarterly newsletter, Quilting Quarterly. An annual show is held in June.

Merchants preserve quilting heritage

Connie Read knew she was doing the right thing in starting her own quilting/fabric business in Belton, MO. Early this year, Connie and her husband were driving around Belton looking for vacant business property.

Connie Read displays quilts from her great-grandmother at her shop, Heritage Fine Fabrics in Belton, MO. (photo by Ken Weyand)

“Just three days later,” Connie said, “my daughter told me she thought I was unhappy with my job, and should open my own business — a fabric shop.”

The advice of her adult daughter, completely independent of her own thoughts, convinced Connie the time was right. In June, Connie opened Heritage Fine Fabrics, at 120 Main Street in Belton. The shop sells quilting supplies, including fabrics from several time periods in dozens of patterns and styles. Classes are offered with aspiring quilters learning their craft in a comfortable, well-lit area. As many as eight quilters can be accommodated in each class.

Connie offers a “block of the month” plan to encourage participants to become successful quilters — and consistent customers. Each month, a separate block pattern is offered. Quilters have one month to finish their blocks and get a new one. At the end of the year, the 12 blocks can be assembled into a queen-size quilt. Either hand-piecing or machine stitching is permitted.

“Hand quilting is getting to be a lost art,” Connie said. “Most women prefer to use machines due to their busy schedules.

Connie said her love of sewing and fabrics began at an early age. “I was about nine when I started making Barbie clothes,” she said.

Although Connie doesn’t buy and sell antique quilts, two of her great-grandmother’s quilts are proudly displayed in her shop. “They were quilted in the late 1800s,” she said.

Heritage Fine Fabrics is open Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Wednesday and Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 816 331-1992.

In Greenwood, MO, Betty Mathis joked that her fifth Avenue address is “pretty stylish for a little town.”

VAC case scale model
Betty Mathis looks over her large selection of fabrics at the Calico Cat Quilt Shop in Greenwood, MO. (photo by Ken Weyand)

Betty co-owns Calico Cat Quilt Shop with her daughter, Sherrie Montgomery. The shop is located at 106 Fifth Avenue South, just off Main Street.

The modest shop is packed with patterns, fabrics and books for quilters. Betty, a former information technology specialist at Sprint, opened the shop in March 2003.

“Sherrie and I pretty much made the decision at the same time,” Betty said. “I wanted to have a shop when I retired, and my daughter and I both love quilts. I got interested as a girl and my husband’s grandmother was a prolific quilter.”

The shop’s main focus is on fabrics and supplies for quilters. “Our specialty is reproduction fabrics from the 1930s and 1800s,” Betty said. “We also have quilt classes in a building across the street. Twenty classes are currently scheduled.”

A “Second Saturday Quilt Block Club” has about 150 participants, according to Betty. Customers pay $5 to register then get blocks and patterns. Each month, they can bring in their completed blocks and get a new one free.

The store is a Thimbleberries Club shop. The club offers special patterns, fabrics and books. Calico Cat also sells quilt kits, which provide materials for a complete quilt.

Betty’s joy in operating the shop is apparent. “I’m a people person,” she said. “I had no idea what friendships I’d make when we started the shop.”

Shop hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Extended hours are offered for special events.

VAC case scale model
Lisa Winkler and a "T-Shirt Quilt" at her shop, Winding River Quilt Shop, Liberty, MO. (photo by Ken Weyand)

Calico Cat Quilt Shop is included in a special “Safari Shop Hop” Sept. 30 through Oct. 10. Twelve quilt shops in western Missouri are featured. For details, call the shop at 816-537-8855.

Lisa Winkler operated a quilt business out of her home in Gladstone, MO, before she moved into a 2,400 square-foot shop in Liberty, MO.

“The business plan took 50 pages,” she said. “I did a lot of research and studied the market before taking the plunge.”

Her research indicated that quilting is a $2 billion industry worldwide with a lot of small players and a lot of competition. Many of the small shop owners are undercapitalized; Lisa said that a newcomer to the business needs $150,000 to $200,000 to start a shop. Her shop, Winding River Quilt Shop, at 249 West Mill St., celebrated its first anniversary in September.

“I’ve always been fascinated with quilting,” Lisa said. “About 13 years ago, I took a course in hand-piecing. I’ve been an enthusiastic quilter ever since.”

In her shop, quilt fabrics are displayed with kit patterns along with completed quilts on the walls. A Thimbleberries Club shop, Winding River has many Thimbleberries Club blocks and complete quilts on display and sells all the Thimbleberries quilting materials. More than 2,500 bolts of fabric are offered in 1930s reproductions, batik block and traditional patterns. Unlike some shops, Winding River Quilt Shop emphasizes contemporary patterns rather than primitives.

VAC case scale model
Mary Hibbs, Nimble Thimbles Quilt Guild of Lee's Summit, MO, displays quilt art at the Bingham-Waggoner Estate. (photo by Ken Weyand)

“We also sell a lot of kits,” Lisa said.

Classes are offered in a separate room. Up to six persons make up the classes, which meet both on weekdays and weekends. Lisa publishes a quarterly newsletter, where customers can learn about special quilting events, class schedules and special merchandise offers including the “Saturday Sampler,” a monthly quilt block promotion.

A fun-loving group of quilters, calling themselves the Winding River’s Nimble Thimbles Quilting Bee, meet at the shop on the second Thursday of each month. There is no agenda — everyone brings her own project and enjoys a day of quilting and fellowship.

Business hours for Winding River are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday. For more information call 816-415-2686 or visit www.windingriverquiltshop.com.

Quilts on display

The Bingham-Waggoner Estate in Independence, MO, has been one of the area’s most popular tour homes for many years. The home of George Caleb Bingham before the Civil War, it was later owned by the Waggoner family, prominent millers from Pennsylvania. Waggoner descendents owned the estate until 1976, when the city of Independence bought it. Today, it is administered by the Bingham-Waggoner Historical Society.

Barbara White, site coordinator, said that a quilt show has been one of the featured events at the estate since 1987, always held throughout the month of September. For the past five years, the quilts have been provided by the Nimble Thimbles Quilt Guild of Lee’s Summit. More than 45 quilts — from 1930s to contemporary — were on exhibit in this year’s show. According to White, the estate has several historic quilts in its permanent collection.

1947 B John Deere
Quilt art by Linda Filby-Fischer, from Overland Park, KS. Her work can be seen Oct. 23-24 as part of a studio tour sponsored by the Kansas City Artists Coalition. For details, visit www.SAQA.com or call 913-722-2608. (photo by Ken Weyand)

The September exhibit featured the guild’s quilts displayed in various ways throughout the historic home — on beds, draped over cabinets and doors, and in glass cases. Paula Kilpatrick, the guild’s current president, said that although there were fewer quilts used in the display this year, they were selected as being in keeping with the style and décor of the Bingham-Waggoner Estate.

One of the largest quilts is the “opportunity quilt,” quilted by all the guild members. Named “Friends and Flowers,” it is the guild’s main fundraiser as a raffle item. It will be given away at the March 2005 meeting.

The Nimble Thimbles Quilt Guild will be represented at the Heart of America Quilt Festival, through Oct. 10 at Crown Center. In addition to having quilts on exhibit, members will demonstrate quilting at the show.

The Bingham-Waggoner Estate, located at 313 W Pacific, has its regular season April through October, in addition to a Christmas schedule. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 1-4 p.m., Sunday. Admission is $4 for adults, $3.50 for seniors and $1 for children and students. For more information call 816-461-3491 or visit www.bwestate.org.

To view a calendar of upcoming quilt shows, click here.


For more information on wineries in Mid-America visit Discover Mid-America's Wineries in the Heartland.


Discover Mid-America founder and Senior Contributing Editor Ken Weyand files regular reports on notable Midwest destinations. He can be reached at kweyand@gbronline.com.


> Discover Mid-America Archive — Past cover stories

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