October 27, 2003

Meeting Tompkins County's Quilting Guild

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Last weekend, the Tompkins County Quilting Guild hosted its fourteenth biennial quilting show, “Traditions and Beyond 2003.” The overwhelming positive response to the show — which garnered over 1300 visitors — is only an indicator of the popularity and influence of the guild in the community.

The guild, founded in 1974 by Jeanne Greene, has seen tremendous growth since its inception. Starting with twenty members who met weekly, it has grown to 140 members who are involved in events ranging from quilting workshops to ABC Quilts for at-risk babies.

The guild now meets semimonthly at the Women’s Community Building on 100 W. Seneca St. Here, the guild members meet and share techniques, patterns and stories. The first meeting is generally a lecture or workshop, while the second focuses on personal projects and community service.

“We may have a guest speaker, work on ABC Quilts, special workshops, visit a museum — anything that the committee can find for us that is interesting to see or do that relates to quilting,” explains guild member Kristin Thompson.

Equally important at these meetings is the social aspect. “At every meeting we have show and tell,” Barbara Dimock told The Sun. Here, members show their finished quilts or works in progress, and offer others advice and critique. “It’s a real sharing and caring community,” Dimock added.

Members of all levels and interest are invited to share, learn and contribute. With the guild’s ambitious service record, the openness to contributors doesn’t hurt.

The guild makes and auctions quilts to raise money for charities such as Habitat for Humanity and the Ithaca Breast Cancer Alliance. “It is a lot of fun to use quilting, something that we love, as a way to help others in the community,” explained Thompson. “One of the biggest fund raisers we have done has been in support of IBCA. I think we raised over $40,000 with two separate small quilt auctions.”

In addition to monetary support, the guild makes a direct difference by donating thousands of quilts to the ABC Quilt program, which matches children of teen pregnancies and AIDs mothers with quilts. The guild has annual quilting bees which draw upon the entire Tompkins County community to help with these programs.

Funding these various workshops, meetings and service events is the guild’s biennial show. This year’s show, the fourteenth put on by the guild, featured over 250 quilts and saw more than 50 small quilts auctioned off to cover the guild’s expenses.

“The planning starts a year ahead of time,” Dimock said. Well before the show, advertising, floor layout and logistics are devised and discussed by the committee. Also at this time, the show’s centerpiece quilt is begun.

At each show, a large quilt is raffled to guild members. The quilt is a showcase of the guild’s various styles and techniques with approximately thirty individuals working on it. Work begins a year before the show and ends just prior to the show’s opening — an example of the tremendous amount of effort and time that go into a quilt.

This year’s raffle quilt, entitled “Even Flowers Get the Blues,” involved a mixture of machined and hand-quilting to apply the complex flower designs to the fabric. “It was a real combination of techniques,” Dimock said.

Most of the quilts auctioned off are smaller, submitted by both local members and quilters outside of the guild. All, however, involved a lot of time and dedication to their creation.

This year’s theme, “Tradition and Beyond 2003,” emphasized quilting’s long tradition and recent evolutions. “Quilting is a very old skill, coming to Europe from the East, probably central Asia,” explained Prof. Charlotte Jirousek, textiles and apparel.

But because of quilting’s close ties with the American frontier “preserving and making use of what you had,” quilting has become “the most unique and well-defined American craft,” she added.

According to Jirousek, as quilting moved from frontier necessity to becoming an artistic and social activity, elaborations on the basic patterns arose. In the 19th century, “Crazy Quilts” came into vogue, using silk fabric with fine embroidery.

Soon after, however, a renewed interest in quilting’s humble origins focused on the quilting of poor peoples, especially the rural South, Jirousek said. Whatever the guise, however, quilts and quilting is now a firmly American art. “America has become the world model for this craft. England has a long tradition [in quilting], but they often emulate America,” Jirousek said.

She also made a distinction between quilting, which involves sandwiching layers of cloth and fabric, and simple patchwork, which is simply putting various pieces of fabric together. Although the two crafts share a fair amount of cross-over, there is a distinct difference.

With growing interest in quilting and a large turnout, this year’s show was certainly a success in spreading the history and joy of quilting to the area. “There’s something very warm and drawing about quilts, I think that’s what gets people involved,” Dimock said. “Ithaca has grown into a quilting nexus.” That nexus is a far cry from the 20 quilters the guild started with.


Archived article by Michael Morisy