Quilters Association Is Like An Old-time Bee--only National

October 13, 1991|By Margaret Buchler | Margaret Buchler,Contributing writer

They speak of great-great-grandmothers; wool from father's flock; five-generation hand-me-downs; cotton batting with seeds because Eli Whitney hadn't appeared with his invention yet; family scrap bags of wedding dresses.

There's a kind of comfort in quilts, to sit and sort over the bright patches woven warm with memories.

But if the soul of quilting comes from the frugal fingertips of the Colonial grandmothers, its heart now lies in churches and shady lanes of Howard County, where the National Quilting Association is headquartered along with three of its sisterhood chapters.

Whether stained a fiery saffron, madder and indigo or tucked into a soothing rhythmic blend, once-homey quilts have now gained recognition in museumsand art galleries as a dynamic textile art with eye-catching designsand, often, a high price. The non-profit NQA was established to promote the creating, collecting and preserving of quilts.

The association was founded in 1970 by seven women in the Washington suburbs, each carrying on a family tradition of quilting. In 1984, when Pat Brousil of Columbia was president, she found a badly needed new home for the organization at Howard County's Center for the Arts.

Today, the association has more than 5,500 members plus affiliates in Europe, Australia, Africa and Japan. Its annual show, which attracted 20,000 people this summer, moves throughout the United States.

"The art of quilt-making is increasing, and the average person coming into a group now is around 30 and 40," says Joan Klosek, association board member for eight years and a member of Columbia's Faithful Circle chapter.

Klosek is preparing a November exhibit of 15 pre-1940s Baltimore quilts by Manie Bryant, bought from her granddaughter. The exhibit will be on display at the Arts Center and includes "United States," abrilliant quilt with flowers representing each of the (then) 48 states, as fresh today as when they were stitched in 1929.

Many chapters, such as the Faithful Circle's daytime group of 75 women, have waiting lists. The many quilting classes and seminars offered are alwaysfull, Klosek added. The association certifies teachers, judges and "master quilters," the highest of honors.

Maryland is well known for its quilts. In particular, the 19th-century "Baltimore album quilts" are famous the world over. "The applique is just beautiful, and thecoloring is gorgeous," Klosek says. One such quilt sold for $176,000at a New York auction.

Because of the value of quilts, the association has a national registry of all quilts made since 1976 and a Lost Quilt Information service to help with identification and retrievalof lost and stolen quilts.

A little more than a year old, the service tracked down the owner of a quilt that mistakenly had been shipped from a storage area to a Texas home by a moving company. More than91 missing quilts have been reported, including 45 that were stolen from one owner in Tennessee.

Next year, under NQA sponsorship, quilters in Howard County will join their fellow enthusiasts to celebrate the first National Quilting Day, the third Saturday in March, with special events nationwide. The association is petitioning for congressional recognition of the day, Klosek says.

Quilting traditionallywas not only one of few ways women had for creative expression but afocus of community life, raising money for church and politics. (Early women's rights crusader Susan B. Anthony first spoke at quilting bees.)

It still retains neighborly roots.

"It's very social. . .. We help one another out. It's almost like a sisterhood," Klosek explains. "We share our news amongst ourselves as we are working," announcing the special occasions for which a quilt is being made, a birth, death, wedding, etc.

Klosek's first quilt, stiched in 1972, for example, was a memorial quilt for her late sister-in-law, who had left her many cotton calico feed bags from a Fells Point feed store where she had worked. Such feed bags, still used today in the Midwest, are often made into pillow cases, dresses, underwear and quilts by thrifty and industrious farm wives.

And for her daughter's 25th birthday, Klosek made a grandmother's flower garden quilt from the daughter's childhood dresses.

Because of each quilt's individuality, it iscustomary to name each one, Klosek explained. Names include Church Steps, Lonely Weekend, Sarah's Presentation, Celestial Beauty (for a star design), Devil's Claws, Saffron Satin and Mary Jacquelin.

"Some of the innovative patterns that some of the women come up with are just fascinating," Klosek says.

Chapter members also make Love Quilts for many charitable and fund-raising projects. The Faithful Circle makes a quilt for each AIDS baby at the Chara House in Baltimore.

At least half of any quilting bee session is made up of elderly ladies, many with memories of favorite aunts and grandmothers, long deceased, for whom quilting was a creative passion.

In Colonial times women simmered their fabrics in pots of wildflower dyes, using plantssuch as indigo, hickory bark, pokeweed, Queen Anne's lace, sumac andmarigolds combined with a variety of mordants to achieve their vividcolors.

That skill still exists today. "One lady looked at a treeand she saw the sunlight coming in . . . and she hand-dyed all her fabric so it would get that same effect," Klosek says.

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