From tiny stitches, a major festival grows

March 27, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

Some Baltimore beauties will be belles of the ball when the first-ever Lancaster County Quilt Festival opens Friday in

Pennsylvania. The 10-day festival, designed to run before, during and after the annual Quilters' Heritage Celebration in Lancaster, will feature quilt displays and sales, visits to quilting bees, Pennsylvania Dutch food, auctions, tours, entertainment, an herb fair and a sheep shearing, just for starters.

On view as part of the Quilters' Heritage Celebration will be four antique Baltimore Album Quilts from the collection of the Maryland Historical Society. The celebration will also feature contemporary quilts entered in a Baltimore Album Revival quilting competition.

The Quilters' Heritage Celebration, April 7-10, is in its seventh year. It's expected to draw 10,000 to 12,000 avid quilters to its lectures, workshops, displays and competitions. Among events is a daylong trip on Wednesday from Lancaster to Baltimore to view "Lavish Legacies: The Baltimore Album Quilts 1846-1854," currently on view at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St.

Building the larger festival around the Quilters' Heritage event is a recognition of its drawing power, says Mary Rankin, of the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau, based in Lancaster.

"It's something we could have done a long time ago," Ms. Rankin says. "Lancaster County is viewed as America's quilt capital. People have been coming here for decades because of this."

The juxtaposition of the Baltimore album tradition and the Amish and Mennonite quilting traditions makes this year's events particularly interesting, Ms. Rankin says.

Baltimore album quilts, which reached the height of their popularity in the mid-19th century, are made up of blocks that are appliqued -- that is, the designs are sewn down on the background -- in intricate patterns, then pieced, or sewn together, often around a central medallion design, fitted with borders, which usually are also appliqued or pieced, then quilted. The tiny stiches that provide the overall quilted design represent scores of hours of minute labor. Baltimore album quilts were often designed to tell a story, or to represent events or places. They were meant for show, not for use as bedding, and generally employ pale backgrounds and applique in bold shades of red, green, blue or gold.

The finest

"In a nutshell, they are, world-wide, considered to be the finest quilts made in the 19th century," says Jennifer Goldsborough, curator of the historical society. "And they're very specific to Baltimore. Until the last 10 years or so, there's been nothing else like this in the world."

She cites three factors that make the 19th-century quilts stand out: They combined the quilting styles of English and German traditions, from the two most prominent ethnic groups in the city at the time; Baltimore was one of the two most important seaports in the country, which meant that more elaborate fabrics were available, and more affordable, than elsewhere; and, she says, "Baltimore was a very sophisticated city," where quilters had more visual stimulation to inspire them.

A dozen years ago the historical society had an exhibition of Baltimore quilts in its collection, and produced a catalog, which drew international attention to the style. Now, Ms. Goldsborough says, there are quilting guilds in South Africa and Australia that specialize in Baltimore album styles. It's a happy coincidence that the Quilters' Heritage Celebration and the historical society exhibit are running at the same time, she says. "We've had enormous expression of interest from people all over the world." The historical society expects visiting groups from France, England, the Netherlands, Japan and Australia.

Of the four quilts traveling to Lancaster for exhibit, Ms. Goldsborough says, three have never been shown before. They'll be part of the second phase of the Lavish Legacies show, which opens July 14.

In contrast to the Baltimore quilts, traditional Amish quilts are pieced -- that is, the designs are cut from different fabrics and stitched together in a pattern -- usually with black or dark backgrounds and bright designs in solid colors. Pennsylvania quilters also make quilts in other traditional pieced and appliqued styles.

Many hours

It can take as long as 250 hours to make a double-size pieced quilt, and longer for an appliqued design. Quilting bees, or frolics, have eased the labor for generations of Amish and other quilters. A number of seamstresses working on the same quilt can complete in hours or days the work that would take a solitary quilter weeks or months. And, since the Old Order Plain sects shun telephones, television, radio, cars and electricity, the bees offer a chance to catch up on news with family and friends. As part of the quilt festival, a number of bees will be open to the public.

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