Quilts bind old, new customs Tradition: Quilting remains a means for recording African-American history, but is attracting younger women who use technology and modern designs.

September 29, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Time was when you could take one look at an African-American quilt and see your whole family.

You saw grandpa's necktie. You saw the baby's old pajamas, with the faded red and blue balloons, and the shirt with the tiny ducks. You saw mama's best church frock of years ago, deconstructed, torn into strips and sewn in with the rest of the clothes that had touched all of your bodies, touching you again now as it warmed you at night.

When members the African American Quilters of Baltimore unveiled their works for their second show and sale this weekend at a Forest Park church, the message was clear: These are not just your grandmother's quilts.

They are works of art by modern women, many of them finding the time to piece and applique on business trips. They're selecting their fabrics with care, plotting designs on computers, redefining traditional patterns with the dash of Jackson Pollock or the modernist precision of Piet Mondrian.

hTC "The stereotype is that African-American quilts are poorly constructed, with big, loopy stitches, eccentric. That's absolute nonsense, " Barbara Pietila, president of the group, said yesterday. "It's as if we're not expected to do quality work. We're just as diverse as any other group of quilters."

New traditions have emerged. Pietila specializes in handmade "pictorial quilts," which set scenes and tell stories about African-American life. The work of Carole Y. Lyles, who runs a Columbia management consulting firm, runs the gamut -- from a portrait of an elegant Baltimore woman modeled after her grandmother to a stark, blocked piece she calls "my Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced quilt."

These quilts are for showing off, not for keeping sleepers warm. And those their owners are willing to part with don't come cheaply, with prices from $400 to more than $1,000.

The African American Quilters of Baltimore began meeting several years ago at the Waverly branch library, with demonstration classes and "show and tell" sessions. Its members, worried about the loss of quilt making as an art, have adopted the motto: "Each one teach one."

Perhaps that's why Lucille Dixon, whose "Wheels of Many Colors" quilt was on display, considers herself a quilting beginner -- even though, at age 76, she has made quilts off and on for years.

"Let's just say I'm glad that if a person wants to make a quilt, they can go out now and get the material they want," Dixon said. "I feel good that it's going strong."

Sandra Smith, a human resources consultant from Silver Spring, organized a jumble of geometric shapes in futuristic colors and fabrics for "Transitions."

"It's a lot like what I do for a living -- forming relationships between things," Smith said of her craft. "This is a very organized kind of a thing, but it sends me off in a totally different mental direction."

On the "documentation" table at the back of the room lay reminders of the past -- old, worn quilts whose owners were asking Paul Moody, a pediatric nurse whose wife and sister are quilters, to help determine their histories.

Here you could still find the scraps of worn clothes, rearranged into something beautiful that stretched the limits of using what -- one has. Moody was elated to come upon one such quilt with a feed bag for its backing -- a clue to the quilt's origins, as well as evidence of the utilitarian tradition.

Moody marveled at the lush colors and original designs of the newer quilts on display.At the same time, he was a bit nostalgic.

"The scrap quilts are still being made, but not from the scraps of your life," Moody said. "It's still a little sad they don't make them out of material like they used to."

Dolores Winston of Baltimore, who was at the show yesterday to admire the displays, said her grandmother made quilts years ago for the family as "a labor of love," employing every scrap she

could.

Those quilts were for sleeping under-- something it's hard for Winston to believe now, as she realizes they were works of art.

"It's amazing how much you can appreciate this artwork now, when you couldn't when you were younger," she said. "It's an industry now."

Pub Date: 9/29/97

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