Outlook for the coming week: Fair! State Fair: It's the 117th annual celebration of homemaking and animal husbandry. Eleanor Eckman's quilts will be a high point

UP FRONT

August 27, 1998|By Karin Remesch | Karin Remesch,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Each morning, long before sunrise, Eleanor Eckman sits in her kitchen and stitches through layers of fabric with careful precision, creating colorful blocks that will eventually be pieced together into a bed-sized quilt.

Working by the light of dawn with her faithful companion, a yellow lab named Sandy, napping nearby, gives her a feeling of serenity.

"Being able to sit in the quiet, creating something that is going to last even after I'm gone, is soothing," says Eckman. "All of life's problems seem to fall into place when I'm working with my needles."

By the time the sun starts peaking through the trees outside of her kitchen window, Eckman will have been diligently sewing on her quilt squares for at least two hours.

Examples of her needlework will be on view beginning Saturday when the 117th Maryland State Fair opens at the Fairgrounds in Timonium.

Two years ago, Eckman won "Best of Show" for a butterfly quilt. That ribbon hangs alongside other ribbons she has won throughout the years -- more than 100 -- on a wall in her sewing room.

"I love my winning ribbons, but that's not the only reason I enter my work," she says. "It's the thrill of seeing how a little tiny piece of material grows into a giant quilt and then sharing the result -- something beautiful to look at -- with others."

She also enters her quilts in competitions to get feedback on her work. "Good or bad, each entry is critiqued by a judge," she says, adding that over the years she has learned that good workmanship, color balance and precision stitching help make a winner.

Eckman's entry into this year's fair competition is a quilt she calls "My Stars." The work was created with pieces of quilted stars that were discovered by her daughter, Jane Eckman, in a pile of old fabric at a yard sale in New York.

"They were so dirty, I didn't even want to touch them," remembers Eckman. But after a few washings, the ancient blue and gray pieces of fabric came to life again and were sewn onto ecru-colored fabric blocks, which alternate with dark blue squares to complete the quilt.

That's what quilting is all about, explains Eckman. When two layers of scrap material, often left over from sewing projects, are filled with a soft padding and stitched together to form a kind of textile sandwich, unique works of art are created.

Though Eckman says she was born with a needle in her hand and has been sewing, embroidering, knitting and crocheting most of her life, she didn't learn how to quilt until 10 years ago.

"My sister-in-law talked me into taking a quilting class, and I really didn't want to go," remembers Eckman. "That first lesson, we learned how to piece -- taking geometric shapes and sewing them together to make a pattern. I didn't like that at all."

Though she returned to her second class with great reluctance, she was hooked quickly.

"This time I learned how to applique -- attaching shapes of one material to another -- and I loved it."

Since that day, Eckman has sewn 15 full-size quilts and a myriad of other quilt projects, ranging from miniature quilts to wall hangings.

"Eleanor's handwork is just lovely," says Nancy Mosner, division chairman for quilting at the Maryland State Fair. "She has a real knack for colors. . . . She picks colors that make a quilt come alive. She's developed a style that's easily recognizable."

Both women say they are delighted with the resurgence of quilting.

"It started during the country's bicentennial, when woman became more interested in their heritage, and it really seemed to take off in the '80s," says Eckman.

Mosner also measures the broadened interest in quilting by the increased entries received in the state fair. Because of that increase -- last year's entries topped 300 -- quilting will be a

separate division for the first time this year. "It became so large, we had to separate quilting from the embroidery division," says Mosner.

When Eckman takes her quilt to the fair this week, she'll be accompanied by her family. Daughter Susan Von Ohlsen will enter some of her knitting, and she'll also help with registration. Even husband Vic will enter some of his work -- a refinished walking cane that once belonged to her great-grandmother and some handcrafted knives. Daughter Jane and son Jimmy won't be competing but are planning to show up in support.

Going to the fair has been a family event for the Eckmans since the early 1960s, when they started selling pies with their church group.

"I've always loved coming to the fair," says Von Ohlsen. "It's an old-fashioned event -- there's something for everyone."

In addition to home arts exhibits, the fair -- a 10-day festival that runs through Sept. 7 -- offers livestock and horse shows, midway rides and games, live entertainment and thoroughbred horse racing.

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