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Quilts move from the bed to the gallery as an artform

POSTED: January 30, 2011 1:30 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Jean Leslie shows one of her quilts at First United Methodist Church Thursday morning during a quilting session of the church's Prayer Quilt Ministry.

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On cold winter nights, while the wind howled outside her window, Jean Leslie remembers being warmed inside and out by curling beneath quilts that were made with love by the women in her family.

"My mother quilted and so did both of my grandmothers," said Leslie, a Gainesville resident.

One of her grandmothers made what she calls "planned quilts," coverings that featured a thought-out design or pattern.

"I remember sleeping under one that had a little Dutch boy and girl on it," Leslie said.

During a time when most quilts were made for utility, constructed with the sole intention of keeping warm, her grandmother proved to be ahead of her time.

These days, quilting has come a very long way. It's no longer just about keeping out the winter chill. Although learning to sew has long been considered an art form, today the technique has truly become art and is being incorporated into exhibits at galleries and museums.

One of the latest exhibits at the Bob Owens Art Gallery on the North Georgia College & State University campus in Dahlonega showcases how the use of textiles has changed over the years.

"Each January we try and focus on crafts that were prevalent in southern Appalachia in the past — textiles are a part of that history," said Jo-Marie Karst, North Georgia textiles instructor and the exhibit's curator.

"(The New Traditions in Textiles) exhibit reflects contemporary trends in textiles. The artists have combined traditional techniques with contemporary ones to create modern takes on designing textiles."

The exhibit features 12 different pieces, each showcasing a different, traditional technique. Although the show also features a few quilts and tapestries, they probably aren't your grandmother's creations.

"The craft of weaving, dying, quilting and felting are still very much alive, however the pieces that are produced today are very different," Karst said.

"(Some pieces) are definitely a wall hanging and not meant for the bed."

Although contemporary artists have taken quilting to a new level, some crafters like members of the Hall County Quilt Guild and the Prayer Quilt Ministry of First United Methodist Church of Gainesville are working to preserve the traditional techniques — especially patchwork quilting.

"You don't want to get too matchy-matchy," said Leslie, who is a member of both groups.

"Sometimes we put squares of fabric in a paper sack and shake it up. Whatever you pull out, you have to sew. You'd be amazed at how beautifully they come out."

Leslie, who started quilting in the 1970s, also incorporates a resourceful method of quilting that she learned from her mother.

"She made string quilts where she would piece together all of the little scraps of materials she had left over from making our clothes," Leslie said.

"She would sew the scraps of material onto squares of newspaper. When the scraps were all sewn on, she would sew the squares together and make a quilt."

"If fabric costs $10 a yard and you have a box full of scraps, well that box is worth $10 a yard, too. String quilts are a good way to get your money's worth."

Leslie and other members of the church's quilt ministry are currently busy working on a 20-foot long banner that will be draped around a cross at a big worship service planned for Feb. 13 at the Georgia Mountains Center.

After the service is over, the group, which is lead by Mindy Liggett, will cut the banner down into more manageable pieces and turn them into prayer quilts to be distributed to church members.

"I was the recipient of a prayer quilt indirectly. When my husband was ill, they made one for him," said Jean Maggio, a Gainesville resident and member of the quilt ministry group.

"He passed away before it could be delivered to him in the hospital, so they presented it to me instead. It's nice because it has all of the little knots where people prayed for him. Now I'm helping to make prayer quilts for other people. It's my therapy and a way to give back."

Prayer quilts are smaller than other spreads and feature dozens of loose strings. Each time a person says a prayer for the intended recipient, they tie a knot onto one of the strings.

The prayer quilts are often given when someone is ill, grieving or going through a difficult situation like a divorce, but they are also used to mark happier occasions like infant baptisms, Maggio says.

Even though the finished products are what most people look forward to, true quilters say the road to reaching the end result can be just as fun.

"Sewing is all about the tools. There isn't a carpenter on a job site that has any tools over a sewer. It's all about the gadgets," Maggio says.

The "gadgets" can do everything from computerized embroidery and stitching, to helping make perfectly straight cuts and designing fabric.

"Quilting involves a lot of steps, but I enjoy it," Maggio said.

No matter how old or new a quilt is, Leslie says that certain things should be done to preserve it and the history behind it.

"Quilts need to breathe. Putting them in a plastic bag is the worst thing you can do because it can trap moisture. The best place for it is in a cotton pillow case. Or on a bed in a spare bedroom with a bedspread over it - that way there are no creases," Leslie said.

"And you should document everything you know about the quilt - who made it, where, when and the story behind the pattern if you know it. You can record everything on a piece of muslin stabilized with starch, that gets sewn onto the back of the quilt. You can embroider the information onto the material, or write it using a fabric pen."

"It's important that it gets documented because oral history can be lost. And once it's lost, it's gone forever."

No matter how far quilting progresses as an art form, people shouldn't forget the original purpose, or get so caught up in them being collector's items, Leslie says.

"Quilts need to be used."

 



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