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Thursday, August 15, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Quiltfest: nostalgia, technology fuel hobby's popularity

Seattle Times staff reporter

Pacific Northwest Quiltfest


The show runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday in the Seattle Center's Northwest Rooms. Along with the juried and judged exhibit will be a show of Hawaiian quilts and a display of 25 one-of-a-kind dressing gowns signed by the artists and donated for a Quiltfest auction. Price: $8 adults; $7 for seniors and children. For more information, call 206-297-2490 or see www.apnq.org.

Quilt-making is today what Monday-night bowling was in the '60s: Very big.

Women all over the Seattle area are gathering to sew. As they talk of husbands, hormones, stocks and Iraq, their hand-held needles dive in and out of laps of fabric.

"We're in the middle of a quilting renaissance," says Lynn Williams, president of the Association of Pacific Northwest Quilters, which presents its fifth biannual Quiltfest beginning tomorrow. "Tools and fabrics are plentiful. Passions are high. The whole world of quilting has just blossomed."

Some numbers shed light on the trend. Visitors expected at this year's Quiltfest: 7,000. Quilt books and calendars listed on Amazon.com: 2,473. Classes offered at In the Beginning quilt shop on Lake City Way: 69. Large quilt guilds (some with 300 members) in Washington state: 96. Smaller quilt groups in the Seattle area: no one knows, but enough to help support 13 quilting-supply shops.

What's drawing the crowds? A mix of nostalgia and technology has helped fuel the trend, spawning groups with names like the Sew n Sews, the Frayed Edges, Big Pretty Girls and Quilters Anonymous — a moniker that has fooled many a hopeful husband into thinking his wife has gone cold turkey on a pricey habit.

Vee Fletcher of Issaquah, who meets with the Issaquah Quilters guild, says she quilts for adventure. "You never know how it's going to turn out," Fletcher says.

Others get a thrill from viewing one of their creations, say, wrapped around a sleeping grandchild.

"I like to keep those I love warm and snug," says Mary King of Issaquah. "All my grandchildren have quilts, and my daughter has quilts and my friends have quilts. Now I'm making quilts for the homeless."

A stitcher who did not want her name used described quilting as an antidote to sorrow. In her case: a daughter-in-law brutally murdered. "Some things are unspeakable," she says haltingly. "When you go through the tragedies life brings you, you need something to absorb you. Quilting gives you relief. Oh, my word. It saved my life."

'I gave all the quilts away'

Quilting sites on the Internet contain testimonials from others who have used quilting to rest their minds or to help stitch their lives back together. Writes one woman whose son committed suicide. "I kept asking myself why? The next year I made quilts, and at the one-year anniversary I had a dinner for family and friends who'd shared the loss. I gave all the quilts away."

In a similar vein, stitchers have found comfort in the AIDS quilt and the quilt now being made by friends and family of the victims of Sept. 11. The first 60 panels of the Sept. 11 quilt are planned for display on Aug. 31 in the National Mall.

The history of American quilt-making is about as colorful as a thread rack. In the 1800s, members of the Underground Railroad embedded secret symbols into their quilts, then hung them from windows or draped them over fences, directing slaves to escape routes.

Women traveling West, meanwhile, were given signed quilts as goodbye gifts from loved ones. In their new homes, these same pioneer women joined quilting bees. "They lived in places where they didn't see their neighbors all winter, so springtime quilting bees were a big deal," explains Sharon Evans Yenter, owner of In the Beginning in Seattle and author of several quilt books. "Lots of times they'd have bees to put together a bride's quilt. They'd quilt, have dinner and maybe even do some dancing."

The current quilt craze has its roots in the bicentennial, which sparked new interest in old-time American crafts. "To meet the demand, quilt shops opened and began offering classes, which in turn fueled the demand," Yenter says. "Then dress-fabric shops turned into quilt shops when it became cheaper to buy clothes than make them. Then the guilds started up. Everything fed on everything else."

Lately, technology has given quilt-making a boost. Quilters can use their computers to design patterns, order fabrics and chat with their counterparts across the country. They can also machine-stitch a quilt and make it look hand-done, thanks to a new sewing machine in which the head moves over the quilt, instead of the quilt under the machine.

Costing $10,000, the machine is too expensive for most women. So several small businesses have sprung up to offer their machine-stitching services. Quilters, it seems, have come a long way since 1989 when American Quilter's Society judges in Paducah, Ky., shocked the country by awarding a prize to a machine-sewn quilt.

"You still have people who won't accept it," says King. "But most quilters like machine-sewing because they realize they'll never get the work done if they rely on hand-quilting."

Today the burgeoning quilt scene is a world in itself. It has its own trends (batik fabrics are big), tools (rotary cutters are a must), controversies (traditionalists versus modernists) and even its own superstars who travel the globe, signing autographs and teaching master classes.

At the same time, however, each quilt guild and group is unique. Among the quilters in the last Quiltfest, for example, was the Stash Investment Group. Its "Investment Journey Quilt" includes a bull, bear and Monopoly money.

A nutcracker motif

Not all groups share projects, but many do. The 80-member Issaquah Quilters, for example, create an annual Christmas quilt. The yearlong project begins when a committee picks a few patterns to put up for a guild vote. (This year, boosters of a nutcracker motif squared off with fans of a nutcrackers-and-evergreens combo. The combo carried.)

Then each member creates one quilt block, helps assemble the blocks into a quilt top, helps baste the top to the batting and bottom, and takes a turn at hand-quilting. In the end, the name of the new quilt owner gets drawn from a hat.

"We know we're making the quilt for each other so we do an extra nice job on our blocks," says Jan Ginsberg of Sammamish.

"Actually," Janice LeRoy of Newcastle interjects with a laugh, "we make our blocks as good as we can because we want to show off!"

Whatever the motive, the end result can be dazzling. Last year's king-size Christmas spread with poinsettias, gold stars and red sashing is one of 223 out of 556 quilts to pass muster with the discerning jury of this year's Quiltfest.

Do guys ever quilt? "After the Civil War, many soldiers quilted while they recuperated from their wounds," Yenter says. "But these days the closest men usually get to quilting is when they get on the computer to design a pattern for their wives or read aloud to their wives while they're quilting."

David Wheeler, who lives in Ellensburg and works in Seattle, is an exception. As a child, he learned to quilt from his grandmother. As a teenager, he designed quilts that his younger sister stitched. Now he makes lap quilts that look something like crazy quilts, though each block depicts a landscape. "It's kind of awkward when I go into a quilt store," Wheeler says. "I feel like there's this turf thing and people are whispering, 'What's he doing here?' "

When the Quiltfest opens tomorrow, you can count on Wheeler, the Big Pretty Girls and thousands of other quilt fans to be there.

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