You have to choose your combinations careful. The right choices will enhance your quilt. The wrong choices will dull the colors and hide their original beauty. There are no rules you can follow. You have to go by instinct and you have to be brave. —Whitney Otto, How To Make An American Quilt
Walking into the Three Rivers Quilt Show is like falling into a toy kaleidoscope. Color and patterns swirl around you—emerald triangles, ruby squares, sapphire hexagons. Over there is a jeweled tone peacock; to your right floats a school of three-dimensional goldfish. Straight ahead Dad’s Old Jeans have been transformed into an heirloom bedspread and in a hallway Pittsburgh’s many potholes have been immortalized. These are not bedspreads; these are brave and bold works of art.
Since 1983, Three Rivers Quilters (TRQ) has organized this annual event that showcases well over 100 creations by quilters from around the tri-state area. But TRQ is much more than a colossal quilt show, and while the name may conjure up an image of women toiling over a quilt frame, TRQ isn’t a quilting bee. These women are busy bees, sponsoring classes, hosting retreats, creating quilts for charity as well as to sell or give as gifts and, of course, organizing the quilt show.
Although membership fluctuates, TRQ currently claims about 90 women from around Pittsburgh, including Mt. Lebanon residents Barbara Bachman, North Meadowcroft Avenue; Sheila Schmeltz, Allenberry Circle; Beth Colin, Broadmoor Avenue; Kathleen Broda, Thornycroft Avenue; and Arlene Peelor, Buchanan Place. And while the average age of the TRQ members skews toward retirement age, the group includes women of all ages and welcomes quilters of all expertise levels.
“I have made friends with women I never would have met before,” says Schmeltz of TRQ, “It’s a camaraderie.” Schmeltz sells her quilts at Art in the Park and other craft shows through her business, Sew Many Creations.
Schmeltz started quilting in 2005 after she retired from Canon-McMillan School District, where she had taught geometry for 20 years. “I learned to sew when I was in junior high and later made my children’s clothing,” she says. “I took a quilting class because I thought it would combine my love of sewing and my geometry background.” She finds quilting relaxing, sewing while her husband watches TV. “I just absorb myself in quilting.” Her business card touts her ability to make t-shirt quilts, baby blankets and placemats.
For the non-quilters out there, a handmade quilt may seem like an epic project. Indeed it once was. Before the mid 19th century, quilting was a pursuit for the wealthy, as fabric was expensive and quilting was time-consuming—you could quilt only if you had money to buy fabric and servants to attend to household tasks. But the Industrial Revolution changed that. By the 1850s, people could purchase mass-produced fabric and sewing machines rather inexpensively. However, while sewing machines could piece a quilt top together quickly, they were not ideal for the actual quilting where three cumbersome layers—top, batting and backing—are sewn together. So hand quilting remained the norm—albeit a time consuming norm. Bachman, a TRQ member since 1984, estimates that hand quilting a 95-inch square quilt takes four months, if you sew three hours per day.
Although there are quilters who still prefer to hand quilt, materials like fusible interfacing (which allows the crafter to bypass tedious hand appliquing) and computerized sewing machines have revolutionized the quilting process once again. Now, table runners, pillows and quilts for even king-sized beds can be pieced, assembled and quilted fairly quickly. For a couple hundred dollars, you can purchase a sewing machine equipped with a variety of intricate, decorative stitch options built to handle small quilting projects. For large, bed-sized quilts, the price tag for a quilting-capable sewing machine jumps to the thousands—but these machines come with options like laser guides and pre-programmed quilting patterns. If you want to concentrate on creating just the decorative tops, you can send your quilt out and have it machine quilted on a commercial machine for a reasonable price—about $200 for a queen-sized quilt.
“There are so many new fabrics, new techniques and new patterns, “ says Nora Hufnagel, a former TRQ president. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Is this worth doing by hand or should I move on to a different technique and learn something new?’”
ANATOMY OF A QUILT
A quilt has three parts.
BACKING: Usually a single piece of solid color or printed fabric.
MIDDLE: A layer of cotton, wool or synthetic batting that gives the quilt its warmth and thickness.
TOP: The decorative layer created by using one—or a combination—of the following methods.
PIECED: A pieced (or patchwork) quilt is constructed by cutting different colors of fabric into shapes—squares, triangles, rectangles, diamonds—and sewing them together into a design. Pieces must be precisely cut to fit together exactly.
APPLIQUE: Fabric cut into shapes—flowers, animals, geometric shapes—is sewn onto a background fabric. To prevent the pieces from fraying, the fabric is either turned under, like a hem, topstitched or fused on with interfacing.
WHOLE CLOTH: A solid piece of fabric on which a design is sewn. If a white fabric is used, the design is called “whitework.”
The three layers are then sewn together to prevent the batting from shifting. Quilters usually sew around each piece on an appliqued or patchwork quilt and sew decorative motifs—flowers, feathers, geometric designs, etc.—on the borders and empty spaces. With trapunto quilting, extra stuffing is added to certain areas to make the design pop out—such as under the design of a leaf or a feather.
For a tied quilt, yarn or thread is pulled through the layers at intervals and tied to hold the layers together.
Once quilting is complete, a fabric binding is sewn around the edges.
Schmeltz, who suffers from arthritis, adds that machine quilting has allowed her to continue the hobby she loves so much. Bachman, who until two years ago hand quilted everything she made, now sends out the bigger projects that her Pfaff Expression 4 sewing machine can’t handle.
Combine the ease of quilting with the wealth of gorgeous quilting fabrics—that go far beyond the calicos of yesteryear—and the craft is a booming business. Quilt Inc., a group that produces three consumer shows and two trade shows annually, estimates there are 21 million quilters in the U.S. who spent $3.58 billion for quilting supplies in 2010.
For a time, Bachman was making four to five quilts per year, but she has cut back to two annually. “I ran out of places to store them,” she says cheerfully of her output.
For those out there who want to try their hand at quilting, Bachman offers this tip: “Hang out with other quilters. Take classes at shops and through Three Rivers Quilters. If you buy a machine [Bachman uses a Bernina], take advantage of the free classes they offer.”
The daughter of a home economics teacher, Bachman was making her own clothes by age 13. She started quilting in the 1970s after seeing a TV show on patchwork. “I thought, ‘I can do that,’” she says. Her first project was a patchwork suit that she still owns. Bachman was fortunate in that her mother-in-law, Mae Bachman (a Mt. Lebanon resident who died in 2005), was an excellent quilter and a wonderful teacher: “I got books, and what I didn’t understand, she did.”
Even with all her experience, Bachman still takes classes. “There are always new ideas and new kinds of fabric,” she says, such as hand dying fabric and “modern” quilting, which uses bold colors and prints and lots of negative space. Local quilt stores—Quilters Depot on Library Road, Quilters Corners in Finleyville, Piecing it Together on Babcock Boulevard—offer a variety of classes for all levels as does TRQ, which offers classes taught by nationally known artists and also showcases local talent. “These people are on the cutting edge of the quilt world,” Bachman says.
The modern technology that allows a quilt to be created quickly means TRQ can do a lot of charity work. Once a month, a TRQ group meets at Project Linus, behind Caste Village, an organization that donates handmade quilts and blankets to hospitals, shelters and other charitable organizations. Some members bring their sewing machines, while others cut backings and batting and assemble the quilts. “They form an assembly line, says Lois Misko, Project Linus’s Greater Pittsburgh Area Chapter Coordinator. “It’s very impressive.” In the past four years TRQ members have made almost 1,000 quilts for Project Linus. “They are one of the nicest groups of ladies I have ever been involved with,” Misko says, “and they really are the people we depend upon to make the neonatal covers for Magee and Children’s hospitals.” TRQ members also donate handmade quilts to Womansplace, Mom’s House, and the neonatal unit at West Penn Hospital.
Proceeds from the quilt show allow TRQ to purchase materials needed for the donations they create. It takes the group months to organize the event and more than 30 people serve on the show committee. Bachman co-chairs the refreshment area; Schmeltz, who joined TRQ in 2009, helps with sorting and display. The job has exposed her to new ideas and designs. “I had never done applique,” she says, “but after seeing an award-winning appliqued quilt, I gave it a try.”
“The show always has some beginners’ quilts,” Bachman adds, saying these are simple patterns sure to inspire those new to the art form.
So don’t let being a novice stop you from joining the TRQ. “There is always room for beginners [at TRQ],” Bachman says. “We aren’t going anywhere without new quilters. We inspire them, and they inspire us. It’s a wide-open artistic field.”
QUILT SHOW 2014
If you plan to attend the Three Rivers Quilt Show this year, make sure to block out a good chunk of time as there will be more than 120 quilts on display as well as demonstrations to attend and vendor booths to shop at (with patterns, fabric and quilting supplies). Don’t worry about getting hungry; a small café offers snacks, cookies and beverages. Don’t miss the raffles for handmade quilts and quilting supplies.
This year’s event runs 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Thursday, March 27; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday, March 28; and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, March 29, at the Circuit Center on the South Side. Admission is $7; $5 between 3 and 7 p.m. Thursday. A multi-day pass is $10.
Although the theme for 2014 is leaves, you’ll see a range of other designs in categories from wall hangings and mixed techniques to art quilts and large quilts. Last year, a youth category was added. Judges, all members of the American Quilting Society, will select winners in 13 categories from best hand quilting to best use of color. TRQ uses proceeds from the show to fund its charity work. www.threeriversquilters.org
TRQ usually meets 6:30 p.m., the third Tuesday of the month at Baldwin Community United Methodist Church behind Caste Village. The $25 annual membership includes half off the price of classes and workshops—all taught by nationally known instructors and artists. The meetings are open to the public and include a demonstration or program and conclude with a show and tell where members display finished or in-process projects. For information, go to www.threeriversquilters.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.