Members of the River Valley Quilters show off their handmade creations. All photos by Johnny Sain for ABOUT the River Valley magazine.
This piece was originally published in the December issue of ABOUT the River Valley magazine. Go here to see the original publication.
Quilting is often thought of as a traditional art, but anyone familiar with the craft will tell you that it’s alive and flourishing. Implementing the skills of former generations with modern tools, quilters create works of everyday art ranging from utilitarian blankets to intricately crafted wall hangings.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit with the River Valley Quilters in Russellville, a group of area quilters who meet every third Thursday at the First Presbyterian Church on West Main in Russellville. Founded in 1986, they meet to share skills and ensure the art form stays alive for generations to come. Their monthly meetings feature a variety of skill sharing workshops, helping quilters grow in their craft. Though they do not typically work on quilts during their meetings, they do often pool their efforts to create textiles for donation to storm and flood victims, and for regional women and children’s organizations. One of their core goals, explains program chair Beatrice Burnett, is to help “fill the needs of people in distress with a quilt made by caring hands.” They also participate in the Quilts of Valor program, creating handmade quilts for area veterans.
Many of the women are native to the River Valley whereas others moved to the region later in life. As we conversed about the importance of craft, textiles, color and geometry, they pulled out beautiful examples of their handiwork. Most quilt designs have names, many of which are centuries old. There was a beautiful Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt hand sewn from flower sacks generations ago, a block quilt made by students in the Pottsville school, and a wedding ring quilt in a deep shade of vibrant blue. There was a star quilt in shades of sunshine yellow and river blue, and a hand embroidered Sunbonnet Sue design made for grandchildren. Embroidered names stitched in black thread on some of the older, lovingly used quilts spoke of a connection to generations past. Some of the quilts were made in recent years; others created by mothers and grandmothers, and passed down decades ago. Some were the work of a solitary quilter whereas others were the product of a larger group effort. Each quilt evoked a story that spanned generations.
For many women in the group, quilting is a skill they learned from their mothers and grandmothers. “Just like a lot of other people,” Beatrice Burnett explains, “my mother and grandmother made quilts before me.” She says quilting has been a hobby of hers “for as long as I can remember.” Many of her grandmother’s quilts from the 1800s now belong to her daughter, who has also taken up quilting. “I love fibers, textiles, the feel, the color,” Beatrice says. “It does something for my inner soul I guess.”
Quilting is a traditional craft with its roots in utilitarian use. Yet quilt makers have always found a way to make these everyday objects works of art. Modern quilting allows craftsmen and women to experiment with a host of fabrics and designs, placing an emphasis on aesthetics. “I love to go to the quilt shows and admire the colors,” explains Beatrice. “To me, it’s really the colors that make the quilt.” Like many quilters, Beatrice loves learning new techniques and notes that her mother used mule shears to cut fabric for her quilting.
Today, quilters can choose from a wide array of tools made specifically for the craft. “I think textiles, sewing, it’s lifelong learning,” she explains. “You never learn everything there is to know. There are still avenues, new tools, and new fibers coming on the market,” she continues. It’s largely about the process for Beatrice, the nuances of choosing fabrics and experimenting with techniques. “It keeps it interesting and keeps my mind going,” she adds. She’s also passed on the craft to her daughter, giving her a needle, thread and buttons to practice with as a young girl. “She can’t remember the first time she had a needle and thread in her hand,” Beatrice explains. Today, her daughter makes quilts for community auctions and fundraisers, using her skills to generate money for her community.
Other women grew up around quilting but didn’t pick up the skill until they were adults. “I’m a 5th generation quilter.” says Karen Womack . “I first started because when I first married I was too poor to buy any Christmas presents,” she laughs. “So I made these bags, one for mom and one for mother-in-law.” Karen pulls a quilted textile fabric bag up for us to see. “Mom still uses hers,” she continues. “My mother-and-law is gone so I got this one back.” Like many people who quilt, these early designs have become family heirlooms — a thread connecting families and communities.
Karen says she first learned to quilt after taking a beginning class taught by a friend. She passes her love of quilting on to her many social studies students in both Pottsville and Dardanelle schools.
“I taught about when the nation was beginning, and we studied different crafts,” she explains. The class worked quilting into their language arts activities, and members of the River Valley Quilters would often visit the classroom to help students work on their project. She pulls out a large block quilt for us to see. “This is a governors’ quilt,” she explains, pointing to the blocks of fabric, many of which contain a signature and a state emblem. “We sent patches to all the states and got about 36 of them back,” she notes. The children, she says, did the quilting, and fellow quilters from the group mentored the children along the way. Quilting is about so much more than just sewing. It’s about geometry and problem solving. “It’s like working puzzles,” Karen elaborates. “Except you make the parts to the puzzle.”
Donna Rogers grew up in a family of quilters, but it wasn’t until she and her husband lived overseas that she picked up quilting. She recalls the day her oldest son called saying he had good news. She intuitively knew their first grandchild was on the way, and involuntarily exclaimed, “let’s make a baby quilt!” There was a quilting group in the international community where they lived, and they taught the Rogers how to piece that first baby quilt together. As she tells her story, she pulls out another early quilt she and her husband made together decades ago. “We took it to this show and tell and there were cute smiles from everyone. We thought they were proud of us,” she laughs. She points out the misplaced fabric, noting that neither she nor her husband knew anything about the importance of quarter inch seams, rendering pieces of the fabric upside down.
They’ve come a long way since then. Today, she and her husband continue to quilt together. They operate a longarm quilting business, a form of machine quilting that uses an industrial sewing machine to sew together the top and backing into a finished quilt. Together they make beautifully intricate designs, some of which come from popular and well-loved international quilting artist Jinny Beyer.
Current organizational president Clarice Grace said it was the River Valley quilting group that provided the impetus she needed to become a quilter. It was about 1989 when she saw an article in the Courier newspaper about a meeting the group was hosting just a few blocks up the street from her home. So Clarice called and asked if she could attend. “When they had show and tell I was hooked,” she remembers. “I had been sewing all my life but had never seen anything so beautiful as the quilts they were making.” She signed up to take a continuing education class at Arkansas Tech and learned as she went along. Today, she makes quilted designs for friends and family including intricate wreath designs, Sunbonnet Sues and block quilts filled with stories. She has become increasingly interested in adding applique to her work.
As we visit, the women share stories about their closets full of fabric, how quilting helps them relax and find peace, and their admiration for the craftsmen and women who have come before. They speak frequently of the tools they use today, laughing about the many conveniences they have that were never afforded to the elders from whom many of them learned. They talk of the few remaining purists out there who continue to quilt solely by hand, paying deep respect to the intricacy such work entails. But for many modern quilters, the craft offers participants a way to bring traditional art forms into the modern day. Karen Womack says that for years she harbored conflicting feelings when using a sewing machine to create her designs until one day her daughter asked, “Mom, if Martha Washington had a sewing machine don’t you think she would have used it?”
The River Valley Quilters welcome new members including both beginning and advanced quilters. Anyone interested in learning more can contact President Clarice Grace at 479-264-8525. Are you a quilter? I’d love to hear your story.