Stitch By Stitch: Quilting Past and Present

Each member drops a dollar bill in a wicker basket on her way in. The church only charges $1 per person to rent the space, part of why group quilting is possible for such a large (and vivacious) bunch of women. Everyone chooses a seat at one of the many round tables while guild president Jan Smith looks over the schedule for the meeting.

Quilting came over to America with Europen settlers, and because colonists weren’t the wealthiest of folks and money and textiles were hard to come by, it became more useful than ever. When materials were scarce, colonial families often found new ways to use the old, like creating quilts and bed covers from the scraps of old clothing. They were even hung in front of windows and doors during the winter months to keep out the cold.

It wasn’t until fabrics could be manufactured in America that they became affordable, and quilting out of necessity became, well, unnecessary. But now that women were free of the labors of sewing clothing for a whole family and furiously quilting before the seasons changed, they had time to get creative. This is when quilting became more akin to art. Years of a woman’s life could be spent quilting one heirloom that would stay with her family for generations.

In rural communities, residents would often band together to help their neighbors finish a major project, like building a home. The ladies of the town, however, held quilting bees. Quilting in groups allowed them to finish several quilts in a day instead of taking the usual weeks or months. Women could make significant progress, socialize and showcase their fine handiwork, which was highly prized at the time. Often, the women who helped would be served lunch and dinner for their whole families. Sometimes, there was even a little dancing in the evening.

“You can connect with women in ways you don’t get to anymore, and you stay friends with them,”explains Leanna Burgin. She points to the woman next to her. “I met this one and she took me under her wing. Val and I didn’t have many friends, but once we found out all that we have in common, we became peas in a pod.” They both smile.

“We’re both perfectionists! There’s not a woman in here you don’t feel comfortable with. We learn so much from each other.”

Valerie Whited, her fellow perfectionist pea, says that group quilting like this guild sometimes practices is educational in more ways than one.

“I wanted to learn to quilt, so when I retired and moved to Florida, I found a group of neighborhood ladies near the community center where I lived. I went and asked if they’d teach me.” Her first experience took a bit of team effort.

“We made a group quilt, which was interesting because they each sewed rows and they all gave them to me to sew into the tap.” She quickly realized not everyone sews carefully when some of the rows had crooked edges or were measured a little haphazardly.

“That taught me the value of doing everything right the first time—I learned that right from the beginning,” she says. Member of 15 years Diane DeBoy enjoys meeting new people she may not encounter otherwise.

“You have so many diverse people;everyone is different and from a different place. They all bring different styles of quilts and fabrics.”

Even after the invention of the quilting attachment for sewing machines in 1892, most women continued to quilt by hand. It offered a mental escape from a hard day’s work. The Country Road Quilters agree wholeheartedly and still use quilting as a way to relax.

“It’s therapy,” says Carol Fraser.

The table also agrees they all enjoy quilting as a creative outlet.

“Quilts are creative; you can put your spin on anything, and they’re something you pass on,” says Val. “It’s such a relaxing thing. You really focus on what you’re doing,” Valerie agrees. “I love color. It’s so much fun to go looking for fabrics—they’re eye candy. Even if you don’t have an idea for your own pattern, you can buy one and put a spin on it and make it more than what the pattern would have given you.”

Like any art form, quilting has plenty of specialized lingo, some of which came up in conversation. One of those words was stash.

“Stash: That’s what quilters call material they’re not using right now. I don’t know a quilter that doesn’t have stash,” Carol explains. The table also references one of their favorite quilting patterns, the disappearing nine patch. The quilter sews together nine equally sized squares of fabric into a three by three square, then cuts it into quarters. Twisting and turning these panels produces a variety of beautiful patterns and is an excellent way to use up some stash.

Although the skill of quilting may not always be passed down through a family, often the quilts are. In the 19th and 20th centuries, mothers would often sew multiple quilts for each of their children to take along when they left the nest. This custom is echoed today when women sew quilts for children or grandchildren on the way. It also seemed that when discussing who they’d give their quilts to, these ladies always referenced where their hobby came from.

“My aunt used to show quilts nationally, and once she needed help finishing a quilt,” Kita Heslinga remembers. “She said to me ‘you need to sew these leaves on here because I need this done!’ I just fell in love with the whole process. She told me to go to the quilt store, take the classes and do what they say, and I’ve loved every minute.”

“I learned how to sew from my mother and learned how to make clothes in home ec class. That’s where my love came from,” recalls Elizabeth Joy. “I didn’t start quilting until I was retired, and all my nieces and nephews starting having babies, so I started making quilts for them. I made three large quilts for my daughters, one each.”

“My very first quilt I started two years ago, and this is my fifth. I’m working on a baby quilt for a great great nephew. Now I have to get the binding down so I can wrap it and mail it,” says Leanna. She knows a thing or two about family heirlooms—her name is a combination of an Uncle Lee and an Aunt Anna from generations back. Now, she sits at the table, pushing and pulling at her needle with one hand in a bright purple glove to help her grip the tiny tool.

“It’s a conversation piece,” she laughs.

Quilting used to be passed down out of necessity, but now the pastime is shared between generations as a way to bond. However, among the Country Road Quilters, just as many women learned from friends, each other or solo by going to classes.

“I took lessons when I moved to Florida almost 26 years ago. I’m addicted. I’ve been in the guild 24 years,” says Anne Hardy. Fellow member Jean Whitney learned in a similar fashion.

“I’ve always sewed. As a young girl, I sewed curtains and my own clothes and around the ‘70s, I started going to a quilting class. When I came here, somehow I got involved in this mess,” she says witha chuckle.

Member Peggy Greer was inspired to take up quilting when she attended a play at Florida State University. Her daughter did costume design for the production, a play called Quilters. She’d been sewing since she was 16 and always made her daughters clothes, even prom and wedding dresses. When she saw the show about pioneer women and their relationships to each other and their quilts, she knew she’d have to try her hand at it as well.

“When I got home my husband, who had been on a trip, asked how it was and I found the whole idea of quilting to be so moving I cried the whole time I was telling him,” she says. “The play was about these women who lived on the prairie and the hard times they had in the 1800s. They’re on farms far away from each other, and quilting is what brought them together. They would sit on the back porch where it was cool and quilt. They were vital; it was important to get them done before the first snow. After seeing that play, I just knew that when I retired I would start quilting.”

While these women certainly enjoy creating quilts for loved ones, they’ve also constructed quite a few for good causes. When quilts are finished and need a recipient, they’re delivered to the resource center at KidsCentral. Parents of foster children in the program can use these resources—quilts included—to help the child or children in their care, and the quilts are given out to anyone who needs them.

They also use their stash cloth to sew pillow cases, which are then donated to children in the cancer unit of Shands at the University of Florida. They’re sure to use kid-friendly fabrics: soft, comfy and full of fun.

Even when a quilt is intended for another purpose, sometimes a better one arises, and these ladies have the heart to send their amazing handiwork where it’s needed most. Valerie experienced this on a personal level.

“Earlier this year, the club had a surprise sew-in, and I didn’t get my quilt finished there.” She took her quilt home to finish, and there it caught someone else’s eye.

“One of my friends where I live kept commenting on how much she loved the fabrics and the colors, and she was diagnosed with cancer later, so we gave it to her as a comfort quilt. Even though you don’t always get to see the people like her who get them, you can imagine how happy it makes them.”

For the last year, the Country Road ladies have been especially busy planning their 2014 quilt show, Down Another Country Road of Quilts. The event will showcase over 200 quilts of all shapes and sizes—some of them are actually miniature. The guild hosts a quilt show once every two years.

Anne says setting up the venue is scheduled to begin days in advance.

“On November 4, we have to bring the quilts together to be judged and then transport them over to the college. Everyone will come in on November 6 to help us set up. We have backdrops for each quilt and baskets so you can take a raffle chance to win quilting items. We have an opportunity quilt and a Christmas quilt we’re raffling off to raise money for charity.”

“It’s a yearlong process, and we start by making committees. They plan what kind of quilt they’ll make, and everyone takes a block,” says Sally Herrington, who has been quilting for 35 years, teaches beginner’s courses in local quilt shop Tomorrow’s Treasures, and according to tablemate Anne, “she knows everything.”

Vendors and demonstrations will fill up the space at the College of Central Florida, and a certified quilt appraiser will be present for show-goers to question about the value of their own pieces. Sally recommends local quilters take advantage of this opportunity.

“There will be an appraiser there to see how much your quilts are worth. I took one in and it was worth $2,500. You have to do that so they’re covered on your insurance,” says Sally. She estimates that between materials and time invested, her quilts usually cost around $1,000.

“There will be lots of vendors, and you can take mini classes throughout both days,” says Kita of the event schedule.

Guests can view creative pieces entered into the judged quilt show and bid on wall quilts in the silent auction. There’s even a boutique filled with handmade items, perfect for holiday gift shopping. The boutique committee made the selection sound promising.

When the boutique committee told the club of the small tree they’d be bringing to display the ornaments they’d crafted, they were asked if there’d be room for more. One woman responded with “probably not, I already made a hundred!” and got quite a laugh from the rest of the club.

Jan has been working on a very special quilt of her own off and on for about 15 years. She calls it “Once Upon A Time,” a fairytale themed quilt done in a method called rough edge applique that could probably be considered her magnum opus.

“Our group is a 501(c) group, and we donate to a lot of different organizations, so I’d like to be able to donate this somewhere like a hospital or a doctor’s office where it can be hung on a wall.” Her ideal home for the quilt is in a waiting room somewhere in the community where it can add some comfort and whimsy to an otherwise sterile environment. She especially hopes it helps calm children when they’re not feeling their best.

All of the ladies have made a quilt that sticks out in their memories, but one of the most infamous among the group is Leanna’s turtle quilt. She invested a significant amount of time in the quilt, which depicts an underwater scene with turtles swimming by. She carefully layered the watery fabric under the turtles to make them seem as though they were swimming, and although her techniques created a beautiful finished product, the mention of it had the whole table giggling about “that damn turtle” and wagging their fingers.

Centuries have passed since quilting made its way to our fair nation, and groups like the Country Road Quilters know how much it’s changed since their own early days.

“When we started quilting fabric was $2.99 a yard, and now it’s $12 or $15,” says Diane.

There are, however, a few things that haven’t changed a bit, one of which is that quilting brings people together.

“I went up to Jacksonville for a show, and I didn’t know a single person there, but all I had to do is say something and everyone chimed right in. I didn’t feel lonely at all,” says Elizabeth. Peggy also notes that the love of creating something beautiful with their hands unites the women of the guild today with all the quilting artists who came before them.

“Every one of these quilters in this guild has a burning passion for this. It’s a combination of art and history.”

Leanna spoke for every member of the Country Road Quilters guild—and certainly many others—when she said the art of quilting isn’t a lost one at all.

“I could go blind and I would still try to sew,” she says. “I got addicted to quilts.”

Want To Go?

Down Another Country Road of Quilts

November 7 and 8, 9am-4pm

College of Central Florida, Ewers Century Center

Admission is $7

For more information, visit


Posted in Marion Features

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