Once upon a time, daughters sat with mothers and grandmothers to piece retired scraps of clothing together into quilts for the family. The activity served purposes both utilitarian and social, while at the same time providing an outlet for creative expression.
Unlike the fine arts, which are often highly individualistic, quilting is considered a folk art—a cultural tradition whose techniques are passed from generation to generation as collective wisdom. Interestingly, many of today’s quilters local to Breckenridge and Summit County came by it in a more random fashion.
“I originally started out quilting in the 80’s because I wanted to learn how to make a comforter—which I thought at the time was a quilt,” said Deb Conway, who moved to Breckenridge from Virginia six years ago. “My first lesson was totally different than what I was expecting.”
Whereas a comforter is essentially a cloth bag with filler inside, a quilt is more complex from design to finish. The top is constructed first, traditionally from a pattern of regular blocks of fabric that are hand or machine-stitched together. Or, smaller bits of fabric can be sewed edge-to-edge.
“Some people do thread painting, where they sew on a very thin fabric and then tear the fabric away, creating images with stitches,” said Myrth McDonald, who serves as secretary for Summit Quilters, a group of approximately 30 members that meets twice a month to work on projects and learn techniques from one another. “There are a million different ways to sew. No matter which, it seems like someone does it in the group,” she said.
Conway’s first quilts were family projects, despite the fact that her original interest was self-motivated rather than family-inspired. “I was not aware there were quilters in my family until I began to quilt and spoke with my mom,” Conway said. “She told me she had some quilt tops—quilts that hadn’t been finished yet—from my great aunt. I asked her if she would mind if I finished them. I gave the first finished quilt to my mom at Christmas. When she opened it up, her emotions got the best of her.”
After she moved to Breckenridge, one of the first things Conway did was to seek out Summit Quilters.
Finding the quilting group was a bit more of a journey for McDonald, who—at just a couple months shy of 40 years old—is the youngest member of Summit Quilters. “I didn’t realize there were groups like this out there,” admitted McDonald, a self-taught quilter who is an active blogger and owner of the Etsy store, Gooses Bags and Gifts. Although McDonald grew up in a family of artists and dabbled with sewing as a child, she was not raised in a family tradition of quilting either.
Instead, she found her own way to it—and in so doing united with a multi-generational, modern family of quilters stitched together by a mutual interest in carrying on the folk tradition for a new era.
“We sort of come from different places. I’m more from a modern quilting movement, and many of the group members are more traditional,” McDonald said. Traditional quilting choices, for example, might involve small-print fabrics like calico, and a layout of blocks in a regular rhythm. The modern movement, on the other hand, often involves more solid colors and more negative space, she explained.
“Sometimes instead of 12 star blocks laid out 3×4, you might see one star block half in the quilt and half running off the edge,” McDonald said. “It’s like modern art—abstracting elements from the traditional and using those elements in a new way.”
Still, she is quick to point out how much the members of Summit Quilters learn from one another—whether sewing techniques informed by decades of experience, or how to promote their art through social media. “I was so excited to find the group,” McDonald said. “It’s nice to have people who understand what you’re working on, and can understand, challenge and support you at the same time.”
In addition to their bimonthly get-togethers, Summit Quilters hosts a show at the Frisco Historic Park each August. This year, they created a collection of small, self-portrait quilts on blue backgrounds they call their “selfies.” The group also sews donation quilts for the Family Intercultural Resource Center, and takes part in other community projects like the quilt which hangs in the new South Branch Library on Harris Street.
“The Library Quilt,” which is part of the Town of Breckenridge’s public art collection, depicts the historic 1909 schoolhouse that houses the library, flanked by yellow aspens above a patchwork of plant life and local scenes, and set against white peaks and a mottled, multicolor sky. “It is not a basic quilting project at all,” said Conway, who teamed with another local quilter, Judy Keim, to lead the group through the process of creating it. “It pushed a lot of people out of their comfort zone—which was terrific.”
Keim sewed the image of the school building using blueprints and pictures to guide her. She also did the quilt edges. “Creating a community treasure was so rewarding,” she said. “It is very satisfying and fulfilling to be part of crafting a quilt that is a historical and artistic part of Summit County’s legacy.”
At her Breckenridge-based business, JK Studio, Keim has moved away from quilted items, instead fashioning handmade fabric pins, wall hangings, scarfs, coasters, cards and other pieces of fiber art that incorporate beads, yarns, threads and other embellishments on fabric.
Conway, too, enjoys embellishing fabric, but she uses it to make intricate art quilts designed to hang as wall décor. She favors small blocks, embroidery, silk ribbons, beads and wool. “I really love using the various threads and beads and making them into something,” she said. “Those are my art.”
After The Library Quilt was done, Conway noted that twice as many people started attending Summit Quilters’ meetings, whether to take part in group projects, learn from one another, or work on their own pieces. “I think it’s just the community that has been created—because of all the hands that touched one project.”
Photos: Myrth McDonald