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Quilters are still drawing the same comforts from the art

Still incredibly popular, quilting offers hobbyists links to the past, designs on the future, and places for camaraderie and support

09/19/2012 1:53 PM

09/25/2012 4:43 PM

Though you might not guess it from its quaint setting in Arlington's historic Oak Hill District, Lone Star House of Quilts draws a crowd. Sometimes busloads. The charming white and blue bungalow with the huge magnolia out front and inviting rockers on its porch only looks quiet. Inside, it's a homey hive of creativity. Quilt tops, quilt blocks, bolts of fabric -- for a quilter, this is heaven.

This September, owner Alice Cooksey knew to expect even bigger crowds at her shop -- and not just because quilting continues to enjoy a renaissance across the country with a market of 11 million households stitching their way to an impressive $2.7 billion annually. Quilt Sampler magazine chose Cooksey's Lone Star quilt shop as one of the country's top 11 quilt shops for its Ultimate Shop Hop issue, which hit newsstands this month, just in time for the North Texas Quilt Shop Hop on Sept. 6-8.

"We are a candy store for quilters," Cooksey says. "We carry a variety of 100-percent cotton first-quality quilting fabrics. We emphasize 19th-century reproduction fabrics."

Because of the store's far-reaching reputation, it's not unusual for Cooksey to see customers from all over North Texas: "We have a much larger draw than just Tarrant County." One day a few weeks ago, Cooksey's shop had visitors from five states.

"It's not unusual for us to get Internet orders from Tasmania or customers in the shop from Brazil," she says. What is unusual is to have a nationally known author and fabric designer as on-staff talent, which Lone Star quilt shop has in Betsy Chutchian.

Folks come for more than fabric and thread, rotary cutters and rulers, patterns and classes.

They come for the human connection that quilting brings -- past and present.

"I love the connection to our past -- to our foremothers," Cooksey says. "And I love the interaction between quilters. We have groups of quilters who gather in our shop in a very informal way to visit with our staff and see what is new. They eat lunch with us sometimes. They know that it is safe to cry here and also to laugh.

"They usually go home with a bag of fabric under their arm, so they are helping us as well. It is very symbiotic."

Sally Brown knows exactly what Cooksey is talking about. One of the top talents in Tarrant County's thriving quilting scene, Brown has been quilting for 12 years but sewing since she was 5. Her quilts have won the top award two years in a row at the Trinity Valley Quilters' Guild of Fort Worth Quilt Show, which celebrates its 30th anniversary Sept. 28-30. But for Brown, who is entering a quilt she calls "My Crazy Heritage" in this year's show, the reward of quilting isn't the glory of awards.

"You can sit in a vacuum and quilt and create beautiful quilts, but the joy of quilting is the giving, sharing, learning, encouraging. At the end of the day, it's all about the relationships," she says.

By day, Brown works as an independent leadership trainer for Burlington Northern Santa Fe, but between meetings, training and travel, she always has handwork with her to stitch in her downtime, a quilting or sewing class to teach, or a bee to attend.

"Yes. There are still bees," Brown says. "You have a guild you go to once a month to hear speakers, take workshops. And then there are smaller offshoot groups that are a 'bee' or stitch group. That group of like-minded people comes together to encourage, teach, help, learn. You share hurts, successes, children growing up. The quilt is the catalyst for the sharing of lives."

Traditions passed down

That sharing connects people in the here and now, but it reaches back to the past, too. For Brown, the thread goes back to her great-grandmother and grandmother.

"I have a photo of my great-grandmother piecing in a rocking chair with such thick glasses," she says. "As I watched her do that, I told my meemaw I wanted to do it, too. She sat me at the sewing machine and I pieced together something small -- maybe 24 by 36 [inches]. She took the top and quilted it. It wasn't beautiful, but it was so special. My meemaw was a scrappy, utilitarian quilter. The quilt I sleep under every night was the last one she gave to me."

Over at Cabbage Rose in Fort Worth, where Brown often teaches, owner Karen O'Neill remembers that her dad used to help his grandmother quilt when he was a little boy.

"It was a fond memory of my dad's, and the older I have grown I understand why. I can't wait to teach my eight precious grandchildren to quilt and pass on the love of quilting and fabric," she says.

O'Neill, who opened her shop 15 years ago once her three boys were grown, hastens to add that it's not just grandmothers -- or women -- quilting in the church fellowship hall these days.

"Women and men of all ages come in the shop," she says. "Many young women have started quilting, sewing clothing and crafting."

But there is often a bequeathing: "Quite a few of the older women have been quilting almost forever. So many of them have taught us the gift of working with our hands and putting love in our designs. Fabric and designing are a true love for all who sew."

Young and old, they're spreading the love and knowledge on blogs, Facebook, Pinterest and YouTube.

Quilt love knows no bounds -- or mileage.

"Women drive hundreds of miles for fabric and a chance to get together to sew," O'Neill says. "We have customers from all over the country almost every day. If they are traveling and know there is a quilt shop in the area, trust me, they will do anything to get here."

Proof? In June, O'Neill had seven buses come to Cabbage Rose on a Patchwork Express. "Just imagine 56 women on each bus, with us feeding three of the buses. Ask my husband about cooking barbecue for 150 women!"

Then in early September, there was the North Texas Quilt Shop Hop, which saw quilters traveling, mostly by car, to see 14 shops for three days in the DFW area.

"Right now, we are in the middle of Quilt Across Texas during the whole month of September," O'Neill says. "Women and men are traveling around the state of Texas to get a passport stamped for prizes [200 of them, valued at more than $45,000]. Believe it or not they are going to over 90 shops. There is fabric designed just for this event."

Basics are the same

If it all sounds a little obsessive, it can be a magnificent obsession, one that is both craft and art. Credit the 1971 Whitney Museum of American Art show called "Abstract Design in American Quilts" with giving the form recognition as a serious art. Organized by Jonathan Holstein, the seminal exhibition in New York displayed pieced quilts on white walls with simple gallery labels, removing them from the usual crowded presentation of a state fair or craft show.

Widely credited with changing quilting forever, the Whitney exhibition energized a resurgence in quilting that grows -- and evolves -- every year. The modern quilter is as likely to use a machine as not. And while you will still see the long-revered traditional geometric patterns and crazy quilts, you will also see photo-realistic fabric collages.

As intricate as quilting has become, Cooksey, Brown and O'Neill don't want anyone to think quilting is reserved for the pros. "We tell our beginners that they need a sewing machine -- a very basic one -- that will sew a straight quarter-inch stitch. They need to know how to operate this machine. We teach them from there," Cooksey says.

As for materials: "You basically need needles, thread, rotary cutters, cutting boards and rulers. And fabric!"

Besides falling in love with fabric, beginners can expect to experience the warmth and community that are hooking more and more people on quilting.

"I love novice quilters because if they will just start, their life will change in amazing ways," Brown says. "Quilting provides such a springboard for life-changing friendships and creative fulfillment."

Brown suggests taking classes -- lots of them -- not only for the instruction but also for the relationships.

"It fills me full when I see people's hearts bonding during a class. And that happens a lot."

O'Neill has seen plenty of that bonding and other salutary effects of quilting at Cabbage Rose.

"It is very peaceful to work with your hands and beautiful fabrics," she says. "Many women come into the shop to just get away, relax and become creative. We lose that in this busy world. It is not always about the purchase, but the place to come to get away from the world.

"That is probably the one thing that has kept us going through the years -- friends [customers] that need this place in their lives," she says. "I have been so blessed to hear their stories and know Cabbage Rose has helped in a very small way to heal the heartache. Fabric and fellowship are the cure!"

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