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December 05, 2016
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Honoring traditions, fabricating new; Meet the divas of quilting

Amy Dunn of Mountain Quilt Works has been quilting since she was a teenager.
Photos by Lynne Freda

Some do it for the fellowship and conversation. Some do it for the satisfaction of having something to show for all their hard work. Some do it for the art. But they all have the same goal: to make a quilt.

Quilting circles have become extremely popular in the Delaware River Valley region. Hundreds of (mostly) women have organized with other quilters who love the craft as much as they do. They subscribe to daily emails with quilting newsletters; they are slightly addicted to YouTube quilting videos, where they learn new techniques; and they belong to Facebook quilting groups and exchange ideas.

And in most cases, they started quilting in the same way: it was a natural progression from crafting, sewing, or needlework (like crocheting or knitting) to quilting.

“I was always a crafter. I used to sew dolls and their costumes, and always had a sewing machine. Quilting was just a natural progression,” explains Keyna Hust of The Divas Quilting Circle out of Youngsville, NY.

Fellow diva Jennifer Berglas says, “I always sewed and was a crafter. I like to put things together. I made kids’ clothes, place mats, and now quilts.” Same with diva Ruth Pontious of Jeffersonville, NY, “I always sewed. I had four kids and made a lot of their clothes. I started quilting in the ‘80s, by hand, not a machine.”

Given the recent popularity of quilting, you might think it was a fairly recent hobby. But the craft goes back centuries.

Quilts started as a necessity to keep humans warm and out of the elements. They were as basic as woven linen or spun wool. American pioneer women had no time to work on luxuries such as a decorated quilt; they were doing all they could to keep their families fed, clothed and out of danger.

Decorated quilts were for wealthy women who had time on their hands. They were not made of fabric scraps as many are now—rather, they were decorative and showcased the fine needlework women of privilege worked so hard to exact.

Big changes came after the mid-19th century. The advent of manufacturing on a large scale changed the textile industry, making fabric affordable and available. Women no longer had to spin or weave their own materials. Because of that, quilt making became widespread.

The style of quilting also changed around the mid-1800s; block-style quilts became the rage. Quilting bees became popular, with women working on individual blocks and sitting around quilting frames to attach them to the body of the quilt.

But the biggest change came after the sewing machine was invented. That allowed women to make clothing for their families in less time, which allowed more time for quilting. And the quilts could be made on the machine instead of the tedious and time-consuming hand sewing.

These days, most quilters use machines, from the simplest to the most sophisticated ones with computerized designs and even lasers to guide the quilter around designs. (They can also run into the thousands of dollars.) There are special machines made just for quilters with longer, stronger needles to go through thicker quilt material and batting. Many machines are called “long-arm” to handle the size of the material.

But not all of these talented crafters make their quilts on machines. Amy Dunn, owner of the Mountain Quilt Works on Route 652 in Indian Orchard, PA is a custom, hand quilter. She sells material and supplies in her shop, and she takes custom orders. While Amy enjoys her work, she says there’s no easy way to “hand-do” a quilt. “It takes time and patience, and there’s no way you can make much money on it. It’s a labor of love.” Amy has just spent about three months and 200 hours crafting a beautiful quilt for an older woman who has made quilts for all her children and most of her grandchildren. But arthritis robbed the woman of her ability, so she enlisted Amy to make three remaining quilts.

Amy started quilting when she was a teenager. When The Mountain Quilt Works opened in the mid ‘80s, it was a natural fit for her to work there. She eventually bought the store in 1992.

Six years ago, Jackie Murphy of Honesdale, PA decided she’d open a quilting store. Again, she was a crafter, scrapbooker, and she knitted and crocheted. She belongs to the Wayne Highlands Quilt Guild, and they meet at her store, “A Stitch in Time,” on 7th Street. “We enjoy our ‘sew-and-tell’ time. We share ideas and see what we’ve made since our last meeting.”

Jackie and other quilters say they’ve noticed a trend in recent years from quilts used as bedspreads and comforters to smaller art quilts.

That’s what Katharina Litchman of Jeffersonville, NY specializes in. She calls herself a contemporary art quilter. Katharina was a New York City banker, when she caught the quilting bug. But after making many bed quilts, she felt she wanted to branch out and stretch her creative side. Katharina now designs and makes art quilts, which are in demand. She started experimenting with dying her own fabrics, using all natural dyes and material to make the designs. “It’s a lot of work,” says Katharina, “and I always make a mistake or two. My quilts are not perfect, and no two will ever be alike.” She is the first art quilter to be inducted into the Catskill Mountain Quilters Hall of Fame.

Despite the difference in the styles and motivation for quilting, all have one special quality in common: they have huge hearts. Each group or individual participates continually in charity aspects. Quilt raffles are common in the Delaware River area—but did you realize each one raffled off has to be made by someone? In many cases, each member of the quilt circle makes a block or square, and they take turns finishing it. Local agencies are the beneficiaries of the money raised.

The divas in Youngsville save all their quilting scraps in what they call a “cat bag.” Once enough scraps are accumulated, they’re sewn together to make a cat bed, which the divas then donate to the Sullivan County Humane Society, at a rate of about one a month.

Amy Dunn from “The Mountain Quiltworks” participates in “Conkerr Cancer,” a program where crafters make pillowcases for children with cancer. So far, Amy and customers at her shop have donated 2,240 cases and counting. She also participates in quilt raffles for charity.

At “A Stitch in Time” in Honesdale, Jackie Murphy is challenging quilters and customers to “Fill the Cradle” with 150 baby quilts between now and March. It’s for “Project Linus,” a charity that provides comforting quilts to kids in the hospital with serious illnesses. Her shop also saves scraps and accepts donations of fabric in a project called “Shreds for Beds”. They make dog beds for Dessin Animal Shelter.

As busy as the hands of all our local quilters are, their hearts are just as full, giving back to those who need help the most. And whatever drives them, whether a quilter is making a specimen for a bed or the wall, for a child or a bride, whether they’re meeting for the social aspect or the sheer creativity of art of quilting, this is one craft that won’t fade away any time soon.