Practical art

A steady hand and lots of patience are needed to complete the

Modern take on age-old craft keeps quilters’ needles flying
With gadgets galore, specialty threads and a dizzying array of colorful fabrics, a quilt shop can be bewildering for a neophyte, but Dave Peoples, co-owner of The Nimble Thimble in Gilroy with wife Marianne, doesn’t let that stop one.

“Let’s start with a color you like,” he says reassuringly, ready to guide his customer through the preparations for a simple pattern. “From there we can work with different shades and hues or we can focus on contrasting and complimentary colors.

When you’re working with quilts you have a color wheel just like any other artist.”

Unlike most artists, though, quilters work with fabrics, anywhere from nine to well more than 30 different colors, said Peoples.

And like many other art media, quilting takes time, though technology has sped up the process considerably. Hand piecing has given way to machine use in most circles, and giant, computer-driven sewing machines called long-arm quilters are used to finish quilts in a fraction of the time it would take an individual quilter.

Rotary cutters, round rolling razor blades that look suspiciously like pizza cutters, shave time off the process of cutting fabrics into the smaller shapes that will make up the quilt’s design.

And best of all, the art form is adaptable to endless variances in skill.

Jo-Ann Fabric and Crafts in Morgan Hill offers preprinted quilts that just need their filling and backing sewn on, lending the illusion of a hand-quilted piece, while Peoples often starts novices off with a simple block pattern.

Expert and artisan quilters, on the other hand, are turning to new materials and complex patterns for their pieces.

They are using non-traditional fabrics such as silks, wools and chenilles along with decorative threads, beading and painted fabric to create one-of-a-kind works of art, according to Beth Upstill, a member of the Piece by Piece Quilt Guild in Morgan Hill.

“I was just at a quilt show in Southern California for five days,” said Upstill, who sells hand-dyed wool fabrics from her home marketing primarily to quilters. “There isn’t one style or pattern that’s really popular. I think that quilters are looking for new ways of manipulating fabric. Women are … taking paint and painting on fabric to produce a design.”

Guild members have the opportunity to learn from other women (and men) in their groups through exposure to one another’s work at a group “show and tell” as well as through trunk shows that more experienced guild members put on, showcasing their work from the beginning their careers as quilters to their current work, said Sharlene Ban Rooy, president of the Pinnacle Quilters of San Benito County.

“People always have a story behind their quilt,” said Ban Rooy. “One of the fabrics is from a dress that was their grandmother’s or it’s for a special person.”

Ban Rooy found her own passion for quilting in a roundabout way.

When the county historical society had no quilt to offer for its yearly fundraising drawing she approached an unofficial quilting guild known as The Gabilan to procure one and was enticed to try her hand at the craft.

The history and traditions she found behind the seams were part of what kept Ban Rooy coming back.

Quilts in American society date to colonial times when women would create whole-cloth quilts – a single piece of material on top of a filling with another piece of material as the back.

Intricate designs were stitched into the top piece –through the filling and backing — to play with light and shadow.

They were of special importance in the days before the civil war. Certain patterns, like flying geese, the wagon wheel and the evening star, denoted a safe house along the trail of the Underground Railroad.

Sympathetic homeowners would drape their quilt over a fence as if it were airing, subtly signaling passers by.

Today’s quilt guilds are often socially involved as well. The Pinnacle group creates full-sized snuggle quilts for moms and babies at the Adolescent Family Life Resource Center, a service for teenage mothers.

They also donated teddy bears with miniature quilts to a Christmas benefit this year.

In Morgan Hill, Piece by Piece raises money for screening equipment and mammograms at St. Louise Hospital by selling tickets for a quilt drawing at the Taste of Morgan Hill. Last year they netted $5,000.

Guests are always welcome at both Piece by Piece and Pinnacle Quilters.

The Morgan Hill group meets on the third Thursday of each month at Morgan Hill Presbyterian Church,16970 DeWitt Ave., gathering at 6:30pm for socializing and 7pm for their meeting.

The Pinnacle Quilters of San Benito County meet the third Tuesday of each month at 6:30pm in the San Juan Bautista’s VFW Hall at 58 Monterey St..

For more information on how you can get started with a quilting project, call Dave or Marianne at The Nimble Thimble, (408) 842-6501, or stop by their shop at 55 Sixth St. in Gilroy.

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