Nineteen quilters arrived at the Alabama 4-H Conference Center in Columbiana on a recent rainy Friday morning for an uninterrupted weekend devoted to their art.
Quilters do not travel light. The small army moved in, with laughter, tote bags, plastic containers, shopping wagons, work lights, office chairs, wheeled cases transporting so-precious sewing machines, stacks of fabrics and much, much more for three days of creating and sewing quilts.
“I don’t know what y’all doing, but y’all organized,” one observer said while looking over the Seminar Room turned into a large sewing area. Each quilter was assigned to a 6-foot-long table. The quilters covered their table surfaces with sewing machines, fabrics, spools, rulers, bobbins, quilt books, patterns, stacks of completed blocks and uncompleted blocks and, of course, snacks: chocolate preferred.
The nonprofit organization Evening Star Quilt Guild of Pelham coordinated the event, themed “Building Better Quilts 2021” retreat.
A quilt retreat is more than a sewing day. It is a time for quilters to work among like-minded people and not pay attention to the outside world for a short time. The conference center offered a scenic location along Lay Lake and was far enough from home to feel like an escape. The quilters didn’t face real-world travel logistics; hotel lodging and meals were provided, and there was enough space for all quilters to bring their supplies without feeling crowded.
The quilters journeyed from Cullman, Jefferson, Bibb, St. Clair and Shelby counties.
‘The same passion’
A quilt retreat “is an escape from reality,” Susan Hill Lee said. “It’s a time to be with your best friends, with the same passion.”
Shirley Hamilton, Marie Guess and Lee all spoke of their need for the retreat. Because of the pandemic, this guild had not held a retreat in two years.
“A retreat is as much about sewing as it is the fellowship,” Cheryl Clabough said. “I missed the camaraderie and uninterrupted time to sew.”
While keeping up conversation, Clabough sewed blocks of origami birds made from Asian print fabrics that she cut into small, exacting pieces and stitched onto outlines on 4-inch squares of paper. When she finished the birds, she made a batch of masks to give away using college logo-themed fabrics.
“With all of the anxieties today, we need leisure time for ‘Me Time,’“ Ella Q. Thomas said while piecing traditional log cabin blocks. A retreat is “our chance to laugh and have fun. Most of us are caregivers. Here, I am not at home; don’t call my name.”
Making new quilt friends is a part of going to a quilt retreat. “I thought I’d introduce my quilt friends to a new group of quilters,” said Melonie Graham, who brought several quilters from her area of north Jefferson County. Graham pieced contemporary style blocks from solid colors during the retreat.
“We get new ideas and draw inspiration” from a retreat, Graham continued.
Colors and prints almost overwhelm the senses when quilters gather. There are colors and prints that recede, and others that carry the day.
“Just a little pop of color,” Beverly Douthit suggested as another quilter placed blocks on a design wall (a large piece of flannel) and wondered if the quilt-to-be needed anything more.
The group’s schedule included skill-building, with demonstrations and handouts for making paper-pieced blocks by Lee, and how to make a pillowcase by Susan S. Wagner.
Quilters gathered around Lee’s sewing machine for her presentation, showing a color wheel made into a wall hanging with triangles in circles, and a flamingo quilt with beaks and feet precisely sewn onto a paper outline. Once paper-pieced blocks are finished, the paper is torn from the back of the fabrics before sewing the blocks together to make the quilt top.
Wagner sewed a pillowcase in a matter of minutes to emphasize how quickly one can be created and how pretty it can be. The other quilters were impressed with Wagner’s efficiency and speed. Pillowcases made from leftover quilt fabrics can create a coordinated style in a bedroom are are useful to store quilts away from dust and sunlight.
Also on the docket was a Friendship Quilt, a retreat project where quilters exchanged blocks. They traded half-square triangle blocks (one square divided diagonally with two triangles), called “h-s-t’s.” Each quilter brought 36 h-s-t’s in varying fabrics and went home with six of their own and 30 from other quilters. A sample quilt measuring 60-by-60 inches was displayed with a center medallion created by half-square-triangles surrounded by three border fabrics.
Guess sorted, trimmed and arranged her Friendship Quilt half-square triangle blocks and sewed them together to create the center medallion before returning home. This was her first quilt retreat and she didn’t expect to complete the center top at the retreat.
“Not at all. I was in a slump,” she said. The retreat’s creative atmosphere motivated her to make the Friendship Quilt.
Kristy Abrams, director of the Alabama 4-H Conference Center, paid a brief visit to the sewing room. Upon learning from Abrams that their retreat will help 4-H groups statewide, the quilters cheered.
“Any revenue we generate above expenses to operate the property is donated to the Alabama 4-H Foundation, which goes to 4-H groups in every county in Alabama,” she said.
Another visitor to the sewing room left gifts for quilters at their sewing machines. It was the Quilt Fairy, who looks out for the needs and welfare of quilters with gifts of notions, tools, fabrics and inspiring messages. Like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, no one has ever actually seen the Quilt Fairy, but quilters are pretty sure one exists.
Some fairy gifts were special to Guess. For example, “the handmade ones stood out, like the pincushions” made of many colors and prints, with a button sewn in the center.
At one point, several quilters took a break and went shopping for – more fabrics, of course! They headed to J. Light Quilt Shop in Childersburg and returned with bags of fabric for current and future quilts. Quilters just can’t have too much fabric.
They also can’t have too many sewing machines. Some collect machines at garage sales and flea markets. Others inherit machines from their mothers and grandmothers.
Ask a group of quilters which sewing machine is best, and you’ll get as many answers as there are quilters.
Some of the machines used at the retreat are state-of-the-art machines with computer touch screens, bobbin sensors to indicate when it’s time to fill the bobbin, embroidery patterns, digital design storage and more.
Others are vintage machines from the 1940s and 1950s that sew one stitch – the straight stitch – well.
There were industrial styles of sewing machines that seemed to sew as fast as a lead car at Talladega, and machines lovingly referred to as “a workhorse” that diligently sew year in and year out for their owners. Those sewing machines certainly helped the quilters as they attempted to build better quilts.
Expectations for making quilts are high when going to a retreat. Larry Cartwright, president of the Evening Star Quilt Guild, who makes quilts from old shirts, said he brought the “wrong bag of shirts, so I didn’t get that much accomplished.”
“As president, I feel obligated to support guild functions,” he said. “I get so much from seeing other people excited about their projects, that the retreat did my heart a world of good.”
Meg McKinney, a member of the Evening Star Quilt Guild, was chairman of the Building Better Quilts retreat 2021. She is a professional photographer in Birmingham. Visit her website. For information about the Evening Star Quilt Guild, click here.