During the summer, I had the opportunity to lead a community quilt project at the Guntersville Museum and Cultural Center.
Collaborations are always fun for me. Potential combinations of people, topics, materials, and locations make every project a different experience with unique results. People are familiar and comfortable with fabric so the colors, texture, and patterns are relatable. Working with fabric gives an immediate level of comfort for all participants. With community quilts, individuals are free to make their own blocks. Stories are told, ideas and techniques are shared, and when the parts are gathered and joined together, the project and the community are celebrated by the group. It is fun to gather together with artisans of all skill levels to work towards common goals. It is most important for participants to have independent ideas without too much interference from the leader.
I like what my friend Mopsy says about community quilting, “It reminds me of a potluck dinner when nobody tells you what to bring. Sometimes everybody brings dessert, and sometimes it all works out. But there’s always some vigilante who says, ‘No, bring a salad,’ but I want dessert!” I don’t want to be that vigilante. I want everybody to be happy with what they bring to the table. If you allow folks to be who they are and do what they want to do, what you get is a beautiful casserole.
The idea of the Guntersville project emerged during a lunch meeting with my friend and director of the museum, Julie Patton. As we talked about the project, we shared memories of growing up together, high school marching band, theater orchestra, Girl Scouts, and a faint memory of a group art project we did as kids. We couldn’t remember very many of the details, who led the project, or even what picture was created, but we did remember it was made out of colorful paper. Each person cut out shapes of bright colors, and together, the pieces made an image. It was strange to have partial recollections of our shared memories and not the whole scene, but we knew we wanted to collaborate on a grown-up version of that project using colorful fabrics. We wanted the project to be more like a community mural rather than a blocked quilt. The wall hanging would be rooted in quilting traditions but be contemporary and freestyle in design. This project would fit in well with the second of the museum’s two summer exhibits — Examining the Craft: The Legacy of Quilts, and Redefining the Craft: Urban Fiber Arts.
For the design, we relied on Lillis Taylor, executive director of Bib & Tucker Sew-Op, fabric designer, and community catalyst for many regional collaborative quilt projects. I asked Lillis to create a design that we could separate the pieces like a paint-by-number painting. She presented four options in watercolor paintings, and Julie and I picked the winning design.
I bought two canvas drop cloths (one for a base cloth and one for the shapes and patterns), and I bought chintz fabric at a discount fabric store for the background colors. I laundered the fabrics in hot water to remove sizing and soften the fabric. To break the design down into color blocks and shapes, I hung the canvas on a backdrop stand and projected a photograph of the painting onto the canvas. I drew each outline of the patterns and color blocks. Cutting out the color blocks first, I used them as patterns to cut the chintz (dull side up). After all of the color blocks were complete, I cut the shapes out. Triangles, circles, squares, leaf shapes, and lines, I would cut them out and write the assigned color on the back of each piece.
As I sewed the color blocks onto the base cloth, I decided to call a few of my friends to help kickoff the project. I needed a few completed mini-quilts to pin onto the base cloth to display during the upcoming public sewing sessions. The quilt would take three weeks to complete.
There were two work sessions at the museum. As we gathered in a group each time, participants picked their shapes with the assigned colors. The rule was simple — throw out any preconceived idea you might have about making a quilt, and by using your own techniques, sew a design onto your canvas shape. With donated materials and with scissors, needles, and pins from my traveling kit, we all sat around the table and went to work. My sewing machine and ironing board were made available. Some used the machine while most hand stitched the pieces. Each participant used techniques they were most comfortable with to make their mini-quilts. As the mini-quilts were completed and collected, they were pinned to the color-blocked base cloth to be appliquéd with zigzag stitches on the machine later on.
On the third weekend, I took the pieces home to my parents’ house to sew all the pieces onto the base cloth. Following the pattern and colors of the original design, I arranged the pieces of the puzzle together. Each of the mini-quilts combined printed fabrics mixed with solids in different shades and hues, but they all read as the solid colors of the painting. Fabric, thread, and embellishments from friends, mothers, grandmothers, great aunts, and good neighbors who have passed on were also woven into the pieces, and I thought of them all as I sewed. It was emotional, exciting, fun and beautiful to see it all come together.
As with potluck dinners, combinations of ingredients, participants, themes, ideas, and locations are ever changing. With minimal coordinations, the host’s worries should give way to focusing on encouraging and accommodating the crowd. The guests should always feel relaxed, empowered, and free to enjoy the camaraderie and shared experience. I want to make more potluck quilts. Please contact me for help in coordinating your community quilts.