A Needle Runs Through ItApr 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Karey Solomon
Is it form over function or the other way around? When the artwork is quilts, it can be both, as members of Elmira Piecemakers well know. After seeing the results of collaborative projects in another group, Piecemakers quilt historian and current program chair Cathleen “Cathie” Wiggs offered members a challenge. Everyone who accepted received an eight-inch wide piece of bright blue, watery-patterned batik to use in a two by three foot panel. The blue, intended to depict a river, became a feature set into each quilter’s depiction of a landscape whose other elements—animals, birds, sky, clouds, trees, greenery, fish and people—are added with fabric, beads, found objects, and stitches. The design of each quilt was left entirely to its designer—with one proviso. The blue “river” fabric, however it meanders through the panel, must start and end at least two to three inches above the bottom on two opposite sides.
Celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year, the Piecemakers thus began creation of a fabric river, the culmination of which is expected to be a highlight of their biennial quilt show, set this year for Friday through Sunday, April 22, 23, and 24 at the National Soaring Museum, 51 Soaring Hill Drive, Harris Hill, Elmira.
Nearly half of the approximately 130 members from across New York’s Southern Tier and Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier gather monthly to create and sew together. The quilters inspire each other to stretch outside the comfort zone of the often-formidable skills most already possess. The results are not just quilts—they are fabric art. When the thirty or so entries resulting from Cathie’s challenge are hung at the upcoming show, the individual segments of river will flow together in a continuous ribbon of color, relating very individual interpretations with a common thread. Many quilters associate their hypothetical river with wilderness relaxation, populating their scenery with fishermen, boaters, and the occasional bear. Some see it as a pristine, primeval environment. Some waters are local, such as Mary Kohan’s quilted depiction of Taughannock Falls as the source of her river.
Annmarie Allaire went further north for her inspiration. She was reminded of an Alaskan vacation and how awestruck she was by the scenery around Denali. She used photographs taken by her husband to reproduce her favorite view in fabric. The design phase took about a month of sketching and planning, she says. After three months of stitching, quilting, and finishing, a time that included re-dyeing some of her fabric, her quilt panel was ready.
“I’ve been sewing since 1955,” she says. “This really was a challenge. But I had fun doing it. And it gave me the courage to try something different.”
Pat Wainwright, who brought her work-in-progress to the group’s meeting bristling with pinned-down details, says she’s confident she’ll have her panel done in time for it to be hung with the others. She stitched busily during an explanation of the details that go into making the quilt show run smoothly.
It takes a small army of volunteers to organize, hang, and administer the exhibit of nearly 300 quilted works. Some plan the displays, some catalog and hang the entries, and others demonstrate techniques. Then there are the white-gloved quilt guardians who will carefully flip back a corner of a quilt for closer examination so viewers can take a nearer, albeit hands-off, look. The most active volunteers begin their marathon work session when they retrieve several truckloads of quilt display racks from storage. These racks are jointly owned with a sister group, the Athens-based Endless Mountains Quilt Guild. The two groups use them for quilt shows in alternate years. Some quilters belong to both guilds—and a few more besides. After the display quilts are delivered, fifty nimble volunteers will actually hang the show.
“The entries are all shapes and sizes,” says guild president and show chair Cindy McGuire. “From bed quilts to miniatures, some hand-quilted, some appliquéd. Some of the quilts are pretty intricate. We just hope to expose other quilters to what we’ve done and learned.”
With their five dollar admission (it helps defray the cost of using the museum), visitors can tour the exhibit, and opt to take notes on what they see. Each admission comes with a ballot and an opportunity to cast a vote for a favorite quilt. One amazing quilter will then take home the viewer’s choice award.
Attendees can also look beyond the fabric art to take in the museum’s permanent displays of vintage motorless aircraft or watch the gliders outside on Harris Hill (weather cooperating).
Cathie will be on hand in the persona and costume of “Hillbilly Lily.” She’ll be talking about the folklore enlivening the melting pot of Appalachian quilting traditions. Among the nuggets of mountain wisdom she learned while researching her presentation was a superstition forbidding a bride-to-be from putting the last stitch into her trousseau quilt—otherwise her marriage wouldn’t last. Another cautions dire consequences awaiting the overzealous who forgo a day of rest in favor of stitching on a Sunday.
Every other hour, guild members will offer quilting technique demonstrations. There will be vendors selling fabric and threads, and attendees can take a chance on winning a quilt made by founding guild member Veda Johnson. Look for more information and a schedule at the group’s website, piecemakersofelmira.com. Show hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday.