- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2000

Somewhere in between taking the kids to school, soccer practices and Girl Scout meetings, Milissa Fellers of Annandale, Va., squeezes in time to learn how to make an American quilt.

Like actress Winona Ryder, the 36-year-old mother of two was coaxed toward quilting by her elders, in this case her mother-in-law. After only four classes, Mrs. Fellers is convinced that quilting is for her.

"I can bag it up and take it places with me," she says. "I find it relaxing, and it's a hobby that's easy to take along."

She is one of a flood of quilters who have signed up for 110 quilting classes this fall in G Street Fabrics stores in the Washington area.

About 12 million U.S. households take part in the $1.2 billion quilting industry, according to Quilter's Newsletter Magazine. Quilting has made a "tremendous comeback" in recent years, says Mary Goettelmann, education director of the Rockville, Md., and Centreville, Va., G Street Fabric stores. The craft may have been helped by publicity for the 50-ton AIDS quilt, honoring more than 83,000 people, covering 773,280 square feet and symbolizing one of the decade's deadliest diseases.

Starting tomorrow, the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery opens two exhibits on quilts one a show of Amish pieces made between 1880-1940 and the other a collection of pieces by black quilters using bright colors traditional African cloth, African symbols and imagery.

These American quilts are recent additions to a practice dating back thousands of years. Bonnie Browning of the American Quilter's Society says the art began in Egypt around 3400 B.C. when quilted garments were worn under metal armor. The first bed quilt was made in Sicily at the end of the 14th century.

"In the early days of our country, women recycled every piece of fabric to make bedding," Mrs. Browning said. "The patchwork quilt is the signature American style of quilting."

In rural 18th- and 19th-century America, quilting "bees," which were groups of quilters clustered in one room around a large quilt set in a wooden frame, were a prime way that isolated women were able to exchange news and advice during pre-telephone days.

Today, technology makes quilting less time consuming and therefore more popular with younger people. Sewing machines are computerized, and new types of thread and batting have helped. There are even computer programs on the market for quilt design.

A 1997 survey conducted by NFO Inc. and ABACUS Custom Research Inc. found 13.8 million quilters over the age of 18 in America. The survey of 27,353 American households reports the average quilter is 54 and spends 42 hours a month quilting. Ninety-nine percent are females who apparently have some leisure time. Their average household income is $68,418. Seventy-three percent of these women have a room in their home dedicated to sewing or quilting.

Quilting also has hit the Internet. One of the more humorous entries on the Web site quilt.org is the "Worst Quilt in the World Contest," created by Ami Simms of Flint, Mich. This year's winner was Darlene Riel of Monterey, Tenn., who created something called "Winding Ways Got Lost."

Commenting on the quilt, "the colors are awful and the workmanship is atrocious," Miss Simms said. "The batting is hanging out of one corner and along with part of a hand towel, and there are knee-hi's [socks] accidentally stitched into the border. It's lumpy and bumpy and so ugly you don't want to touch it.

"There's not a single redeeming feature. It's a mess from start to finish. A real triumph."

One of the contestants received a "Good Dog Award" because her canine ate the quilt.

The American capital of quilting is in Paducah, Ky. known to quilters as "Quilt City, USA." The city is home to both the American Quilter's Society and a companion museum.

Each year, visitors flock to the museum to view 150 quilts in a 14,000-square-foot building designed specifically for displaying the art. According to Victoria Faoro, the museum's executive director, the museum is the largest of its kind in the world.

"One of the wonderful things about quilts is they are connected with people's lives," Mrs. Faoro said. "Quilts are made in conjunction with important events in peoples' lives and events in our nation's history."

In other words, they aren't just bedspreads. Quilts are often given as gifts for birthdays, weddings and births.

"There are young people just out of college and moved into their first apartment quilting," Mrs. Goettelmann says. "There are also young couples who want to sew a quilt for their first baby."

And, "Working women in this area use it to de-stress," she says.

The American Quilter's Society has 60,000 members in every U.S. state and in 80 countries, Mrs. Browning says.

"There are a lot of people under 30 quilting," she insists. "It's just like it always has been; older people are teaching younger people to quilt."

Thus, the society sponsors the program, "Teach America 2 Quilt, Again," which encourages experienced quilters to pass on their skills.

Another organization for quilters, the National Quilting Association in Ellicott City, Md., has 5,500 members ranging from age 20 to 90.

Sandy McDonald, managing editor of the association's magazine, the Quilting Quarterly, says quilters prefer doing their hobby in the presence of other quilters, even though they can accomplish more alone.

"There is a camaraderie of women getting together to do something they all love," Mrs. McDonald says. "Producing something by hand is gratifying, but coming together with other women is also important. When women get together they talk about things other than quilting. It becomes a fellowship of women."

There are guilds across the nation where both female and male quilters stitch together. Quilters Unlimited is one such guild in Merrifield, Va. Members of the guild's 11 chapters are between the ages of 10 and 90.

According to its Internet site (www.quiltersunlimited.org) many of the members are professional women. Doctors, lawyers, teachers and nurses all gather for the organization's meetings, seminars and quilt shows.

"Quilting is probably one of the biggest 'hobbies' for women in this country today, so our group runs the gamut of personalities and professions," the site boasts.

Quilting is well respected art in America because the skills, as well as the masterpieces, are passed down through family trees.

"It's a very big business in the United States, and it's passed on to younger generations," Mrs. McDonald says. "There are quilters who work with children, teaching them to quilt."

"I'm teaching my granddaughters to quilt," she says. "Quilting is something that I love and we can do together. The first thing they ask when they come over is, 'Can we quilt?' "

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