Quilting is becoming more popular in the Gorge after dying down in the years following a boom of popularity in the 1930s and ‘40s, said Kim Vogel, president of the Columbia River Gorge Quilters Guild.
Websites like Pinterest and Facebook offer quick patterns and inspiration for modern-day quilters and fabric retailers make it easy to get a wide variety of materials.
Quilting “is changing and evolving,” Vogel said.
A LONG TRADITION
Throughout history, quilts have been used worldwide in garments, folk art, decoration, and even armor.
Historians estimate that quilting has been around since at least the first century, A.D., which is where they date the first known evidence of the craft: A carved ivory figure of an Egyptian pharaoh, wearing what is believed to be a quilted mantel, who reigned during the Egyptian First Dynasty (approximately 3500 B.C.)
Though modern-day quilters often aren’t charged with decorating statues, clothing their entire families or ensuring they stay warm for the winter, quilters continue the tradition of gathering together to bond over the work.
The intricate handmade quilts that are often auctioned off around the Gorge to raise money by charities and local organizations are the product of a widespread community of quilters — many connected through the quilters guild — who quietly work to add a bit of color and warmth to their community.
The guild is a non-profit established in 2007 that holds monthly member meetings and provides resources to quilters in the area, in addition to putting on annual quilt shows.
“Even before the first Quilt Show in Stevenson, Wash. in the year 2000, the founders had a dream to bring a guild to the Columbia River Gorge. That is just what we did,” said a statement on the guild’s website.
As a non-profit, the guild and its members take on community service projects for local organizations.
Their quilts are typically classified by use, size and their intended destination: Comfort quilts go to hospice care, hospital patients, children and babies; veteran quilts go to veterans centers and hospitals; and charity quilts are donated to local organizations for fundraisers. Twin quilts are sized to fit a regular twin bed, and lap quilts are generally a bit smaller, intended to be used like a standard blanket.
The guild’s website regularly updates a list of organizations in need of quilts, with the type and size included.
To date, the guild is working towards a goal of 20 lap quilts for Skyline Hospital, 25 for hospital transitions program, 20 baby quilts for the Providence hospital maternity ward; 10 twin and 10 child’s lap quilts for the Hood River Women’s Shelter, and 20 twin quilts for Suttle Lake AIDS camp.
“Quilters are extremely generous,” said Vogel, who has been quilting for nearly 40 years.
In addition to donating quilts, the guild gives quilters a chance to show off their artistry and win prizes during their annual quilt shows. They recently finished the Blossom Fest Quilt Show in late April and are already preparing for the annual Columbia River Gorge Quilt Show set for the third week in October.
The guild also issues challenges for their monthly meetings. One, to make a 26”x26” quilt with a minimum of three rows in any direction, called the “my row by row challenge,” was issued to members for the guild’s May 19 meeting.
But quilting in the Gorge extends far beyond the guild. “For every [quilting group] that joins, there are two to three that don’t,” said Vogel. These quilters largely do the same things that guild members do, just without the guild’s connection to the wider region.
In Vogel’s experience, quilters generally fall into one of two categories: Those who have been sewing all their life and naturally progressed on to quilting, and those who decided to pursue the craft after discovering it later in life.
Most groups, like a group currently making a “scrap quilt,” one made up of scrap fabrics for a raffle at St. Peter’s annual holiday bazaar, include both beginner and experienced quilters.
Each year, they get together to pick out a pattern and coordinate colors, then the work is divided up between them so they can make their blocks on their own schedule.
This year, seven women agreed to help and were asked to make about seven blocks apiece. However, one became ill and had to back out, so the remaining six — Lois Dunsmore, Gladine Hattrup, Linda Huteson, Nancy Lauterbach, Brenda Trapp and Bobbie Wojtecki — agreed to each do a few extra pieces.
They make their blocks separately and meet up again once most are completed to physically piece the quilt cover together and decide on a border.
HOW IT WORKS
Working in the fellowship room of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in The Dalles, Trapp, Dunsmore, Hattrup, Huteson and Wojtecki hunch over their sewing machines and talk about how they’re likely imitating their colonial American ancestors.
“Other than just getting the work done, the ladies just liked to get together, that was their social hour,” said Trapp.
Quilts are typically composed of a layer of padding in between two cloth layers.
The top layer is composed of many individual patchwork blocks, or squares sewn together to make a single large design.
Once the cover is done, a border is added and attached to the middle and bottom layers.
To make each block, quilters cut the fabric, sew the pieces together according to their chosen pattern, iron it flat, and then square it off to ensure the blocks are all the same size.
Working in the big community room, the individual blocks are then stuck to a thick piece of felt cut to the quilt’s desired dimensions and hung on the wall.
Together they work to find an arrangement that everybody likes as Dunsmore passes Trapp the individual blocks to press onto the felt.
As the design grows, others finish their blocks and add them to the growing pile.
Each quilter makes a few more blocks than assigned so the group has more options.
“It seems like every quilt is done twice before you finish it, but that’s what makes it perfect,” said Dunsmore.
The trick to getting the arrangement right, Dunsmore said, is to look at the full design through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, which makes it easier to identify excessively light or dark patches that could throw off the cohesiveness of the quilt.
If one arrangement doesn’t work, it’s rearranged.
Once the design is decided, the blocks are sewn together.
While quilts were traditionally assembled by hand, stitching the front and back into a finished quilt, nowadays quilters typically send the finished top layer to a professional longarm quilter.
This group’s quilt will be passed on to Lisa Schafer, who uses a longarm, or industrial-length, sewing machine to assemble the quilt much faster and neater than can be done by hand.
“It’s always perfect, just beautiful,” Dunsmore said of Schafer’s finishing work.
IN THE BEGINNING
When the women first chose this year’s pattern for the St. Peter’s holiday bazaar — which requires 72 separate pieces of fabric per block, totaling over 3,000 pieces for the finished quilt — they didn’t realize just how advanced it was.
Luckily for them, Trapp said, all quilts are allowed one mistake — which she called an “Amish Mistake” — that is purposely left in the quilt.
The reasoning, she said, was because only God can be perfect.
Trapp began sewing when she was around 10 years old but gave it up when she had her three children “because all three wanted to be in my lap at once,” she said.
She returned to the craft in 1997 when she took a quilting class taught by Corliss Marsh.
“Corliss Marsh has had a great impact on quilting in the Gorge,” Trapp said.
TEACHING THE CRAFT
Marsh began teaching back when she owned a quilting shop in Portland, she said.
One of the downsides to the boom in online quilting resources and internet fabric sales is that local fabric stores and quilt shops, like the one she used to own, have a hard time keeping up with the online market, she said.
She noted that the last quilting shop between Dufur and Pendleton recently had to shut down.
Marsh started quilting after her son was born 42 years ago, when she decided that she wanted to make a bicentennial quilt for him.
Marsh grew up in Hawaii sewing her own clothes and making quilting squares and covers, but had never made a full quilt.
Now, she regularly gathers her relatives in her home for what she calls “quilt camp,” an entire weekend dedicated to quilting, and she teaches a monthly quilting class in the fellowship hall of St. Alphonsus Church in Dufur.
The Dufur Quilt Group used to meet at Columbia Gorge Community College’s The Dalles campus, but decided to move when their regular meeting space began to be used as a nursing classroom, and the quilters were occasionally joined by a cadaver left behind by nursing students.
With CGCC needing the room and a member of the group able to arrange space at St. Alphonsus, the group found a home in Dufur.
Quilting is “just fun to do, everything is new,” Marsh said, adding that she appreciates the math involved and having to think. “For me, it’s relaxing,” she said.
Rather than sticking to traditional quilting techniques, Marsh likes to come up with her own shortcuts.
“I like to do things quick and fast and the easiest way,” she said.
While most quilters pay a longarm quilter to assemble their quilts, Marsh prefers to assemble them herself, saving money.
She uses the trick of tying the layers together rather than sewing, which makes the process easy to do by hand, she said.
The quilters keep the blocks they make in class to do with as they please.
Marsh held up a spring-themed orange quilt to her students at the end of their April meeting, announcing that she had started it the previous afternoon and finished it that morning.
When the students asked her to teach them the technique, she replied, “I can’t teach it to you, it’s too easy.”
She was recently given a bag of quilt blocks by the staff at New 2 U, who had no idea what to do with them, she said.
Marsh recognized them as the work of a student in her class. She brought them to her quilt camp, she said, and was able to make several quilts just by matching up the pieces.
“When I’m not teaching classes, all I do is sew,” she said.
Though quilters will occasionally keep a quilt or two for themselves, Marsh said most give them away.
She primarily makes comfort quilts for hospitals and senior centers, and charity quilts for fundraisers.
At each monthly meeting, Marsh teaches a single technique to a class that ranges from beginning to advanced quilters. The class is followed by a brown-bag lunch and a chance for the quilters to show off their work.
“Quilting is kind of social, everybody talks about the quilts they made,” she said.
Barbara McKenzie proudly showed a complicated blue quilt she made from a packaged kit that required her to individually hand-cut hundreds of pieces.
Some of the quilters commented that the finished quilt looked like flowing water, while McKenzie said her daughter described it as “trippy.”
McKenzie said this quilt was one she would keep for herself.
“My guest-room has been waiting for this,” she said.