The Quilted Yurt
Linzi in her yurt. Photo by Alex Labry
One of the must-see items at the last year’s International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas and this year’s in Chicago was the brightly colored, 10-foot diameter quilted yurt in the "Tactile Architecture™" exhibit made by Linzi Upton, a professional quilter with a delightful sense of humor and some serious longarm skills. (A yurt is a round, portable, semi-permanent tent traditionally used by nomads in Central Asia, and they have been in use since at least the 13th century.)
Linzi, who is also known as “The Quilt Quine,” has a canvas yurt in the garden at her home in Crathes, Aberdeenshire, Scotland that she uses year-round as “a place to chill with friends, especially in winter as it has a wood stove, and have coffee, suppers, and sleepovers.”
While trying to figure out how to insulate her garden yurt, she came up with the idea of making a quilted yurt for exhibition at the annual Loch Lomond Quilt Show in Dumbarton, Scotland in 2010. How that spark of inspiration grew into a firestorm of creativity—eventually producing two quilted yurts (an 18-foot Scottish version and the 10-foot American version)—is quite a story.
Linzi had the imagination, the connections, the materials, the tools, and the ability to carry out the project. She obtained financial backing through a partnership between the Aberdeenshire Council and the Scottish Arts Council. A professional yurt craftsman, Paul Spencer of Highland Yurts, built the wooden frame. But with less than a year remaining before the quilt show, the major obstacle to overcome was the fact that there simply weren’t enough hours in her days to complete the quilted panels.
You see, Linzi doesn’t have a lot of spare time on her hands. The mother of three lives on a farm in the northeastern part of Scotland with her husband, children (aged 14, 11, and 9), chickens, and pigs. She is an internationally known quilt artist, in-demand lecturer, longarm instructor, workshop leader, and the authorized representative of APQS longarm quilting machines in the United Kingdom. To say she is busy is an understatement, and to take on such a large project in such a tight timeframe was daunting.
Undeterred, Linzi reached out via the internet for assistance, enlisting a team of what she calls “stunt quilters” to help meet the deadline.
“My idea of ‘stunt quilters’ was to find people who would act as ‘body doubles’—to help me get the sort of piecing/quilting done that I would have done myself if I had not underestimated the time that making a quilted yurt would take,” Linzi explains. “It was not to get them to do dangerous tricks or amazing feats, but they were awesome for coming to the rescue to help get the original Scottish yurt ready on time for its first exhibition. The stunt quilters' panels are now all with the American yurt in Wisconsin along with another dozen or so of mine. Some of the ‘stunt’ panels were both pieced and quilted by American friends, while some were just pieced and sent back to me for quilting. The Scottish yurt now has a complete set of panels that I worked on independently, except for one, which was pieced by a friend and another one was quilted by a friend!”
Linzi and her stunt quilter stand-ins were able to finish the original yurt in time for its debut at the Loch Lomand Quilt Show and it proved to be tremendously popular, receiving offers to travel to a number of different countries, including the United States. Problems with U.S .Customs restrictions on imported wood in the yurt’s frame, however, meant that Linzi would have to make an entirely new yurt in order to exhibit in the U.S., and that’s how the second yurt came about.
Once again, Linzi turned to stunt quilters for help.
“I made some calls amongst the USA stunt quilters. Teri Kirchner, who was one of them, was involved at the time as President at the Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. She managed to secure a replacement prototype frame from Yurts of America in Indianapolis except that it was a very different shape and size,” Linzi says.
“The Scottish yurt is 18 feet across and has 5-foot walls at its outer edge, but the American yurt is only 10 feet across and 7-feet high at its outer edge. Using a few rough sketches scanned into an email, I hurriedly dyed yards of fabric and quilted an entirely new roof and wall "skirts" for the USA version so that the 54" long panels (originally constructed for the shorter Scottish version) would not be left dangling short.”
When not set up for exhibition, the yurts are packed up and stored, the Scottish one in Linzi’s garage and studio and the American one in the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts. If you hear of one of them being set up in an area near you, make plans to visit.
One has to wonder what those 13th-century Central Asian nomads would think if they could see either of Linzi’s yurts, replete with furniture and lamps inside. They would probably react in much the same way as does everyone else who sees the colorful creations: they’d smile, go inside, and make themselves at home.
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