The 19th Century Patchwork Divas
Pinwheels by Divas member Carol Staehle
I once read a book about the Swiss Expressionist artist, Paul Klee, who was famous for paintings that distorted reality through use of vibrant colors and nonrepresentational shapes. Despite his reputation as a thoroughly “Modern” artist, Klee was first and foremost an expert draftsman. He felt strongly that it was necessary to study and master traditional techniques in order to create the sort of abstract work that eventually became his signature.
It can sometimes seem as though traditional quilting techniques have been forgotten. The sheer number of art quilts being made and exhibited can lead to the impression that traditional quilts have been relegated to quaintness: admired—even cherished—but no longer actually produced as an artistic end in themselves. In the past decade, however, a number of traditional quilters have made it their mission to reverse that trend.
The 19th Century Patchwork Divas is one such group. Formed ten years ago by Betsy Chutchian and Carol Staehle, two longtime friends and quilters who worked together at a quilt shop in Arlington, Texas, the Divas is a block exchange group that insists on highly proficient use of traditional techniques in replicating antique quilts. With a shared love of intricate pieced and appliquéd quilts made between 1800 and 1899, admiration for the skill and precision required to make those quilts, and a passion for reproduction fabrics, the Divas now has 23 members in several states.
The Divas’ motto is, “What you give in quality, you will receive in quality,” referring to the underlying expectation that each person who participates in a block exchange will execute the given pattern in an expert, accurate manner. With such high standards, membership is definitely an earned honor. Marilyn Mowry, a Diva from Dallas, laughs, “For two years I practically stalked Carol, begging her to let me join. When I found out I was ‘in’ I was thrilled!”
Wild Goose Chase by Divas member Annette Plog.
The group tries to carry out at least two exchanges each year and the way the exchanges work is fairly straightforward. Members meet to select a 19th century quilt to be reproduced. Most ideas come from books (state quilt search books are a prime source) and selections are voted on by the whole group. More often than not, the chosen quilt has no existing pattern, so co-founder Carol Staehle does the math, drafts the pattern and figures out how many blocks will be needed to complete the quilt. Members can opt in or out of the exchange. Once the number of participants has been decided, then Carol determines how many blocks each one must make. If, say, 18 members opt into the exchange and the chosen quilt requires 144 blocks, then each participant must create eight blocks for every other participant, as well as herself.
Every effort is made to use reproduction fabrics that faithfully replicate those made during the time period in which the original quilt was created. Carol and Betsy are both serious students of 19th century fabrics, and they examine the chosen quilt to determine those that adhere in color and style to the era of the quilt. Only reproduction fabrics up to and including the date of those in the original quilt are allowed, because a quilt is dated by the most recent fabric it contains. Other characteristics of the original quilt, such as size, border type, or background fabrics, are also carefully considered.
Once the ground rules are established, however, individual creativity is given full rein. With each participant executing the pattern using fabrics of her own selection (whether purchased specifically for the exchange or taken from her own stash), the resultant blocks are as different as their makers. Once the blocks have been made and exchanged, each participant can put them together into a top as she sees fit. Each is then responsible for having her own top quilted. The finished quilts end up being wonderfully scrappy, and while all contain elements of the others, each is unique.
Diva Signature Blocks 2006 by Divas member Betty Edgell.
The group has produced 43 exchanges. Many of the finished quilts have been featured in magazines and in a number of high-profile exhibits, including the Houston International Quilt Festival in 2004 and 2008. The quilts featured at the 2008 Festival will continue to be exhibited at upcoming International Quilt Festivals/Markets in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Long Beach in 2009. Others are currently on display through April 25, 2009 at the Eugenia Mitchell Gallery of the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum in Golden, Colorado.
Viewers are always amazed to learn that the blocks in the quilts are made by different people. It is hard to believe that the overall uniformity and consistent high-caliber of the workmanship can be maintained throughout the piece when more than one quilter is involved. And yet, such is the case with the 19th Century Patchwork Divas. Paul Klee would no doubt agree that such mastery of traditional techniques has provided a strong basis for modern creativity.
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Column 95: Her Mother Pieced Quilts
Column 94: Rebecca Barker’s Quiltscapes
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Column 58: Ralli Quilts
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Column 52: True Confessions: First Quilt
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