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AROUND HOME : Notes on Quilts, Savoy Vases and Oriental Rugs : An American Art

June 26, 1988|JUDITH SIMS

THE PATCHWORK QUILT is the quintessential American needle art, linked in mythology to the pioneer women who saved every shred of fabric so that they could stitch together bedcovers of surpassing beauty and practicality.

Well, almost. The truly desperate slapped anything together to keep warm, but these quilts were rarely beautiful. The works of art that endure in museums and treasured family collections usually were made by middle-class women who had the money to work out a color scheme without using scraps and the time to do all the intricate stitching. Nineteenth-Century Baltimore Brides' quilts, for instance, covered with appliqued folk-art figures, were not made by any pioneer shivering in a mud hut.

Most of the patterns we now think of as traditional were designed in the 19th Century. But many others, including the double wedding ring, came along in the 1920s and '30s. In spite of--or because of--the Great Depression, many women in the '30s spent hours at their quilt frames, enjoying a quilting renaissance with huge regional and countrywide contests.

Compared to nowadays, that was nothing. For the past 15 years, quilting as a pastime and as a profession has grown enormously. There are national seminars and contests, regional shows, traveling museum shows, TV instruction and videos and hundreds of quilting guilds--45 in Southern California alone--not including the stores and companies that sell patterns, fabrics and accessories.

But the biggest news in quilting is the artist. Michael James, Jan Myers, Nancy Crow and many others are stitching what is undeniably art in quilt form. Last year "The Art Quilt," a traveling exhibit that landed at the Municipal Arts Gallery at Barnsdall Park, expanded and challenged the traditional view--and use--of the quilt. (A book of the same title, featuring quilts from the show, is now available.)

The artists might receive most of the media attention, but quilting remains the domain of middle-class women. Although the craft has become downright chic--no self-respecting yuppie parents would fail to have a special quilt for their new baby--it can still connect an Ozark housewife and a Westport, Conn., executive, a Southern belle and a Tacoma teen-ager, past and present.

Quilting classes, fabrics and supplies are offered by Louise's Fabrics and Quilt Works in Sherman Oaks, Leah's Fabric Gallery in the Glendale Galleria, Crazy Ladies and Friends in Santa Monica, Piecemakers in Costa Mesa and the Calico House in Yorba Linda.

Quilter's Newsletter Magazine ($14.95 for 10 issues, P.O. Box 394, Wheatridge, Colo. 80034) features interviews, contests, patterns, full-color photos of quilts and extensive listings of shows nationwide.

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