When Marilyn Petersen and a fellow quilter decided to start a quilting guild, they hoped they'd get 50 quilters at the first meeting last June. They were flabbergasted when 130 arrived at the Radisson Hotel in Agoura Hills.
It was only the start. The next meeting drew 200, and by fall they were up to 300, the maximum allowed for the hotel space. Now the fledgling group, Conejo Valley Quilters, has a waiting list of 50.
"All over, the market is getting huge," said Petersen, who lives in Westlake Village. But quilting is no longer just a bedspread made of fabric scraps--it's art, some of it wildly contemporary.
You can peruse more than 150 quilts this weekend when another local guild, the Camarillo Quilters Assn., puts on its biennial show at the Ventura County Fairgrounds in Ventura. The display this weekend is expected to draw some 4,000 people.
The show also features a hands-on section where quilting wannabes can try a few stitches on a work-in-progress. For collectors, antique quilts--those heirlooms salvaged from attics and basements--will be up for sale, some for as much as $1,000. Visitors also can browse through the boutique, pick up quilting supplies, see a display of quilted clothing, and watch quilting demonstrations.
Quilting is hot--steadily growing since the 1976 Bicentennial celebration kicked off a revival. But this gentle craft, born out of necessity, has gone far beyond what frugal pioneer women could have imagined when they gathered for needlework and companionship.
Some 15 million people--overwhelmingly women--quilt in this country, according to a 1994 survey by the Colorado-based "Quilter's Newsletter Magazine." They flock to shows and competitions, and even embark on quilting cruises.
Later this month about 30,000 quilters and quilt lovers are expected to deluge the small city of Paducah, Ky., for the grandmother of all shows, the American Quilters Society's annual event. There they'll compete for $88,000 in prizes, with $15,000 going to the top quilter.
"I don't see it leveling off--I don't see it waning," said Bonnie Browning, coordinator of the society's show.
Locally, quilting is booming. Guilds with 200 or more members are thriving in Simi Valley, the San Fernando Valley, Camarillo and now the Conejo Valley. They meet monthly for updates on quilting technology and design.
Quilting hasn't exactly gone high-tech in recent years, but it's gotten easier and faster. Thanks to the invention of the rotary cutter, which looks a little like a pizza cutter, women no longer have to painstakingly cut every piece of fabric. They can do eight or 10 layers at a time.
"You can cut the pieces for a quilt in an afternoon," said quilting instructor Jenny Carr Kinney, who has made hundreds of quilts. And designer fabrics are now available. "You don't have to choose from tiny flower prints."
Traditionalists hand stitch it all--piecing together the decorative top in intricate patterns, and then ornately sewing the top to the bottom with batting sandwiched between. Carr Kinney belongs to a group, an offshoot of the Camarillo guild, that studies antique quilts.
"Many of the patterns we use were in use in the early 1800s," she said. Some are classics like the "double wedding ring" quilt with its interlacing circles, and some just sound warm and cozy like, "grandmother's flower garden."
But more quilters are turning to the sewing machine for all or part of the job. "It's no longer the case that it has to be hand-quilted," she said.
What hasn't changed is the way women still get together once a week in someone's home or at a fabric shop to stitch their own projects or work collectively to finish quilting a top that a member has already pieced together. The Camarillo guild, to which Carr Kinney belongs, has about 15 of these mini-groups.
Generally, they take turns finishing each other's quilts or they use a system based on hours each has put into the communal effort. Often they stitch quilts for charities, such as those for battered women's shelters or abused children.
Such groups flourish outside the guilds as well. What was once a social necessity for pioneer women living in isolation seems just as relevant today. Carr Kinney hand quilts with friends twice a week, "sitting around the frame, solving the world's problems and each other's." She calls it bonding. They talk about food, health and whatever was in the newspaper that day.
"I see quilt making as cheap therapy," she said. "You start quilting and you put blinders on. The rest of the world just goes by."
It's no joke to Kimberly Wulfert, a Ventura psychologist. Wulfert, a passionate quilter herself, leads a quilting support group for women. The half a dozen or so women lug sewing machines to her office every other Friday night for three hours of sewing and group therapy.