Tradition, improvisation sewn together in Dover quilt show

DOVER — Time was quilts were a functional way to extend the life of frayed and worn fabric into often colorful bed covers. Worn blankets and scraps of fabric were sewn together to create warm quilts.

Today, many see them as fiber art, masterpieces to be displayed in homes and museums with price tags of $1,000 or more.

Sandwiched between then and now, a group of women not only have kept alive the techniques handed down from grandmothers but also are introducing a new generation through quilt shows like the one opening at the Delaware Agricultural Museum and Village on Feb. 6.

The women in A Stitch in Time Quilters have shown their work at the museum’s Black History Quilt Show for more than 10 years, with the $6 admission benefiting the museum. The show officially will open with a special program from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. that will include a presentation on African-Americans who have served during all wars by Fredric Minus of Smyrna, information about the quilts, prizes and refreshments.

On Friday the seven members gathered to hang large quilts, smaller lap throws, wall hangings and more on the walls of one of museum’s exhibit rooms.

President Ellen Harmon, of Dover, said the group began planning this year’s “Quilting Through the Ages: Saluting the Military” show as soon as the 2015 show ended.

The women brainstorm, decide on a theme and then get to work.

Except it’s not really work, as one is quick to realize when listening to the seven talk about what inspired their works, how they used favorite fabric and what makes each piece special.

In a year’s time, Ms. Harmon made seven quilts and 11 lap throws for the show. The throws will be donated once the show ends in April.

Each quilter has multiple entries in the annual Black History Quilt Show.

“All new quilts because people don’t want to see the same thing every year,” Ms. Harmon said.

Most are original designs.

The reward is “enjoyment,” she said, especially “when school kids come; they travel from each person and hear stories.”

The quilters also help the children make their own quilt blocks, she said.

Cut from the same cloth

No one seems quite sure exactly when A Stitch in Time Quilters formed, but they do know who sewed the first stitches: the late Dorothy Dixon and Ann Martin, of Dover.

Ms. Harmon, a member for more than 10 years, joined them when she realized she and Ms. Dixon shared an interest in quilts.

Ms. Dixon, who passed away last year, will be remembered this year when “Dorothy’s Dots” goes on the wall.

After Ms. Dixon’s passing, her daughter brought her mother’s fabric and some blocks she had sewn to Ms. Martin.

“I sewed the blocks together and added more fabric to finish it,” Ms. Martin said, holding up the small blue and white quilt. “I call it ‘Dorothy’s Dots.’ ”

Ms. Martin is no stranger at creating a project around a singular piece of fabric. Take for example, her work that represents the principles of Kwanzaa: She wanted to use fabric that had a design of an African-American family but it had a hole in it. She disguised that by adding interlocking circles of other fabric with the principles of Kwanzaa listed.

“She’s an artist,” said Ms. Harmon.

And a speedy artist at that. Ms. Martin completed the wall hanging “Burlap and Masks” in a day. Using both machine and hand stitching, along with glued wooden masks and buttons, it’s an example of Ms. Martin’s “art of FABRIC-ing.”

Why FABRIC-ing and why uppercase? “Cause I said so.” Ms. Martin’s infectious laugh had her friends laughing, too.

“I made it up at Christmas,” she said. She held up another example, an artist’s canvas covered with an intricate fabric design.

“They are so sweet,” she said of her fellow quilters. “They let me go crazy.”

Fabric crazy

The women collect fabric the way some men collect sports memorabilia.

Fabric sitting neglected on a shelf is purchased for their “stash,” eventually to emerge when the right project comes along.

“We rescue fabric from stores,” confided Faye Minus, of Smyrna. “That doesn’t make us hoarders; it makes us conservatives.

“So for that we should be called heroes.”

“We particularly rescue from really good sales,” said Adrienne Daniels, of Middletown.

The quilters also inherit fabric stashes of friends who pass away, she said.

Ms. Martin passed along bags of fabric to Linda Morman, of Greenwood, who in turned used some of it to create a vibrant headdress for her major project in the show, “Lady of Color 2.”

“Five years ago the only kind of quilting I knew was with patterns, white folks’ quilts,” she said. “Then Ann gave me bags and bags of fabric.”

She’s now learning how to improv, she said. “I discovered it in me.”

That emerged in her first improvisation project, “Lady of Color 1,” which sold in last year’s show.

But even though Ms. Morman sells her quilts, out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind.

“I still worry about her,” she said. “Is she hanging? Is she OK?

“They take on a life.”

She reflected on the relationship.

“It’s something like a friendship, and friendship develops like this, in layers.”

A family thing

Most of the women pointed to grandmothers as their inspiration, but not Barbara O’Neal of Wyoming. Her father was a tailor, but neither she nor her two sisters sewed.

“We didn’t have time,” she said.

She started quilting three years ago “in the wee hours of the morning to unwind.”

A retired Wall Street investment banker, Ms. O’Neal now has time to quilt even though she also teaches global strategies at New Jersey City University.

“For a hobby I decided to do some sewing,” she said.

She, too, leans toward original designs, although she does have the traditional “Tumbling Blocks” in this year show.

She held up one of this year’s works, appropriately sized to be either a lap quilt or wall hanging.

“I tried to be creative with black and white,” she said.

Ms. O’Neal also will one finished perfectly fitting the military theme.

“It will include two photos of my uncle who was a Tuskegee Airman.”

Not all the quilts on display will be for sale, especially two Myra Nevius, of Townsend, will hang.

They were made by her grandmother, Katie Williams.

Ms. Nevius, who started quilting in 1997, gently caressed the patchwork one. “This one is very old,” she said.

She made 11 quilts for this year’s show, including “Cathedral Windows,” a traditional pattern of intricate diamonds within circles.

“I planned for it to be bed size,” Ms. Nevius said. After 15 years of working on it in bits and pieces, she turned it into a 67- by 38-inch bed runner, a colorful throw one might find on the foot of a bed.

She also did a 49- by 37 1/2-inch Adinkra quilt, which includes symbols of the Akhar people of West Africa.

A larger one is being completed by Ms. Daniels. That one will include 30 symbols, with everybody in A Stitch in Time making six or seven blocks of symbols.

Ms. Daniels anticipates finishing it just in time for the Feb. 6 opening.

“It’ll be here Wednesday or Thursday,” she promised.

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