In the mid-1970s, as the bicentennial of the United States approached, quilting enjoyed a renaissance. Old patterns from as far back as colonial times were reintroduced. Strip piecing had not yet been invented, so if you were making a plain checkerboard quilt, you started out by making a cardboard template of a square ½ inch larger than you needed. You then traced as many squares as you needed onto the fabric. Since rotary cutters didn’t exist, you cut out each piece by hand with sharp scissors that had never touched paper. Then you marked a ¼ inch seam allowance in pencil. You stitched by hand, unless you were lazy, in which case you used a sewing machine. Back in the day, I had a Sears sewing machine that set me back over $100. It even had a zig-zag stitch. The fabrics in favor were cotton calicos and solids.
Next Door Neighbor quilt block pattern; photo by Quilting Bear Gal
I took my first quilting class in 1983. The teacher was the mother of another student in my daughter’s Montessori class. She taught quilting in her home.
My second child, Matthew, was a baby, and my goal for the quilt class was to make a crib quilt for him. I chose the pattern Next Door Neighbor and light and medium blue solid fabrics and two blue prints to make it. I pieced the quilt, sandwiched it with batting and a plain muslin backing (customary in those days) and started hand-quilting it in a large oval wooden quilting hoop. I never finished it, but I still have it, and maybe I’ll get around to it again one day.
Back in those days, there weren’t a lot of books about quilting. The authoritative guide was The Standard Book of Quilt Making and Collecting by Marguerite Ickis, ©1949. I bought the 1959 Dover paperback edition for $3.50. I still have it, but sadly, the 482 illustrations are all in black and white.
A few years later I heard about Eleanor Burns’ technique for sewing a quilt in a day. I bought her Trip Around the World book and made one for our bed and two matching ones for our daughters. They each took me several months to make but using her modified strip piecing method, it was possible to sew the entire top together in one day.
In the 1990s I joined the local chapter of the Arizona Quilters’ Guild. I recommend everyone who wants to learn to quilt join a guild. You don’t have to be an expert—you can be a beginner. Because the guild is dedicated to education, they structure meetings so that a wealth of knowledge can be shared. Most guilds include hands-on projects and show-and-tells among their activities. You can find out about the latest tools and technologies and practical hints and hacks. (It was through the quilters’ guild that I learned to use plastic to make pattern templates—either from sheets commercially produced for that purpose or from salvaged coffee can lids or bleach bottles.) You can enter quilt shows and learn how to create art quilts.
I stopped going to the guild almost two decades ago, but I joined a church quilt ministry a few years ago. If you want to quilt, it’s beneficial to have friends who quilt, especially if you’ve been away from it for a while. Advances in quilting technology happen every year. I’ve learned so many neat things from my ministry partners—and from YouTube. Honestly, you can learn anything on YouTube; too bad it didn’t exist when I was starting out.