Amid the peaceable hum of her long-arm quilting machine, Sally Somerall’s mind might seem a million miles away from the cordial, supportive banter of a 19th century quilting bee. When not working in her role as associate principal at Dutch Fork Elementary School, she quilts alone much of the time in her Irmo studio, converted from a detached garage, but the echoes from history are active in her subconscience.
Like generations of women before her, Sally inherited a fondness for sewing and fabrics under the tutelage of her mother and grandmother. Fashions may come and go, but the love of the craft is enduring. “I learned to sew by making my own clothes,” she says. “When I was in high school, Laura Ashley drop-waist dresses were in style. My grandmother in Greenwood used to send me fabrics from the outlets in Ninety Six.”
Over a few years, sewing and stitching made a natural progression into quilting. “I always enjoyed arts and crafts,” she says. “My mother and grandmother played really important roles for me as a quilter, and I now have their sewing machines. They are the ones who really taught me how to sew. A quilt is a really functional piece for people to use for a long time. They make great gifts but can also be art at the same time.”
With respect to the time-honored traditions of quilting, as well as the sentimental investment attached to it, Sally has incorporated some special historic furnishings into the design of her work studio. “I have two real special pieces in there. One is an old oak desk that used to belong to my dissertation chair at the University of South Carolina,” she says. “My quilting machine sits on that. My cutting table is an old principal’s desk salvaged from an elementary school in Pineville, North Carolina.”
Columbia pediatrician Kristy Rollins began quilting around age 11 when a family friend taught her the fundamentals. Despite managing a physician’s busy schedule, she purposefully carves out time for quilting and treasures the lasting enjoyment people receive from the patchworked coverlets. “I think it’s really neat to take raw materials and make them into something that is useful and that people will cherish forever,” she says. “It’s an interesting way to decorate your house and make things that will last longer than you will.”
Kristy considers quilting an art. However, traditional quilts are about function first. “I guarantee you that the person who made the quilt made it to be used and loved.”
Indeed. The earliest quilts were items of absolute necessity, providing warm bedding during brutally cold winters. Early American settlers could ill afford to waste anything. When linens, clothing, and other fabrics became worn, the pioneers salvaged and combined fabric scraps to patch worn items or to construct reimagined ones.
A traditional quilt is assembled by stitching three layers together — a top cover, a middle layer of loose fiber filling, and a woven back. Over time, industrialization introduced more affordable, manufactured fabrics, and quilting transformed from a utilitarian exercise into more of a creative endeavor.
“Quilting is as much an art form now as anything else,” says Joyce Greer, a retired dental hygienist who has been quilting for nearly three decades. Nonetheless, quilts always have been intended to be serviceable. “Quilts are meant to be used and loved. If I make a quilt for someone and they say they will store it and not use it, I say, ‘Please don’t hide it in a closet.’ So much goes into making a quilt, emotionally. We don’t want them to be put away or wrapped in plastic.”
It’s a common misconception that quilts may be fragile or “too nice to actually use.” Yet the vast majority of quilts are designed to be washable. “You should never have a quilt dry-cleaned,” Joyce says. “They were meant to be washed and even run through the dryer. A quilt doesn’t really acquire a good personality until it’s been used. They can be stiff when they’re new. As you use a quilt, it gets softer and softer, and more huggable.”
Though many of her family members were involved in some form of arts and crafts, none were quilters. Without a quilting mentor, Joyce took matters into her own hands. “I went to the library, found a book, and taught myself to make quilts,” she says. Eventually, she and a friend began holding quilting retreats. “They’re like an old-fashioned sewing bee but with a modern take.”
Joyce has two long-arm quilting machines, which are like commercial-caliber sewing machines on large metal frames. With a long-arm machine, a quilter can more easily sew the quilt backing, batting, and top together. People bring Joyce their completed quilt tops, and she finishes their quilts for them. “I have been long-arming for about 10 to 12 years now,” she says. “I do all aspects of quilting, from piecing to applique to quilting for other people, which is my business now. I love it.”
Right now, Joyce is working on a meticulous project: an album quilt in the style called a ‘Baltimore Album.’ The theme is Halloween and all of the pieces of the quilt are meticulously hand appliqued onto a backing fabric. It is very intricate and very time consuming project. This is the type of quilt that made her want to become a quilter.
Joyce notes that some quilts are, in fact, meant to be displayed. “I would never, never put this quilt on my bed,” she says of her Halloween Album project, “not after I put thousands of hours into it!”
Award-winning fiber artist Susan Lenz stitches exquisite fine art works that are anything but utilitarian. Her work has been exhibited all over the world, and many pieces reside in museum permanent collections. Still, Susan has tremendous admiration for those who quilt and often teaches workshops on embroidery and other techniques to quilters. As a specialist of the fine art quilt, she is a professional-level member of Studio Art Quilt Associates.
“I was art quilting before I knew what it was,” she says. “It’s basically anything that is layered and held together with stitching that in some way references historic quilting. I very rarely make anything that is functional. I am almost always only making art to hang on the wall. I am not sure I could make a traditional quilt.”
Kristy and Sally describe themselves as “modern quilters,” a designation that departs from traditional quilting in a number of innovative ways.
“Many of our colors are very bright. We use a lot of white and gray as neutrals,” Sally says. “A traditional quilt can feature one block sewn 25 times over. Modern quilts don’t work so much as a pattern that repeats. We may change the color palette, the size of the block, or even how it is arranged. We can make quilts that are representative of pictures. Some can swing to the abstract. Some are improvisational, sewn without a pattern at all.”
While quilters of the past salvaged textiles wherever they could, today’s quilters have many options.
“I get some of the hand-me-down stuff, but I get a lot of my fabric on the internet,” Kristy says. “I try to support small businesses and locally owned businesses as much as I can.”
Sally admits her workshop is embarrassingly cluttered but for good reason. “You have to have a lot to be creative because you don’t know what you are going to want to use,” she says. “I have to have way more than I think I will need. You never know what mood will strike.”
Susan rarely sets foot in a quilt shop. In creating new fabric art, she embraces authentic materials from the past. “A lot of today’s quilters have enormous stashes of fabric. I am of a mind either to make do or use what I have on hand, which harkens back to the origins of quilting. That is really my approach to materials and the hand work,” Susan says. “I like the old fabrics.”
One of Sally’s specialties is crafting T-shirt quilts that incorporate old or sentimental T-shirts into a memorable tribute quilt. “I love T-shirt quilts because they are so functional and create a keepsake from a period of time in someone’s life,” she says. “I made one from my own T-shirts from college to celebrate my graduation.” Sally often makes them for other people from their cherished T-shirts.
Like Joyce, Sally also is working on a massive signature project. Hers is a Dear Jane Quilt, which dates to the late 1800s and employs English “paper piecing.” Pre-cut cardstock templates are used to stabilize fabric, which is basted to the paper shapes. The pieces then are joined, most often with a whipstitch, all by hand.
“It’s a very slow going, tedious project,” Sally says. “Some of the pieces I sew together aren’t even as big as your thumbnail … I keep coming back to it, and it travels easily. I can put a block in my purse and take it with me whenever I might have to wait somewhere. It probably will take another 10 years for me to complete.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, quilting can have therapeutic qualities.
“My job is so full of decisions from one minute to the next. Sewing really is a little bit of a meditation because it has a rhythm. I sometimes lose track of time. It’s definitely an escape from the fast pace of school,” Sally explains.
Joyce often assigns human qualities to her work. “When I put a quilt top on my frame, it talks to me,” she says. “It tells me what it wants and what it doesn’t want. It tells me when it is happy with what I am doing. I have started quilts when a small voice in the back of my head would say, ‘I don’t like this,’ and I would take all the quilting out. After these years of running those machines, I have finally learned to listen to that inner voice.”
Kristy finds it interesting to watch trends come and go. Many quilters in recent months have been creating face masks to help combat the spread of COVID-19. “We have all turned into mask makers. That has taken up most of my time,” she says. “There is a need, and I have some fabric. It takes about five minutes to make a mask. Over a weekend, I can make probably at least 100 masks. I try to make them fun.”
Joyce says a favorite part of her business is seeing the faces of people when they come to pick up their finished quilts. “Sometimes they cry. Making somebody cry is a good thing in quilting.”
Susan is a huge fan of the traditional quilters around her. She is happy to see the craft receiving recognition, particularly when it pays homage to the past. “So much of my work is vintage and full of history,” she says. “I appreciate how difficult it is to create a quilt. I appreciate the work involved.”
Just as master gardeners may share their plants and propagation techniques, these quilters similarly trade and share fabrics, teach one another new methods, and cultivate traditional works of beauty — much like treasured heirloom roses.