FURNISHINGS : ARTISANS: Spotlighting makers of hand-crafted goods : Now That Country Decorating Is In, Quilts Are Out of Closet

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The image of women gathered together to create warm and colorful quilts has always been enjoyed by Americans. Yet it took the Bicentennial to bring many of those old quilts out of the closets and attics and onto the beds and walls in the homes of the younger generations.

"The Bicentennial really launched an interest in quilting and quilts," said Del Thomas, a longtime quilting advocate, former president of the Orange County Quilters Guild and an expert on quilts and their care. "At about the same time as the Bicentennial, country decorating became popular, so quilts fit right in."

Today's quilters enjoy new freedom to experiment with this art form. Contemporary quilts may feature abstract designs and bolder, brighter colors than those of former times. There are even computer programs to help quilters envision what their designs will look like before they stitch their first piece of fabric.

"In Southern California, we tend to be a little more conservative and traditional in our approach in quilting," Thomas said. "Back East, there are more contemporary quilts, but in the Midwest and West, we tend to stick with traditional looks."

"We see both types of quilters," said Janet Marsh, co-owner of Flying Geese Fabrics in Irvine, a store that caters to quilters. "We have lots of customers who want the calicoes and what we call the 'sweet prints,' that is, little flowers and small patterns. Yet we also get those who like the larger, bolder prints."

Even quilts with more traditional looks often have a decidedly untraditional means of being displayed. Quilts today are found decorating walls as often as covering beds. Some are even used as tablecloths. Still others are cut into pillows or smaller shapes.

"There's some controversy about cutting up quilts," Thomas said. "And there are quilts I would hate to see cut. On the other hand, when women were making them a long time ago, many of them sewed them for strictly utilitarian purposes. It was the same to them as a blanket is to us. However, there are some beautiful quilts that really shouldn't be cut."

If you wish to display your quilts on the wall, there are some steps to take to ensure their safety and beauty.

Gadgets such as the "quilt keeper" can be attached to the wall. The quilt is then slipped in between two clips, which work much like clothespins. If the quilt isn't too large, a row of straight pins placed across the top can also affix it on the wall without damaging the quilt. Or you can sew "hoops" across the top or a sleeve on the back, where a flat dowel can be inserted, supporting the quilt from the side.

"If you display a quilt on the wall, you may want to vacuum it with the flat nozzle of the vacuum cleaner every few months," Thomas said. "After it's been up for six months, take it down for a while. The stress of hanging can damage some of the fibers in the fabric, so it's good to let it rest before hanging it back up. A good rule is six months up, six months down."

Also be aware that light will fade colors, so keep quilts out of direct sunlight. Quilts also shouldn't be displayed directly against a wooden wall (or touching the wood in a chest for that matter) as wood can discolor fabric after a period of years.

When storing, wrap the quilt with a plain white sheet and fold it. Every time you unfold it, fold it another way to avoid crease lines.

"There's no rule that says the folding needs to be even," Thomas added. "You need to change the folds to minimize damage to the fibers and prevent the folded edges from discoloring. At least twice a year, refold your quilts. One time fold it in eighths, another time in fifths. In some of the older quilts, you can see where the fabric actually has breaks along the edges from being folded so tightly."

Or you can roll quilts to avoid folding at all. To roll a quilt, Thomas recommends a plain white sheet and a mattress pad. Wrap the quilt in the sheet and then roll it around the mattress pad. And don't stack quilts too high on top of one another.

"I know one of the popular looks now is to stack a variety of different quilts in a cabinet," Thomas said. "But if there are too many, the weight can damage some of the quilts at the bottom. If you want to stack them, rearrange the quilts so the weight is more evenly distributed."

Cleaning requirements for quilts may vary depending on the age and condition of the piece, however, use caution in dry cleaning as some of the chemicals used can be harmful to delicate fabrics and stitching.

"Most quilts made after 1960 can be washed in the washing machine and dried for about 20 minutes in the dryer," Thomas said. "After that, let it air-dry until it's completely dry. For older quilts, I hand wash them in cold water in the bathtub. You'll probably need to rinse them 10 or 12 times to get all the soap out. Then lift them carefully and lay them out flat, making sure they have adequate support."

With a silk or wool quilt, you're better off consulting a textile expert who can tell you the best way to care for it.

Thomas has been surrounded by needlework ever since she was a child.

"I learned to quilt from my grandmother when I was young," she said. "I stopped for a while; however, in the 1960s, I took it up again and found it very calming. In 1980, when I retired, I started doing more sewing.

"Then I saw a flyer about a group of women who wanted to start a quilting group. I attended the first meeting of the Orange County Quilters Guild in March, 1981. Right from the start, there was a great deal of interest, and today we have 450 members."

Although many think of quilts as being traditionally European or American, they have been found dating back to ancient times. Quilts are also found in the Orient and the Middle East.

"It's an art form that's common to almost every country and culture," Thomas said. "Each country does seem to have its own distinct style. The English start their quilts from the center and work out. In the Mid-1800s, you'll see beautiful patterns of trees and fountains and very few geometric shapes."

What is decidedly American is the idea of piecing together blocks of fabric rather than sewing through large sheets of material. Most quilts consist of three layers of material: a top, a bottom (referred to as the backing), and filling placed between. The three layers are then "quilted" together. (There are, however, quilts made of two layers but these aren't as common.)

There are different motifs that can date a quilt. One of today's most popular patterns is the pineapple design. "I personally know five different books of pineapple design patterns," Thomas said. "Before 1988, I never saw pineapples."

Colors also come in and out of fashion (with the exception of blues and white, which always seem popular).

"The most requested colors at our shop are the blues, dusty rose, gray blue, and green and peach combinations," said Marsh of Flying Geese Fabrics.

The advent of sewing machines has helped hasten the amount of time it takes to put together a quilt, yet many still enjoy sewing the elaborate coverings by hand.

"If you begin making them yourself, you find yourself finding designs everywhere," Thomas said. "From tin ceilings, nature, buildings and window frames.

"Often an interest in quilts occurs when someone is given a quilt or stumbles across an antique quilt," Thomas said. "There's a sentimental value to quilts. It belonged to your grandmother or you remember a favorite one from childhood. Once you start learning about quilts and beginning to appreciate them, it's hard to stop."

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