The Fabric of Our Lives

Long gone are the days when quilting was relegated to little old ladies. Today it’s a billion-dollar industry with talented women of all ages creating vibrant, cutting-edge work. Many of them attended the world’s largest annual quilting convention, in Houston, so I tagged along with one of the art form’s biggest stars: my mom.

Quiltmaker Jane Hall—author of The Experts’ Guide to Foundation Piecing , teacher of classes such as Pineapples Plus and Log Cabins Revisited, and the woman from whose womb I emerged fifty years ago—stood in front of her quilt Galaxy and had her picture taken while a steady stream of women walked past, eyeing her and the sharp blue points of the dozen mariner’s compasses floating behind her. She was tired after spending the whole day teaching at the International Quilt Festival in Houston. Plus, her knee was killing her.

A woman approached. “Are you the artist?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“It’s just beautiful! Beautiful! How did you get the points so thin?”

“I used a foundation of freezer paper.” The mariner’s compass is a difficult pattern, and Mom was pleased to have the chance to teach a little more. It seemed to justify the fuss being made over her.

Another woman walked up. “You’re the Jane Hall of ‘pineapples’ fame!”

“Yes, I’m one of the Pineapple Queens,” my mother replied politely. “Both my writing partner and I have a quilt in the show.”

“Oh, very nice.”

My mother wore a blue-and-white-print jacket that matched the quilt. She is 75, with spiky gray hair, and looks like a woman who spends most of her time working with her hands. Her fingers are twisted and her knuckles nubby from years of stitching, cutting, folding, and ripping. She is friendly with strangers; long ago she learned how to talk to just about anyone, a skill she developed as an Army wife. These days it serves her well. Fame for my mom came on the far side of middle age, after raising five children. When my dad, Colonel Robert Hall, retired and they moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, Mom found her calling.

She became a quilter. She didn’t just cut fabric and sew it together into pretty blankets. She took classes, learned design theory, taught classes herself, wrote books, became a judge, and traveled the country, lecturing and winning blue ribbons. Basically, she reinvented herself. She did all this after I had moved away from home, and I was oblivious to most of it. Truthfully, I didn’t take quilting—a bunch of little old ladies sitting around a table with needle and thread—very seriously. And so I didn’t take her very seriously either. As a mom? Yeah, of course. As an artist? Not so much.

Even now, as all these fans walked by, I tried to see her through their eyes. What I saw instead was what I’ve known forever—the same knock-knees I clutched as a toddler, the same Birkenstocks she’s worn since the Carter administration, the same reading glasses permanently perched on the end of her nose.

A stout woman with a cane walked up, looked approvingly at the commotion around my mom, and announced, “When, yesterday, the quilt convention made the front page of the Houston Chronicle , I knew it had arrived.” My weary mother nodded and smiled as the lady went on. “We women make an economic impact on the city. It’s one of the largest conventions in Houston. Women always get underrated. Our society thinks normal is male. But this is a different world.”

Well, she was sure right about that. We were standing on the floor of the George R. Brown Convention Center. Around us, upstairs, and all over this corner of downtown Houston swirled thousands of well-mannered women and a handful of men, crowding to buy stuff and take classes. The IQF is the largest annual quilt festival and trade show in the world, bringing in 54,000 fans and more than $18 million to the city. Quilting is no longer the stay-at-home old lady of American arts and crafts. Books, TV, and the Internet have made it a $3.3-billion-a-year business. There are some 27 million quilters in the country, though maybe 1 million of them are fanatics, the ones who spend hours a day with needle, thread, fabric, and sewing machine. They get together once or twice a month to quilt in bees, and they wander in packs on the floors of convention centers. Their average age: about 59. Their gender: definitely female. The statistics say that only 1 in 100 quilters is a man, though by the evidence at the IQF, I’d say it’s fewer than that.

In the old days, women made quilts for one place, the bed, and one reason, to keep their families warm. Traditional quilts were a fabric sandwich: the top (the pretty part), the middle (the batting, or the part that keeps you warm), and the back (the part that rubs up against your body). The top was usually made with strips or squares of fabric sewn or pieced together with great precision, sometimes in patterns and often in six- or eight-inch blocks; after sixty or seventy blocks were completed, they would be stitched together. The Amish made their quilts this way. The other main way of making tops was appliqué, in which the quilter sewed flowers or other designs onto a large top or background fabric. When the top was done, the quilter stitched all three layers together, by hand or sewing machine; this was the actual “quilting.” The quilter could sew a straight, utilitarian line or get as fancy as she wanted, with swirls or patterns.

In the early seventies, a couple of young artists got the idea of exhibiting some Amish quilts at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York. Soon people were thinking of their work as “art quilts”: ripping instead of cutting the fabric, creating new geometries, using strips of lace and candy wrappers and found objects, aping the splatter and pop of Pollock or the playful lines and circles of Kandinsky. Then came digital cameras and Photoshop. Quilters began calling themselves “textile artists,” and they worked alone in studios, not in bees.

Just around the corner from where my mom was having her picture taken, there were dozens of modern quilts that looked like paintings:

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