They aren’t bedspreads and they are hardly ever hand-sewn. In fact, these quilts don’t even have to be pretty. Lois T. Smith and her former students exhibiting with her in “Lois and Friends,” on view at Glenview Mansion in Rockville through July 29, figure why use a needle and thread when an $18,000 long-arm quilting machine will do the trick? But then again, what with the availability of photo imaging, computer programs and even the humble magic marker, quilting has made enormous strides in the last three decades. Hand sewing isn’t discouraged, especially if you are Amish, but it isn’t ever necessary.
“The quilts are extraordinary,” said Julie Ferrell, Glenview Mansion’s exhibition curator. “Not only is their work technically advanced, but the compositions are surprising and captivating.”
Shirley Malia’s work “Lava” offers her take on the relentless power of the mighty calderas (volcanic craters) she has experienced in Italy and Hawaii. When it comes to starting her art, “I usually throw a lot of fabric on the floor, and the ugliest is the first I chose. It’s about the wow and the contrast,” she explained.
This freedom of expression is a hallmark of Smith’s teaching style, quilter Myania Moses said. “While Lois was teaching us the basics, she also wanted us to find our own way.”
Moses took art classes until she signed up for one of Smith’s quilting classes some 20 years ago. “I blame Smith for that,” the Arlington, Va., resident said. “Perfect seams didn’t matter.” Instead, Moses was able to learn quilting techniques and still explore the workings of her “right brain.”
The exhibit’s namesake likes to downplay her technical and artistic abilities. “I’m a messy quilter and a better teacher than quilter,” the Rockville resident said. She has even influenced her 15-year-old grandson Gunnar Smith, whose drawing is on display alongside a quilt she made to represent his artwork.
Smith began her quilting career after her seven children were grown and out the door. “I needed something that was mine, something that was creative,” she recalled. For a year, she taught at G Street Fabrics, and later traveled throughout the U.S., Europe and even South Africa teaching American quilting. From her insider’s view as a National Quilting Association teacher and judge, she believes Japanese quilters are “often better than we are and are winning a third of the international prizes.”
Probably Smith’s most significant contribution to the field was in 1988, when hers was the first machine-made quilt to win first prize in the Houston Quilt Festival.
“Not everybody was happy about this,” the Rockville grandmother said. Exasperated critics demanded to know if these machine-made objects were really quilts or sacrilege. But a sea change had occurred, and Smith’s quilt changed how people perceived the art form.
While quilts have evolved into sophisticated art pieces, by definition they are still a fabric sandwich with a top, middle and a bottom layer. Early settlers needed this layered padding to ward off the cold in their drafty homes. Over time, quilting became “bound volumes of hieroglyphics or di’ries” for women living in a world that was often quite limiting, said Elaine Hedges in her book “Hearts and Hands.” Scores of books and magazines were published that highlighted the importance of women learning these sewing skills. As the Industrial Revolution was taking shape, many of these rural women set off to factories to offer their skills.
From this inauspicious beginning, it’s clear that technological inventions have changed quilting. And the long arm-quilting machine is the best example of this. Rather than the quilter painstakingly moving the yards of fabric through a traditional sewing machine or hand sewing each individual stitch, the fabric sits stationary on a large frame as the arm moves over the quilt, creating lines and circles. Quilters don’t even need to own this pricey machine. Unfinished quilt tops can be sent out to be professionally finished. Smith called it “quilting by check.”
“The use of the machine has helped artists take their quilting skills farther much quicker,” Smith said. She recalled a friend that spent eight years creating a hand-sewn quilt, and the final product was a huge “wobbly” disappointment.
Even with all this fancy technology, many quilters still love to dye their own fabric.
Presently, Smith has 125 yards of white cotton fabric sitting in her living room–to share with quilter friends–that they will dye. Last year. along with a group of quilters, she traveled to Pro Chemical & Dye in Massachusetts and spent the week taking a class about the “50 shades of gray,” Smith laughed. “Mixing variations of blue, yellow and red to create a spectrum of tans to grays.
Returning home and looking at her large stash of fabric–that’s what the women like to call their mounds of yardage—Smith was inspired by the colors similar to the woodpile she saw in her neighbor’s yard. It didn’t go easy.
“I had too many pieces all jumbled together,” but with critiques from her daughter-in-law, it started to become an abstracted version of the grainy pile of cylindrical logs.
Why go through this when there’s plenty of fabric already dyed and ready to go? “It’s one more creative step,” Smith said.
Myania Moses agreed, observing that it “gives you more control over the color and the various gradations.” And while Moses said she has a “collection of batik fabric no one has the right to have” along with piles of ethnic Asian and whimsical fabric, she still prefers dying her own.
The stereotypes about quilters remain. Moses has found that it’s mostly “snobby artists” who look at quilting as not quite fine art. Artists aren’t their only source of annoyance. Smith laughs about the many people who have said to her “My grandmother has made 50 Dresden Plate quilts (the most traditional of quilts), and I ask myself, ‘Why would she do that when there are so many more creative things to do with a quilt?’”
Nobody need worry about the future of quilting; these gals are taking it to the limit and then some.
“Lois and Friends” is on view through July 29 on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., at Glenview Mansion, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville. Admission is free. Call 240-314-8660.