Not Your Grandmother’s Quilt Guild

Finger Lakes quilters are innovators. World-class innovators. “There are Finger Lakes quilters who are in the rarefied world class of ‘supremely talented,’” notes Donna Lamb, executive director of the Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center in Auburn. Lamb ought to know – she reviews the submissions that come into the center from around the world for the prestigious annual exhibit, “Quilts=Art=Quilts.”

“There is always a Finger Lakes representation in our juried show,” she said.

Lamb believes that local quilters have been quick to take advantage of the artistic potential of new technology, allowing them to “stretch the definition of quilt art.” It wasn’t too long ago, she said, that there was a stigma against quilting done on a sewing machine. Hand quilting was considered “true” quilting. But the sophistication of today’s sewing machines and their computer programs make it possible to do so much more.

“These tools require every bit as much skill as traditional needle-and-thread handwork, maybe even more,” said Lamb. “It’s opening the doors wide to creativity.”

And creativity in quilting is exploding. It’s not uncommon to see contemporary quilters “liberating” traditional patterns and creating their own designs. Today they’re dyeing, printing and painting their own fabrics. More and more quilters incorporate nontraditional materials into their creations like paper, photographs, plastic and embellishments that can include beads, shells, rope, found objects and more.

Lamb believes that creativity here in the Finger Lakes region has been stimulated by the many local quilting groups that meet regularly, sponsor retreats and hold exhibits. They frequently host opportunities to meet outstanding visiting quilters who teach workshops, lecture, critique quilts, present book talks and interact personally with local quilters. The Schwein­furth organizes and conducts “Quilting by the Lake” workshops that run for a week or more. Recent classes focused on “the new complex cloth,” “photo-inspired landscapes” and “threadplay.”

The Tompkins County Quilters Guild (TCQG) is a local group that’s been getting together since 1974. Twenty charter members established the group’s mission: educating, promoting and supporting quilt art and techniques. Barbara Dimock, a founding member, former president and the guild’s historian, recalls that quilters then were pretty traditional, and pieced and appliquéd established designs.

But things were about to change. Just three years earlier, quilt scholar and collector Jonathan Holstein of Cazenovia assembled a group of 60 quilts for an exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. “Abstract Design in American Quilts” is regarded by most quilt scholars as instrumental in igniting the quilt renaissance of the 20th and 21st centuries. Through the exhibit, Holstein elevated quilts to the same level as “high” art by presenting them on the walls of a prestigious art museum, and by comparing their graphic and painterly qualities to those found in modern abstract art.

“TCQG quilters knew Jonathon was right,” said Dimock. The exhibit inspired them to spearhead an ambitious and unique quilt show in Ithaca scheduled for July of 1976. It featured 600 bicentennial quilts from 14 counties in and around the Finger Lakes. TCQG’s representational submission was more in line with traditional quilts and far from a contemporary expression of fabric art. Quite possibly it was more befitting the traditional, annual celebration of our nation’s independence.

Fast forward to today. TCQG is preparing for its biennial show to be held Saturday and Sunday, October 1 and 2, at the Tompkins Cortland Community College Field House in Dryden. With its theme “Traditions and Beyond,” the show will celebrate 35 years of innovative quilting in the Finger Lakes. Among the quilts displayed there will be the group’s most recent creation, a 106-inch square design that borrows from tradition, but also expresses modernity. It was inspired by 19th-century quilter Susan McCord, known for her use of multi-pieced appliquéd leaves.

Guild President Katy Gracy told us that about 50 members helped piece, appliqué and quilt “Feathered Fiesta,” as it is called. “They enlarged and brightened Susan’s theme to create a lavish and colorful original border,” she said.

The quilt will be raffled off; information about raffle tickets is available at, or by e-mailing

Hundreds of other quilts will be on display at the show, from the guild’s 140 members, as well as from nonmember and beginning quilters. They represent a wide range of subjects, styles and techniques. Visitors will see traditional and reproduction designs, U.S. Civil War-era quilts in honor of the 150th anniversary of the war’s beginning, ultramodern art quilts, wearable quilted clothing and purses, and a soft sculpture exhibit. Small quilts will be produced during the exhibit’s “Project Iron Quilter” competition.

No longer a religious- or home-based craft that makes use of worn-out or scrap fabrics, quilting today allows its practitioners to have more control over their fabrics. “In the 1970s, it was hard to get decent fabrics,” remembers Barbara Dimock. “Polyesters dominated the fashion world and cottons were limited to only a few designs. Today there’s so much more of a selection thanks to huge fabric stores and Internet sites wholly dedicated to the quilter’s needs. Now we can get our hands on the latest technology plus books, patterns and equipment.”

As a result, “Quilting has become an immensely popular passion and for some, a livelihood,” said Aafke Swart Steenhuis, a beginner when she joined the guild in 1998. “After a period when it looked like quilting might fade away, today’s quilters and collectors are spending a good deal of time and money adding to their fabric stashes and quilt hoards.”

When Swart Steenhuis became a guild member, she had just bought a new sewing machine. She had made quilts before, in her native Netherlands in the 1970s, but didn’t know quilt-making rules and techniques. “I just did it, and went at it in a very strange way,” she laughs. By taking advantage of the guild’s many workshops, she learned, and won third prize for her first show quilt, and many prizes since. “TCQG has a range of quilters, from beginners to superstars on the leading edge of quilting,” she said. “Many of them create their own designs, and they are happy to help others.”

A guild subgroup of modern art quilters, the Quilt Divas, became an independent entity, although several divas continue their TCQG involvement.

Guild member Virginia Avery, inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame in Marion, Indiana, in 2006, credited the first TCQG Finger Lakes show as the turning point in her career. The exhibit and the people she met encouraged her to pursue quilting, along with creating patchwork clothes and teaching her skills to others.

Still, the picture for the guild’s future isn’t all rosy. While the guild’s membership has grown seven-fold in 35 years, it’s an aging membership, notes Barbara Dimock. “Younger quilters seem more at ease with ‘virtual guilds’ online. The newest generation is less likely to join face-to-face groups and attend
community meetings.”

Swart Steenhuis feels that while younger members may want to participate, they face great challenges raising children and creating careers. It’s hard for them to attend meetings. “Seeing a regional quilt exhibit is more manageable,” she notes, and points out that the guild typically sees an up-tick in membership after its biennial exhibit.

And Dimock feels that nothing is more satisfying and challenging than seeing, exhibiting and talking about real quilts, especially compared to viewing or posting pictures of quilts online, and engaging in anonymous, asynchronous chat groups.

Aside from the personal satisfaction she gets from producing a complicated quilt, Aafke Swart Steenhuis sees quilting as a way to improve her health. After she was diagnosed with a giant cell tumor in her wrist, and underwent six operations to remove it, “The quilts just flew out of my machine,” she said. “Quilting has been a creative outlet for expressing my feelings about the disease, and is instrumental in my healing and well-being.”

She pauses to consider how the creative process works. “You tend to be thinking about something subconsciously in the back of your mind and suddenly, the inspiration just flows. You are on your sewing machine and things start humming. When that happens, you can make a small quilt in a couple of hours. And when you’re done, there’s a feeling of enormous satisfaction and accomplishment.”

For information on the Tompkins County Quilters Guild and its upcoming “Traditions and Beyond” Quilt Exhibit, visit or e-mail

This year’s Quilts=Art=Quilts at the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn is the center’s 30th annual juried quilt exhibition. It will be on view October 30, 2011 through January 8, 2012. For more information, visit

by Ron Ostman

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