In stitches: Popularity of quilting extends to Millennials too

Quilts cocoon us during winter’s harshest nights, but warmth is only one way to define their value.

Homespun quilts cloak us with deep memories of people who matter. Maybe snippets of fabric come from your dad’s well-worn shirts. Maybe your favorite aunt hand-stitched for a gazillion hours. Maybe the design is the creative work of a beloved friend.

Quilting is popular: At least 80 guilds in Wisconsin are listed at quiltguilds.com. Nationwide, it’s a $3.76 billion industry.

But emerging from the patchwork are quilters and quilts that break stereotypes. It’s not just about grandma-made bed coverings anymore. Millennials are putting their own twist on such handwork. Some are elevating it from craft to fine art.

“We love the little gray-haired ladies in church basements who make quilts, but they aren’t the only ones doing it,” says Melissa Wraalstad, executive director of the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts, Cedarburg. Others are sharing quilt patterns on Pinterest, printing customized fabrics at SpoonFlower.com.

The hands-on nature of quilting meshes well with the Maker Movement, she says. Younger generations who grew up with computers, iPhones, digital takeout options and ready-made-everything yearn for tactile experiences that help slow down life. Quilting is a pushback on technology, in addition to its practical value.

“To thread a needle, stitch, darn a sock – these are basic life skills that aren’t taught” routinely in schools anymore. “By learning these things, you don’t have to throw away a sweater with a hole in it,” which is important to any generation that wants to recycle, repurpose, save money.

Members of the Modern Quilt Guild, formed in Los Angeles in 2009, are inspired by modern designs. Attendance at the group’s annual QuiltCon in Pasadena grows from year to year. quiltcon.com

The Modern Quilt Guild has chapters around the world, including Madison (meets at Blue Bar Quilts, Middleton), northeast Wisconsin (meets at The Bungalow Quilt Shop, Ripon) and central Wisconsin (meets near Stevens Point). themodernquiltguild.com

Wraalstad describes quilting as an approachable, personal art form. “You can do a simple patchwork quilt without a lot of training, but some quilts are stunning works of art.” She acknowledges that quilts “tend to be dismissed as just a craft because they are so ubiquitous.”

Millennial quilter Heidi Parkes of Milwaukee teaches “Improv Hand Piecing” at the Cedarburg museum on Jan. 27-28. Cost is $180. She is a QuiltCon instructor, has won national awards for her work and was one of three finalists for the artist-in-residence program at Pfister Hotel, Milwaukee.

“When composing a quilt I rarely adhere to a set plan, relying instead on improvisation,” she says at heidiparkes.com, and a grandmother gets credit for introducing her to quilting.

Opening March 15 at the museum is “Commemorating His Purple Reign,” a tribute in quilts to the musician Prince. Winners from an international quilt competition come to Cedarburg in June; the show was juried in Japan, where Wraalstad says quilting is considered fine art. “Fiber Arts in the Digital Age,” to include digitally printed textiles and patterns, opens in September.

Up until March 11 is the third Fiber Arts Biennale, titled “Keeping Warm” and featuring 34 works by Wisconsin artists. In the mix is wearable art, decorative art, quilts, knitting, weaving and unusual uses of fibers. One example: thread painting, switching out thread colors while sewing, so the resulting art resembles a detailed sketch.

Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts, N50 W5050 Portland Rd., is in a repurposed German farmstead from the 1850s. Quilts (modern to a colonial quilt from 1800) are one part of the many holdings. Also in the archives: lace, embroidery, vintage clothing, accessories and more.

The museum is part of an emerging Midwest Fiber Arts Trail and anchors the 15-stop Fiber Arts Weekend, March 16-17. That means quilting classes ($10 to $140), quilter demos and tours. wiquiltmuseum.com, 262-546-0300; midwestfiberartstrails.org

“Wild Fabrications,” a major quilt show in Wausau, is a stitched and embellished menagerie of often-funky creatures on three dozen panels of fabric. The quilts by various artists are up through Feb. 25 at Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, 700 N. 12th St. Museum admission is free. lywam.org, 715-845-7010

Mary Fons of Chicago, a quilter-blogger and slam poet, teaches and talks quilting while at the museum Jan. 19-21. Workshops have a fee and require registration. Fons and mother Marianne Fons co-host the PBS quilting show “Love of Quilting.” The daughter also has lines of fabrics and patterns called Small Wonders. maryfons.com

Quilts by retired art educator Mary Hermanson of Eleva (20 miles south of Eau Claire) make up “Kaleidoscope Designs: Making Magic with Fabric,” opening Feb. 28 at Pump House Regional Arts Center, 119 King St., La Crosse. “My goal is to use the elements and principles of design, combined with the symmetry of kaleidoscopic design and techniques and materials of traditional quilting to create complex and exciting visual images,” she says in her artist statement.

A reception for the artist reception is 5-7 p.m. March 2. The show ends April 14. Admission is free. thepumphouse.org, 608-785-1434

Do you make quilting with friends a priority? Where do you go for a quilters retreat, why, how many go and what do you do besides quilt?

Overnight retreat spaces for quilters are plentiful but, to my knowledge, no single website tries to list them all. Let me know if I’m wrong.

Feb. 1 is the deadline for your replies via email (info@roadstraveled.com – type “quilts” in the subject line). Include your name and city of residence. I’ll share parts of your essays, and at least one person (selected by a random drawing) will be rewarded with a little surprise gift.

I don’t quilt, but my quilter friends happily take to the road at least a couple of times every year. They haul fabrics, sewing machines, snacks and wine into big houses that comfortably accommodate a crowd. Then they yak, nap, nibble, stitch as much and whenever they want.

Some decide to read a book or knit instead of quilt. I compare it to deer hunting getaways, where the journey and company as just as important as your personal accomplishments. What say you?