PASSIONS

A patchwork Christmas


CRAZY FOR QUILTING: From left, Ann Castleberry, 46, Valerie Malkemes, 65, Betty Corwine, 65, Sandra Sontag, 61 and Melanie P. Jensen, 65, pose at Sontag's home surrounded by their Christmas quilts

TRACY WILCOX
Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 29, 2005 at 10:58 a.m.

The first quilt Ann Castleberry ever made was a Christmas quilt. And for her, the experience proved to be life-changing.

“I was ‘captured’ in 1991,” she says a little breathlessly, still flush with the excitement of someone who’s just found a new love. Before she discovered quilting, Castleberry, 46, used to sew all of her own clothes, and her mother’s, too. But shortly after Christmas in 1991, she decided to try her hand at quilting. “I haven’t made a piece of clothing since,” she says unapologetically.

“Captured” doesn’t quite do justice to Castleberry’s experience. “Catapulted” might be a better word to describe her launch into what was once a homespun craft and now is a $1.7 billion dollar industry in the United States.

And she’s not alone. Here at the home of fellow quilter Sandra Sontag, five other women who are just as crazy about quilting as Castleberry have gathered to talk about the tradition of making a Christmas quilt. In Sontag’s custom-designed quilting studio, which includes two extra work stations for visitors, the quilters have pulled together some 30 or 40 of their holiday best for a Christmas quilt showand- tell.

As they display sample after sample of their handiwork, they’re more excited than a bunch of kids just before Christmas, interrupting one another, spontaneously breaking into song, reciting “The Night Before Christmas” in unison, and generally joking and poking fun at each other. But they take their quilting seriously. And they’ve got a little advice to share about giving and receiving these festive holiday quilts.

#1. IF YOU’RE A QUILTER WHO’S WORKING ON A HOLIDAY-THEMED QUILT FOR A LOVED ONE, JUST DON’T TELL THEM WHICH CHRISTMAS IT’S FOR.

This way, you’re off the hook if you don’t finish it on time. “I never tell them which year it’s for,” says Castleberry, who has a doctoral degree in chemistry and “a child’s eye for color,” according to the other quilters in the room. Castleberry finished her first quilt in July 1992 — in plenty of time for the holidays.

“But I didn’t have a child then, so I could spend all evening quilting.”

Now, with a 5-year-old son to keep up with, it sometimes takes much longer for her to complete a quilt.

It can take years to make a quilt, echoes Sontag, 61. And life has a funny way of getting in the way. In fact, works-in-progress planned for completion in time for this holiday season were put on hold when Sontag, Castleberry, Valerie Malkemes, Sharon Fuentes, Sandy Pozzettea, Betty Corwine and other members of the Tree City Quilters Guild took time out this fall to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. The women sewed 24 quilts (just the quilt-tops, not the batting or quilting) in a little over two weeks for displaced families after the hurricane, spending some three to four hours on each quilt-top.

#2. IF YOU’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO BE THE RECIPIENT OF ONE OF THESE BEAUTIES, WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T CALL IT A BLANKET.

If you violate this rule, the quilter who generously gave you the quilt might just be tempted to take it back.

Betty Corwine recalls the time she was making Christmas quilts for her two sons. “My son Tom looked at the quilt top and said, ‘It’s beautiful.’ My other son, George, came in and said, ‘Oh, Mom, where’d you get those old rags?’ I turned to Tom and said, ‘Well, I guess you’ll be getting two quilts.’”

For those who don’t know the difference between a blanket and a quilt, a blanket consists of a single layer that’s all of a piece. A quilt, on the other hand, consists of three layers – the quilt-top, which is usually pieced together, appliquéd or embroidered; the batting, or middle layer, which provides padding and insulation; and the back, a single piece of fabric of a solid color. But “a quilt is not a quilt until it’s quilted,” says Melanie Jensen, 65, referring to the patterned stitching that holds the three layers together.

There’s one other major difference between a blanket and a quilt: The time it takes to make one. For the quilters, the exact number of hours spent is immaterial.

Still, none of them would consider selling their handiwork, even though some quilts now can fetch upwards of $10,000 on the market.

“Sell it?” says Sontag incredulously. “Not after all the work I’ve put into it!” If anything, they’d just as soon give their quilts to a loved one — provided, of course… well, you know…just don’t use the ‘B’ word.

#3. THERE ARE AS MANY VARIETIES OF CHRISTMAS QUILTS AS THERE ARE QUILTERS.

What distinguishes a Christmas quilt from any other? Color has something to do with it. Castleberry sums it up this way: “Making a Christmas quilt is just an excuse for using red and green in your quilt.”

Generally, there are two broad categories of quilts: geometric and pictorial. Geometric quilts, such as Castleberry’s log cabin design, become Christmas quilts by virtue of the patterns and colors used in them.

Sandy Pozzettea holds up another example of a geometric quilt: It’s a traditional Jacob’s ladder pattern of diagonally stacked squares in red and green.

“With the geometric quilts, there are literally thousands of different configurations for each pattern,” says Castleberry, who has taught quilting classes and in 2001 co-authored “Creating Quilts with Simple Shapes” with fellow quilter Mischele Hart (That Patchwork Place).

Pictorial quilts incorporate one or more images into the quilt top and generally build on a theme. Valerie Malkemes, who’s considered the more “artsy” quilter in the group, creates her own designs, including a series of stunning wall hangings featuring a full-body (but not full-figured) image of Old St. Nick outlined on a snow-white background and bordered with a soft, evergreen-colored fabric. One of the Santa’s has a beard made of gray braided trim. Another’s cloak and snow-white background are studded with Swarovski crystals, cut crystals that shine like diamonds. Malkemes also displays a paper doll quilt, in which the shapes and images are cut out and pasted down on the quilt-top.

“There’s an enormous array of glues and fusing materials available now,” Malkemes says. Sewing is just part of the quilt-making process.

If you haven’t figured it out already, Christmas quilts are also no longer confined to the bed. These quilters have made tree skirts, wall hangings, table runners, handbags, even quilted Christmas vests. And the holiday color schemes and themes aren’t limited to Christmas. They make Hanukkah-themed handiworks, too.

#4. IF YOU’D LIKE TO REPAY A QUILTER IN KIND, GIVE THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING: FABRIC.

“All quilters are fabriholics,” Betty Corwine says. And for many of them, the hunt for just the right fabric is part of the fun. Corwine has been known to plan her travels around quilt shops. When her daughter was expecting her first child, Corwine and her husband took a trip from Texas to North Dakota. Along the way, Corwine stopped in every quilt shop she could find in search of baby fabric. In Fargo, North Dakota, she came across a quilt shop in a dingy little strip mall.

“I told my husband, ‘I’ll be right back,’” she says, explaining that she expected to be as disappointed with the inside of the shop as she was with the outside. “But when I went inside, they had everything you could possibly imagine, including baby fabric. I went back out to the car and said, ‘Honey, you go on and run some errands. I’m going to be in here a long time.’”

But it’s nice to receive fabric as a gift, as well. Before Corwine retired from a staff position in the history department at UF, faculty members often would ask what she wanted them to bring back from their travels. The answer was always the same: fabric. As a result, she’s got fabric from Bulgaria, Thailand…all over the world.

In Sontag’s house, one entire wall of built-in shelves in the study adjacent to the family room — or, rather, quilting studio — contains neatly folded and stacked squares of fabric in a rainbow of colors. Another closet at the other end of the house holds even more fabric.

“That’s nothing,” says Corwine. “There are people in the guild who have $10,000 to $15,000 worth of fabric.” That’s about 2,000 yards of fabric at $9 to $10 per yard.

“If you’re going to spend this much time on a quilt, you want the best materials,” explains Castleberry. “You can’t just buy inexpensive fabric on sale at Wal-Mart.”

#5. QUILTERS CAN NEVER HAVE TOO MANY SEWING MACHINES (HINT, HINT).

If you think quilting is something that’s done by hand with a needle and thread by a group of women sitting around a quilt stretched across a quilt frame, that’s so passé. Professional quilters now do most of the actual quilting, using quilting machines that are 14-15 feet long and can cost upwards of $10,000, says Sontag.

“Instead of pushing the fabric through the machine, these machines allow you to stretch out the fabric and move the machine. All of the motion is fully computerized.”

Each of the women here has at least five sewing machines with which they create the allimportant quilt-top. Sontag has a total of eight sewing machines in her collection, which includes a hand-cranked machine from the mid-1800s, two treadle machines from the early 1900s, two portable Singer featherweights circa 1951 (perfect for bringing to guild meetings) and two Berninas—a brand considered by these women to be the Cadillac of sewing machines for quilters. One of Sontag’s Bernina’s contains sophisticated software that allows her to program the machine to embroider just about anything she can dream up. The average Bernina these days goes for $5,000 to $6,000.

Malkemes confides how she bought a Nekke brand sewing machine back in 1969 for what was then the unthinkable sum of $595. “I was the guiltiest person in the world,” she says. Although she has other machines in her collection, she just parted with the Nekke a year ago.

Castleberry, who sewed on her mother’s Singer sewing machine for years and bought her first Bernina 10 years ago when she was in her 30s, says, “None of us could do it on a $119 special.”

#6. QUILTERS KEEP EACH OTHER IN STITCHES.

One old-fashioned notion about quilting remains, however: It’s best done with other people around. “We sit and sew and talk,” says Sontag. “Sewing is not a stressful thing for us, it’s a stress buster.”

“We’ve solved a lot of our problems that way,” adds Castleberry.

Plus, having other people around allows you to bounce your ideas off of the other quilters in the room,” says Corwine, even though “most of 167 the time we don’t listen to what anyone says anyway.”

Sontag’s father, the late Eugene B. Haufler (known affectionately by the quilters as “Pappy”), used to sit in an easy chair in the quilting room he designed and built for his daughter and, when asked, critique the women’s work.

“He was our barometer,” says Corwine. “He preferred the pale colors — soft pale pinks, blues and greens.” Pappy had his own way of letting the women know his likes and dislikes. “If he said, ‘That’s really nice,’ or ‘The craftsmanship is really good,’ that was the kiss of death,” says Corwine.

#7. A QUILT JUST ISN’T A QUILT WITHOUT A CAT TO CURL UP ON IT.

In many ways, cats are a lot like quilters. They are independent thinkers and are extremely appreciative of a good quilt. Maybe that’s why most of the quilters in the room have cats.

“Most quilt shops have cats, too,” points out Castleberry.

Sontag’s two cats, a topaz named Buster and a long-haired black and white named Princess, have complete run of the place, sleeping on the quilted table cover draped over the dining room table, tiptoeing between the sewing machines and computer to sit in the windowsill and jumping up on the Christmas quilts piled up on Sontag’s spacious quilting table when it’s time to take a picture.

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