Quilting remains a timeless craft

Jan Paul (left) and Elizabeth Whelan at Heath Hen Quilt and Yarn shop where they will lead a quilting workshop on April 7. — Photo by Gwyn McAllister

Colorful patchwork quilts from the 19th century have become symbolic of early American folk art. Involving varieties of different patterns of cloth, the intricate designs are lovely reminders of a time when the decorative and the functional often went hand in hand. Although quilting fell out of favor in the early part of the 20th century, according to commercial artist Elizabeth Whelan, the art was resurrected around the time of the American bicentennial and today the creation of handmade quilts has become a popular pastime as well as a cottage industry with a steady demand.

Today most quilters use sewing machines to stitch together the multiple pieces that make up the decorative top, and to bind the insulation, top and backing together (the process to which the term quilting technically applies). However, Ms. Whelan still does all of her quilt making by hand and she’s hoping to generate interest in the historic methods. She and fellow quilter Jan Paul, owner of the Heath Hen Quilt and Yarn Shop, will be holding a one-day workshop on April 7 with the aim of encouraging a new generation of hand quilters.

“It seems to me the Vineyard is the perfect place for quilting,” says Ms. Whelan, a former Vineyarder who now serves as year-round caretaker on Nashawena Island with her boyfriend. “I have nothing against people using machines to quilt, but I thought it would be really great to teach the grassroots of quilting.”

Ms. Whelan previously taught a hand quilting class while living in Maryland. Last fall she stopped in the Heath Hen during one of her frequent supply and errands trips to the Vineyard and was very impressed with the store’s variety of high-quality 100 percent cotton fabrics. She and Ms. Paul struck up a conversation about quilting and agreed to host a workshop to introduce other Islanders to their shared hobby.

During the all-day workshop, participants will learn how to piece together fabric to create a traditional quilting square, and to stitch together the three layers using the quilting method. Even those who have never sewn can take the class, according to Ms. Whelan. She will start with the basics — from threading a needle and tying a knot to how to select colors — and then offer tips on things like how to speed up the process with a multiple stitch technique. Participants can chose from a selection of pre-cut fabric sets and will go home with a finished 10- by 10-inch decorative square.

“It looks more complicated than it really is,” says Ms. Whelan. “The interesting fabric is what makes it look elaborate. It appeals to people who like color and who like making beautiful things for their home and it’s really more simple than hemming. The workshop will be the most stressful thing.”

Because of the binding involved in the quilting process, a hand-sewn quilt will hold up just as well as one made with machine, according to Ms. Whelan. “Even if people want to make subsequent quilts by machine, they will be a lot more accomplished for having had this ‘slow quilting’ start.”

A big part of the appeal for Ms. Whelan, who learned hand quilting from her mother, is the portability of the work. “Everywhere I go I have in my purse a little bag of bits,” she says, pulling out a sandwich size baggie with pins, needle, thread, and a partially finished square. “You can actually get quilting supplies down to that level.”

Ms. Whelan works on one of her three current quilting projects while watching television, waiting in doctor’s offices or riding on the bus. “It’s about those stolen moments — being able to do something productive, not just looking at our iPhone,” she says.

It can also be a therapeutic pastime. “I like the pace of it,” she says. “It’s really relaxing. When I get to my sewing machine it seems to be a tense affair.”

Ms. Paul, who makes beautiful hand knit-items that she sells in her shop along with quality yarns, patterns, and other supplies, says, “It takes a lot less concentration than knitting. You don’t have to count stitches or change the pattern.”

Ms. Paul took over the Heath Hen in 2011. She has since moved the shop from the Tisbury Marketplace to its current home in the back section of the Woodland Marketplace.

Originally an art school student, Ms. Paul has worked variously as a draftsman and a cartographer. When the opportunity came up to purchase the store, she took it. “I thought I’m going to be able to go back into art,” she says. “I’ve always loved fabric and design. This is a full-time job, but it’s very creative and fun.”

Ms. Paul has put her own stamp on the business. Her eye for color and pattern is obvious in the selection of fabrics. There are a couple of hundred different styles that range from contemporary to whimsical to ethnic to classic florals, polka dots, and ginghams. Just perusing the wall of fabric bolts is aesthetically pleasing and inspiring. Ms. Paul also carries blocks of pre-cut swatches in mixed, complementary patterns for quilting.

Ms. Whelan notes that choice of fabric is important in constructing something that you want to last. “Quality cotton makes a difference,” she says, “If you mix low-quality and high-quality fabrics together some of them are going to degrade over time. I have a quilt made with both where the less quality fabric is showing wear.

The selection at Heath Hen impressed Ms. Whelan. “A lot of people shop online, but I really like to see the fabrics and touch them,” she says. “You can tell quality cotton by the feel.”

She hopes that her workshop will introduce new customers to the shop and share her love of quilting. As a professional artist, she finds the work very gratifying but not as challenging creatively, “I haven’t had to come up with the design. I’m using a design that somebody else created years ago.”

Still, there’s always the element of surprise that makes each quilt unique, “It’s like a kaleidoscope,” says Ms. Whelan. “You put all of these pieces together and you don’t quite know what’s going to happen.”

Learn to Make a Quilt by Hand workshop will be held at the Curves studio in the Woodland Marketplace on Sunday, April 7, from 9 am to 4 pm (with a one-hour lunch break). The cost of $25 a person includes all necessary materials. Registration is required. Sign up by calling the Heath Hen Yarn and Quilt Shop at 508-693-6730. Store hours are 10 am to 5 pm every day except Sunday and Thursday.