NEW YORK — TODAY thousands of people the world over have turned to fabrics, needle, and thread to demonstrate, with great originality, that quiltmakers can be both craftspeople and artists. The most recent proof was seen here in the Great American Quilt Festival, presented April 26-30 by the Museum of American Folk Art.
The current revival of interest in quilting, which can be traced to a 1974 Whitney Museum exhibition of quilts called ``The Flowering of American Folk Art - 1776-1876,'' was apparent in all its colorful and diverse glory.
The festival brought together more than 25,000 quilters, spectators, and collectors from many nations. They came to see an array of antique and contemporary quilts presented by 140 dealers. There were also special exhibitions of prizewinning quilts, and a program of lectures and demonstrations.
When dealer Jean Lyle of Quincy, Ill., was asked what had changed in the years she has been showing quilts at antique shows, she replied, ``Prices and preferences. Even depression-era quilts made in the Midwest are now selling for $450 up; whereas just three years ago they were available for $275 to $350.'' Blue-and-white quilts are a perennial favorite, she said, but appliqu'e quilts in pastel colors are also in fashion right now. Quilt prices at the festival ranged as high as $80,000.
Quilts, of course, embody ideas of home and hearth and the skills of the patient needleworker who loves the feel of fabric under the fingers and the precise cutting, stitching, and fitting of one piece against another. Practical warmth is also a factor, and quilts for daily use pieced together from scraps of cloth are still made the world over.
Karey Bresenhan, exhibition curator and one of the authors of ``Hands All Around: Quilts from Many Nations'' (E.P. Dutton, $24.95), says, ``Quilts have become their own international language. They communicate love of beauty and pride in workmanship just as clearly as if they could speak aloud. The techniques used are the same the world over, but the images vary from country to country, resulting in a rich and complex mix.''
From this show, it is also obvious that a new quilt aesthetic is emerging - fresh and experimental. It appears in hard-edged modern graphics, or in the colors and patterns put together in abstract images. Sometimes the effect is whimsical or playful. At other times it involves an unexpected adaptation of a familiar pattern.
``Contemporary approaches have made quilts into modern art forms,'' says Robert Bishop, director of the Museum of American Folk Art, ``and today's quiltmakers are literally transforming the craft. Many have broken with traditional geometric patterns and materials and are producing far more visually exciting works, which are intended to be hung on walls like paintings.''
Mr. Bishop points out that the traditional quilting bee is very much alive in towns and cities throughout the world, and that over 1,000 quilt guilds have been counted. They exist in Britain, the United States, France, Japan, West Germany, Ireland, and some other countries. Quilt galleries have proliferated in American cities and in places like Tokyo, Paris, Milan, and Zurich.
Today, however, says Bishop, the United States leads in quilting businesses, publications, conferences, shows, contests, and in the number of quilters and quilt collectors.
More than 1,200 quiltmakers worldwide submitted entries to the ``Memories of Childhood'' crib quilt contest and exhibition organized by the Museum of American Folk Art. The 62 prizewinning entries were shown at the festival; they will travel over the next three years to 12 other locations.
Elaine Spencer of Fort Collins, Colo., won a first prize of $7,500 for her crib quilt called ``Childhood Memory No. 44 - The Cellar.'' Janet Blair of Conshohocken, Pa., won the $5,000 second prize for ``When Toys and I Were One.'' And Hanne Wellendorph of Vemmelev, Denmark, won the $2,500 third place for her quilt titled ``My Dolls.
Entries from many countries pointed up the charm of the crib quilts, many of which end up as wall hangings rather than functional covers.
They depicted such themes as school days, barnyard animals, childhood fantasies, outings, festivals, loved toys, and fairy tales. All of the award-winning quilts are included in a new paperback, ``Memories of Childhood'' (Dutton, $15.95).
The third edition of the Great American Quilt Festival will be held in April 1991.