Quilts: colorful, creative – and made by kids

More than a century ago, people made warm quilts out of necessity. Today, kids and adults make them for fun and to express their imaginations.

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Rachel Hatch sits cross-legged on her bed, surrounded by a big collection of stuffed animals and quilts that she made. Although she's just 11 years old, Rachel has already made five quilts. Did you know that kids today make quilts?

A century or two ago, patchwork or "pieced" quilts were made by cutting up old clothes or scraps of cloth. The pieces were sewn together by hand in beautiful, creative patterns. A quilt top had hundreds, even thousands of pieces. The bottom layer was usually a plain, inexpensive cloth. The middle of the "sandwich" was fluffy cotton or wool padding, called "batting." Tiny stitches – up to 14 per inch – held the three layers together.

Quilts made in wealthier families often used new or fancy fabrics cut into shapes and sewn on top of large pieces of cloth. (This method is called applique.)

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But back in the 1800s, it took an adult months or even years of working every evening to complete either kind of quilt. So how could a girl of today manage to turn out quilts in between school, sports, TV, and time on the computer?

The quilt on Rachel's bed is a patchwork of brightly colored fabrics. She was only 8 years old when she made it, so her mom cut out the pieces for her. She used a rotary cutter. It looks like a pizza cutter and can slice through several layers of fabric in no time.

On the wall over Rachel's pillow is a quilt she's even more proud of. It is made of six-inch squares of cloth printed with suns, moons, and stars. Rachel picks up a white rosette she received from the Vermont Quilt Festival last summer and hangs it on the quilt. The ribbon says, "Young Beginner Award."

The secret to Rachel's success goes back to when she was 5 years old. Her mother had bought a new sewing machine and was going to get rid of her old one.

Rachel asked if she could have it. She also asked for a box of fabric scraps.

First, she made a quilt of soft flannel for her cat, just big enough for him to spread out on. Rachel wasn't tall enough to reach the pedal on the sewing machine, so she sat on her mother's lap and her mother pressed the pedal. Rachel guided the pieces of fabric through the machine with her fingertips. She did the "quilting" – sewing the three layers together – with the machine, too.

But what about a full-sized quilt? Could the three layers of that be sewn together on a machine?

In the Hatches' sewing room sits a machine as large as a bed. It's a little like a sewing machine, but instead of the needle staying in one place and the fabric moving, it holds a long stretch of three layers of fabric in place, and the quiltmaker guides the needle across it.

Rachel demonstrates. She holds the two handles of the sewing head and guides the needle across the padded fabric. The machine whirs and whines. Since this is just a practice piece, she's writing her name with stitches.

Because of machines like this, Rachel's mom says, not many people do hand quilting anymore. Often, they pay someone who owns one of these machines to do it.

So has Rachel ever sewn a quilt by hand? She grabs a pillow. "I made this for a social studies project," she says. She had to sew it by hand because that's how early American girls made their quilts.

In the days when families depended on mothers to make their clothes, girls learned to sew when they were very young. Like Rachel, they often made their first quilt by age 5 or 6. By their teens, they were making full-size quilts with many pieces arranged in complex designs.

An amazing example of this hangs in the collection of antique quilts at Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt. A 14-year-old Pennsylvania girl named Sarah Johnson made the quilt in 1826. It contains more than 50 different fabrics, most cut into pieces one inch square or smaller. Wouldn't that have made a sensation at the Vermont Quilt Festival!

A kid's quilt that starred at the festival last summer was made by Seth Wright of Middlebury, Vt. In third grade, Seth needed to do a school project on African animals. Both of his parents are quilters, so he decided to make a quilted wall-hanging. He and his dad cut and sewed pieces of gray cloth to make an elephant family. Seth chose a colorful giraffe print for the border. Although he was only 9 when he made it, he won the Lt. Governor's Award for the Best Youth Quilt.

Winning the award was "awesome," he says, but his favorite part was choosing the fabrics.

Seth's mother makes "art quilts." Long ago, women made patchwork quilts out of necessity. Today's art quilts are like paintings made with cloth. Sometimes an artist starts out as a painter and ends up as a quilter.

That's what happened to Faith Ringgold. Her quilts show scenes relating to her background as an African-American growing up in New York City. She even wrote stories in ink around the quilts' borders. (Check out her picture book, "Tar Beach.")

In a way, every quilt tells a story about who made it, when, why, and how. The quilt Rachel is making for this year's Vermont Quilt Festival has a story in it. The starry background fabric of this colorful quilt was cut from the curtains of her sister's room in the house where they used to live. That's Rachel's favorite part of the quilt.

Rachel's mom points out one more trick available to today's quilters. A special batting can be ironed between the top and bottom layers of the quilt. It compresses and sticks to the fabric layers, making it much easier to sew the three layers together. The first time the quilt is washed, the batting fluffs up again.

With all the technology that makes quilting quicker and easier today, one thing has stayed the same. It's the reason people like Rachel, Seth, and the girls in the sidebar below are still making quilts today: It's fun to be creative.

Quilting with friends

Quilting bees, or parties, were a fun way for women to help one another stitch the three layers of their quilts together. They could get a lot done in a short time and enjoy each other's company at the same time. Alina Callo and five other girls did something like that when they took a quilting class two summers ago from Stacy Gates of Manchester Center, Vt.

Each girl chose strips of her favorite red, white, and blue fabrics and then machine-stitched them together into "personal" blocks, or squares.

When all the blocks were done, the girls sewed them together, with Stacy's help,into one quilt they named "Patriotic Stripes." It looks a little like the "crazy quilts" that were popular in the late 1800s. This quilt, as well as Rachel's and Seth's, were among the 2006 contest winners at the Vermont Quilt Festival.

Like many quilters throughout history, Alina and her friends donated their quilt to a charitable cause – in this case, the local veterans' home.

Album quilts are "friendly" projects. Each friend makes one personal square, sometimes embroidering her name on it. When all the blocks are sewn together, the quilt makes a nice gift for someone special, such as a friend who is moving far away.

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