THEY came from small towns in Kansas. They came from large towns in California. And they say they would have come even farther if they'd had to. The Great American Quilt Festival was held in New York last week, and quilters from around the country were represented, both in person and in the form of quilts hanging along the partitions lining Pier 92's football-field-and-a-half-long brick walls. There were antique quilts, new quilts, Amish quilts, Lone Star, Log Cabin, and Hawaiian quilts, art quilts, crazy quilts, every kind of quilt.
``There have been many national quilt shows, but this is the largest in terms of NYC and the East Coast,'' says Robert Bishop, director of the Museum of American Folk Art, which sponsored the festival. ``And the attendance has been two to three times of any show ever done.
``Fourteen million people made quilts last year. There is a definite interest in the art form that East Coast people haven't been aware of,'' he adds.
The show was so well attended that you could hardly make your way through the aisles. Women with short gray hair and glasses and thin-lipped, square-jawed faces streamed by. Others were younger, in slacks. Many were wearing appliqu'ed vests. They made professional-sounding comments such as: ``Ah, a white on white!'' or ``Another example of shadow work!'' as they darted toward the quilts on display.
Along one side were the entries, one from each state, of a contest on the theme ``Liberty, Freedom, and the Heritage of America,'' sponsored by Scotchguard. The Statue of Liberty was featured in about a third of them, the Lady looking thoughtful, stern, sultry, or friendly, according to the fancy of the artist.
The prize-winning quilt, ``Glorious Lady Freedom,'' by Moneca Calvert of Carmichael, Calif., shows a very heroic and forceful Liberty emerging from a brilliantly colored flag, with gold and green farmland in the background. The colors are so strong and the lines have such energy that you feel that the whole picture is pulsing. ``It's like painting on cloth,'' said one woman.
Another outstanding quilt, ``Centennial'' by Judy D. Hopkins of Alaska, shows the Lady in the harbor in tiny triangles of celadon, beige, and rust on a dark blue background -- a witty use of classic quilting technique that still formed a recognizable picture.
Anita Murphy, a perky and friendly lady who did the entry from Texas, has been quilting since she was seven; ``I eat it and sleep it,'' she says. Her quilt not only shows the Statue of Liberty but also Ellis Island, in honor of her mother-in-law, who was born aboard a ship about to dock there. She is enthusiastic about the Quilt Festival: ``You're like a blind dog in a meat market; you don't know what to see and do next,'' she says with a laugh.
Mrs. Murphy, who worked 20 hours a day to finish her own exquisite handmade quilt, nonetheless emphasizes the pragmatic side of quilting. ``Machine piercing and machine quilting are coming into their own,'' she says, adding that in the annual Texas quilting show there is even a machine quilting division now. ``We've taken the theory away that if you don't do 10 stitches to the inch you aren't a quilter.''
Along with this trend, she says, pausing to autograph a photo of her quilt for some admirers from Kansas, people are keeping in mind the needs and laundry approach of the recipient, since most quilts are made as gifts. ``I have friends who don't think they're washing unless they throw in a cup of Clorox.''
It was the women's movement of the '70s that brought the quilt to wider public attention and respect, according to Michael Kile, who is standing next to a table of handsome quilting volumes published by his company, The Quilt Digest Press.
``The quilt became a symbol; it was a flag around which women rallied,'' he says. Since quilting made what he calls ``the leap from the bed to the wall'' in a 1971 show at the Whitney Museum, ``quiltmaking is oozing into all sorts of worlds that 10 years ago would have turned up their noses.''
Another highlight of the festival was the Sea To Shining Sea Banner, a series of 3-by-3-foot patchwork squares representing great moments in the history of each state. Some states contributed more to the banner than others, with Kansas and Wyoming tying for the most with 29 each.
``The enthusiasm was contagious,'' explains Nancy Hornbeck from Kansas, who contributed a square showing the Kansas state seal.
Some of the squares were done in a terrific hurry. ``We started getting calls from New Hampshire [after the January shuttle crash] from people saying, `We want to change our design,' '' says Mary Colucci, director of the National Needlework Association. New Hampshire's entries were devoted to the memory of Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe.
The banner, which was the length of three football fields, was the work of over 1,000 people. Ms. Colucci quotes a woman from Washington State: ``She said, `I just did a small piece, but boy, I'm so proud.' ''
A growing number of quilters seem to be sharing in this feeling, since quilting is enjoying a sustained revival.
``There have been many quilting revivals and people have often wondered how long this one is going to last,'' says Michael Kile. ``But I think this one is permanent; it's gone beyond the revival stage.''
He thinks the appeal of quilting is very ``gut level. I love standing in the galleries and watching the general public come through with these enormous grins on their faces,'' he says. ``You could ask a lot of experts here what it is that draws them to quilting. All the answers are going to be emotional.''
Quilts in any context -- in a gallery or museum, or used as art in a public place -- still represent ideas of stability, family, and home. Anita Murphy tells of a time when she suddenly realized that an elderly relative, recently put in a nursing home, would not be present at a family celebration. ``So I washed a piece of muslin fast,'' she says. She had every one in the family outline his hand on the muslin, and then she quickly made it into a lap robe, ``to be used every day,'' she emphasized to the relative when she presented it. ``If you get the inspiration and you just go do it, it becomes a real joy,'' she says.
Mealo Kalami is the grande dame of Hawaiian quilting; her designs have names like breadfruit, kukui nut, and hibiscus. ``I let God lead my hand. I think of it as God in expression,'' she says of her work.
And Karey Bresenhan tells of a historic quilt exhibit she recently organized in Texas's State Capitol. ``Thirty people from one family came from all over the US to see their great-grandmother's quilt,'' she says. ``We had family reunions take place right on the floor of the Capitol.''
Some people met relatives they had never met before. ``These women have been gone 100 years,'' Mrs. Bresenhan says. ``And their quilts are still holding their families together.''