The homespun art enjoys a resurgence in these `high-tech high-touch' times

QUILTING is not easy to begin with. For Elizabeth Hendricks, an added challenge was doing the painstaking work in the cramped environs of the boat where she and her husband live. To design a 69-by-80-in. quilt last winter, she had to use a hallway where she was unable to view her work from more than two feet away.

During February storms, ``the rocking motion from the waves and wind caused some spontaneous curves in my quilting,'' she says. Stitching in lizard-shaped patterns with her sewing machine, she would then intentionally echo her storm-born slips when she came to the other side of a lizard.

Her work paid off last weekend as the quilt, titled ``Woman in a Box,'' won the Best of Show award at the Great Pacific Northwest Quilt Show.

``I feel so encouraged and affirmed,'' says Mrs. Hendricks, who began quilting just three years ago, leaving a career as a business consultant to devote herself to her newfound passion. Prior to receiving the award, she had taken the additional plunge of renting space to practice her art on dry land.

While not everyone who enters this world of fabrics, pins, and threads gets so fully committed, quilting is enjoying something of a resurgence among American women (and some men: Two of the 170 works exhibited in the recent show here were by men).

The activity is a $1 billion industry, says Heather Tewell, who organized this first-ever regional show in the Northwest, which drew about 7,000 visitors in three days at the Seattle Center.

Works spanned the region from Anchorage, Alaska, to western Canada to Billings, Mont. Washington State is a hotbed of activity, sometimes getting more quilts into national shows than any other state, Ms. Tewell says.

With strong interest in the Northwest, the regional show's purpose is ``so we can see what wonderful things we are doing,'' she explains. Unlike local shows, which typically display all quilts offered, the regional exhibit approved one-third of the applicants.

For some, the art's popularity stems from a desire to hark back to the homey feeling of simpler times amid today's rush of computers, cellular phones, and jet-airplane travel - what ``Megatrends'' author John Naisbitt called a ``high-tech high-touch'' society.

For others, such as Hendricks, it is a venue for artistic self-expression - departing from traditional geometric designs for an all-out exploration of possibilities.

``It's much more than beautiful things for the walls,'' Hendricks says. ``I try with every quilt I make to push'' in some new direction, she says, seated in her new two-room studio above shops in a Seattle neighborhood.

She points to a quilt called ``Faces'' in which she challenged herself ``to just let my threads hang out'' rather than be too neat. Tufts of thread make the work three-dimensional.

Another quilt tries to capture the feeling of flying an airplane, something she is learning now. Triangle shapes, reminiscent of paper airplanes viewed from above, proceed in a circular pattern above abstract mesas below.

It won't look like this one and ``Woman in a Box'' were done by the same person, she says. The latter quilt is a depiction of her feelings while awaiting surgery, sitting for four hours in a little room.

The lizard-shaped stitching, visible only from up close, represents fear crawling through her. ``I felt totally powerless.... Life is something that you have but you're not sure you're going to keep.''

Many quilters prefer sewing by hand rather than machine. ``The younger people who are coming into quilting don't have time to hand-quilt,'' says Nancy Koorenny, a sewing-machine dealer in Puyallup, Wash.

``Machine quilting has really arrived,'' agrees Tewell, who founded the Association of Pacific Northwest Quilters in 1992.

Indeed, high tech is meeting high touch in new machines such as the one built by Bernina of Switzerland, which was presented to Hendricks as a prize.

The $3,300 Bernina 1630 incorporates a little display screen and ``trackball'' similar to those used in portable computers. By rolling the trackball in different directions, a user can sketch a pattern on the display screen and then have the machine stitch it automatically. All the user needs to do is hold the fabric in place.

Monogram lettering and standard geometric stitching patterns are also programmed into the machine's memory. An additional software kit will be added to let users design larger areas of a quilt to be stitched automatically.

Where a computer might warn that its battery is running down, the Bernina has a ``low-bobbin indicator.''

The machine also offers 16-directional sewing, with the machine moving the fabric rather than requiring the user to twist or turn it.

Regardless of technological changes, the key tools of the trade will remain fabrics and thread.

``It's impossible to have too many solids,'' Hendricks says as she displays her inventory of fabric. She also buys more exotic textiles, such as ones from Africa or from various collections designed specifically for quilters.

A quilt consists of two layers of cloth - a backing and a front or top layer, which can be one piece (``whole cloth'') or many ``pieced'' together. In between these layers is a ``batting'' of cotton, wool, or some other filling. The concept is simple, until you start doing one and there are ``zillions of decisions,'' Hendricks says.

For those who love the challenge and its fruits, quilting takes on near-supreme importance. As a T-shirt at the show joked: ``My husband said if I went to one more quilt show he'd leave me. I sure will miss him.''

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