Quilts on display at Quilters Take Manhattan.

“Quilts can’t speak for themselves,” said Amy Milne, director of the Quilt Alliance, at the Alliance’s seventh and final Quilters Take Manhattan event, held Sept. 15, 16 and 17.

Over five hundred avid quilters attended the array of events at galleries, private studios, shops and the Fashion Institute of Technology. Despite robust turnout and an enthusiastic reception for the artists, academics and sponsors who presented, the event isn’t sustainable, said Milne. The high cost of traveling to New York and the evolution of technology has directed a pivot: the Alliance, she said, will double down on its effort to by encourage all quilters to share the stories of their work and its meaning.

The ongoing mission of the Alliance is to explore, document and cultivate the backstories of quilts as told by their makers, recipients and communities. With the widespread use of digital video devices, that process is easily managed by nearly all quilters, in all groups – even alone. And that has prompted the Alliance to redirect resources from the relatively exclusive focus of the Quilters Take Manhattan event to a broader swath of quilters and guilds across the country.

The next big push for the Alliance will be to win more quilters telling their stories on March 17, National Quilting Day,

The Alliance will be escalating its “Go Tell It at the Quilt Show” initiative, says Milne, which is four years old and now poised to be the organization’s hallmark. “All you have to do is show your quilt and tell your own story, in front of a video camera, just as you would at a guild show and share,” said Milne. “It’s up to us to tell the hidden stories of quilts.”

Despite the shift in focus, the Alliance put on an exciting finale event in New York City.

Sherri Lynn Wood was the keynote speaker. Wood is a quilter and fiber artist whose work spans recycling, reclamation, grief recovery, improvisation and just plain fun.

She sees process as product. It’s not enough, for example, to take a few pairs of jeans, cut them at the seamlines and arrange them like disjointed puzzle pieces to create a sculptural quilt that simultaneously makes both more and less of jeans-as-garments: it’s the story of how she did it that infuses the work with meaning that resonated with the audience.

Quilt by Sherri Lynn Wood made from upcycled pants.

Wood spoke about her four-month, on-site artist in residence at the Recology, a solid waste recycling center in the Bay Area where 99% of the finished works were to be sourced from the material at hand. Her theme, “Making Do,” resulted in 12 works – half of them soft sculpture and half quilts.

The entire experience was an exercise in “keeping your eyes awake” to see new possibilities in materials that someone else had decided was useless, she said. (The restraints of working nearly exclusively from what is on hand a familiar challenge for all quilters determined to sew down their stashes.)

Other presenters at the Fashion Institute of Technology included Michael Cummings, Carolyn Mazloomi, and Victoria Findlay Wolfe.

Michael Cummings and Carolyn Mazloomi on stage.

Master quilter Michael Cummings started over 30 years ago in Harlem with no stash at all – just a newly discovered intrigue with stitching and a rich well of inspiration from jazz, Picasso, Matisse, and Bob Dylan. A rarity as an African-American male quilter whose work is in private and museum collections, Cummings described his intuitive process as “visualizing the idea and keeping it in my head until it starts to take shape. Then I lay it all out on the floor and then I take it to my dance partner – my sewing machine – and stitch for 60 minutes, then stop and review, and add little pieces that make it pop.”

Quilt by Michael Cummings.

The result: layered appliqued scenes that evoke the heritage of Harlem and the African-American experience. “Quilts are history you can hold onto,” says Cummings.

Victoria Findlay Wolfs speaking at her home studio as part of the event.

Victoria Findlay Wolfe, who re-interpreted a Midwestern aesthetic through a New York filter, opened her home to a “bed-turning” for a small group of QTM attendees. Quilts were featured on a bed-sized wood slant board just a few steps away from another bed-sized image: a Motley Crue poster and under a band of windows that showcased slices of city sky. Wolfe pulled quilts that illustrated breakthroughs opening with a huge star composed of fabrics she designed and named after family members and pets.

Wolfe told how her grandmother’s creativity was constricted by arthritis, forcing an economy of effort – and with it, improvisation with materials, time and stamina.   Consequently, ‘making do’ grounded Wolfe’s initial approach to making quilts, which meant that the traditional frameworks of blocks and directions were a foreign concept.   Her experimentation with partial seams, Y seams and other techniques generally deemed for more advanced work helped her to create a signature point of view.

Each of the presenters spoke of the limits of the physical spaces they work in, even as they find ever-more sources of inspiration for fresh work. “It’s small,” said Wood of her studio, “But the real space is in your imagination.”

Although Quilters Take Manhattan is no longer, opportunities to get involved with the Quilt Alliance’s oral storytelling efforts are flourishing. Find out more at: http://quiltalliance.org/

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Joanne Cleaver has been writing about entrepreneurship for 30 years and quilting for 40 years.

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