816 North

No longer square to quilt: Modernized craft makes use of space, color and style

Nancy Tipton cuts a thread while using a long-arm quilting machine. The Kansas City area has been called lucky for its plethora of quilting fabric shops.
Nancy Tipton cuts a thread while using a long-arm quilting machine. The Kansas City area has been called lucky for its plethora of quilting fabric shops. kmyers@kcstar.com

At the Roeland Park Community Center, an array of brightly colored fabrics, whimsical designs and unexpected patterns take center stage at the monthly show and tell at the Kansas City Modern Quilt Guild.

In Liberty, waves of threaded tight swirls, curlicues and geometric designs hang on 100-year-old brick walls in the newest shop on the historic downtown Liberty square. A large machine with a long-rolling arm near the back of the store is fitted with a large roll of fabric undergoing its finishing stitches.

Both are part of a national resurgence of quilting in which Kansas City area sewers have been on the cutting edge. The movement has taken a traditional art and made it more accessible and appealing, allowing a new wave of “makers” to discover how an old craft can fit their personal style.

The monthly show and tell of the Kansas City Modern Quilt Guild includes a wide range of quilts that creatively push the boundaries. Quilter Jenny Johannsen, 33, of Olathe, holds up a spread made of odd rectangles in varying shades of red. It is a gift for her former day care provider who retired in May. “I asked my 4-year-old what Bev would like. He said, ‘Red,’ ” Johannsen said.

Johannsen’s quilting story is similar to others’ in the guild. She started quilting about five years ago when her friends started having babies. She wanted to make a nice gift, so she borrowed her mother’s sewing machine and taught herself the craft. She went online for information and ideas and found a burgeoning community.

Then one of the bloggers she had been reading announced the start of a new quilt guild in Kansas City.

“I didn’t even know she was in Kansas City until she posted something about a first meeting,” Johannsen said. “We had just moved from St. Louis, and I didn’t really know anyone. So I thought I would just go and try it.”

The blog she read was tallgrassprairiestudio. blogspot.com written by Jacquie Gering, the current chairwoman of the board of the national Modern Quilt Guild.

At the time, Gering, a former elementary school principal, had surprised herself by becoming a quilter. Growing up, she had actively planned on not quilting.

“My family is Mennonite,” Gering said. “So quilts were just kind of part of my upbringing, but they were just blankets. I just didn’t notice them.”

She changed her mind about the craft after seeing an exhibit featuring the quilts of the Gee’s Bend community in Alabama.

“Their quilts are quirky, improvisational and kind of wackadoodle in this really spirited way,” Gering said. She came home and Googled “modern” and “quilting” to see if there was anyone else interested in the same thing. She found she was not alone and started to sew. That was seven years ago.

Gering said the Kansas City guild she started in 2010 was one of the first in the country. Like her, other people interested in a modern aesthetic for quilting began to connect online through blogs.

Their use of social media and their love of a modern use of space, color and style made them different from other quilters. What made them the same was the desire for community and to share their work and ideas with one another. They took their nontraditional connections and made them traditional by starting guilds. A friend Gering had met online started the first Modern Quilt Guild in Los Angeles. She then challenged Gering to do the same here in Kansas City. So she did.

The umbrella national Modern Quilt Guild group, which started just two years ago, is now approaching 10,000 members around the world.

The guild defines modern quilting in its literature as “primarily functional and inspired by modern design. Modern quilters work in different styles and define modern quilting in different ways, but several characteristics often appear which may help identify a modern quilt. These include, but are not limited to: the use of bold colors and prints, high contrast and graphic areas of solid color, improvisational piecing, minimalism, expansive negative space, and alternate grid work.”

The modern quilt guild in Kansas City is not quite like a traditional guild. For one thing, it is very large, around 200 members. They sometimes pack out the Roeland Park Community Center room where they meet. Current president Jaime David explains the meetings are not sewing sessions, but more educational in nature. People can share what they are making, or learn about the modern side of quilting.

David believes the popularity of quilting is part of a resurgence of sewing in general.

“I think people find it really satisfying to make something with their own hands,” David said. “In a day and age when we are driven by technology and we spend a lot of time virtually interacting with people, at the end of the day it’s nice to have something real in my hands.”

It is prevalent in Kansas City because the area has a long tradition of quilting, she said.

“People of the Midwest are inherently makers and doers and hard workers. I think that quilting is all of those things. It’s long and hard work. You do it out of genuine love and consideration. Usually, you’re making some kind of heirloom to give to someone.”

Angela Walters, owner of Quilting is My Therapy in Liberty, recently brought an already successful business into a traditional setting after years of growth in her home and online. She is known as a modern “free motion” quilter. She uses a sewing machine fitted with a long arm to hand-guide intricate designs as a finishing piece for quilts. Her work is so distinctive it easily makes the quilting, rather than the piecework, the central focus of the finished product.

Walters learned to quilt in the traditional way: She was taught by a family member. Her future husband’s grandfather had taken up the craft after retiring from the Ford plant. He enjoyed teaching others to quilt, but no one in the family took to it quite as much as Walters. They found a common bond in the love of quilting by hand. When his age began to make that handwork hard, he urged Walters to buy a used long-arm sewing machine.

“It was hand-guided,” said Walters. “It’s like a big sewing machine on rails. You move the machine to make the designs. It was quicker, and I loved it.”

She began quilting for others after she discovered she could not make quilt tops quickly enough to meet her newfound quilting obsession. The business started out small, a way to earn a little money on the side while staying home with three kids.

However, she also found herself at the cusp of the Internet-connected modern quilting movement. Walters took to the Internet to blog and share information about her long-arm quilting passion. She was soon writing books, teaching, designing fabric and traveling around the world. Twelve years after taking her first stitch, she finally decided it was time for a brick-and-mortar home for her business.

The modern quilting movement has opened the craft to a wider audience than ever before. While traditional quilting is still going strong, both are defined by a sense of community and camaraderie in creating, which is often defined by the maker’s desire to give to others.

When Walters decided on the Liberty square for her store’s location, it was a business decision that shows the connection between the modern and traditional movements. The old buildings and quaint feel of the Liberty square strikes the right aesthetic for quilters. She chose the location in hopes of expanding her ability to offer workshops and opportunities that might bring quilters in from out of town. Downtown Liberty offers the kind of quaint shops and restaurants that might also appeal to her customers.

Teri Hahs at Peddler’s Wagon in Parkville discovered quilters who enjoyed that “old quaint” feeling years ago. Her shop, which has been in business since 1982, caters to the demographic of traditional quilters. Hahs insists there really is not a competition between the two sides of the craft. Most quilters have one thing in common. They love fabric and will visit many fabric stores to find the right swatch.

“The Kansas City area is very lucky to have many quilt shops. I have known a lot of people who have moved away and come back to visit saying how lucky we are to have so many,” Hahs said. “It’s good to have so many because every quilt shop has its own personality.”

The popularity of visiting multiple stores in search of the perfect fabric also points to the communal aspect of the craft that has always kept quilters inspired. Hahs and several other area stores have actually set up customer exchanges in quilting tours.

“My quilters visited all the other nine shops,” Hahs said. “People like to see new things. We’re just a bunch of addicts to quilting and love to go to other shops.”

To say, “It’s not your grandma’s quilting” is as cliché as it is inaccurate. Grandmas equally join 20-somethings and their middle-age counterparts in this new wave of quilting. While there are certainly differences between the style, precision and technique, the groups also have a lot in common. Many traditional quilters are trying their hand at modern style just to do something new. Those of all ages who take to the craft are likely to have more time and disposable income.

At the Kansas City Modern Quilt Guild meeting in Roland Park, Monica Vega, a Raytown resident who has been sewing for 50 years and quilting for 10, says she sees the willingness to spend money on the craft is the one big thing that has really changed quilting in recent years.

“My mother-in-law did a lot of quilting,” Vega said. “She would always use the very cheapest fabric she could find. They used old clothes because that’s what they had. That’s something that has really changed. It’s not that we look for the most expensive fabric, but cost isn’t what really drives us.”

The love of fabric can quickly translate to big business for people who make their living off the popular craft. According to Gering, quilting, as a whole, is right behind golfing at the top of hobbies that make people want to spend their money.

A 2014 Quilting in America survey put the annual market value of quilting in the United States at $3.76 billion dollars. About 12 percent of those quilters were deemed “dedicated quilters” — people who spend more than $500 a year on the craft. Those 12 percent of quilters alone were responsible for $2.27 billion of the spending. The majority of them are still traditional quilters, but many reported trying several styles of quilting. Thirty-five percent had tried modern quilting. That survey also found that the “dedicated quilter” is likely to have a stash of fabric worth about $6,000.

Though there is money to be made, most quilters still insist a key element of the craft is community. That is the reason modern quilters decided getting together in person was far better than keeping their connections exclusively online. It is the reason Walters felt it was time to have a brick-and-mortar store where she could invite customers to come and hold classes and demonstrations face-to-face.

Hahs, who is a fifth-generation quilter, says the craft, traditional or modern, is most often about others. Quilts are most often made with someone else in mind. In all her years of quilting, she only remembers keeping one of her projects.

“The rest were given away as gifts to family members and friends,” Hahs said. “It’s very rewarding.”