"In making a quilt there's always a story," says Georgia Bonesteel, one of America's foremost quilters. She's lost track of how many she's pieced together over the past 40 years but "hundreds" is a good guess, inspired by travels, life happenings, grandchildren or a challenge she felt stirring inside her. For Bonesteel, quilting is "an expression of the soul."
Bonesteel, 76, has authored nine books about quilting and is at work on a 10th, a memoir. She and her husband, Peter, live in Hendersonville, North Carolina, where she's happy to report there are two new quilting shops attracting young people. "It makes us very excited," she says. "I want to take quilting into the modern age."
Since 1976, Bonesteel has been an ardent advocate for sewing and quilting, sharing her ideas and skills on public television and at workshops throughout the U.S. and abroad. In 2003, for her outstanding contributions to the field, she was inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame, based in Marion, Indiana. She and her son, Paul, have also produced a well-received documentary, The Great American Quilt Revival.
Merging Technology With Artisan Craftwork
Even with all of these accomplishments, there's no resting on comfy quilted laurels for Bonesteel. The artist has a website, blog, teaches classes and is alert to trends. "Because I did television I was always on the lookout for what was new and what was going to challenge me," she says. "It made me stay up to date and look ahead at the same time."
For months she had been observing black and white square symbols in magazines and began to learn about QR codes — or Quick Response codes — the two dimensional bar codes that have a variety of industrial and marketing uses. Most consumers interact with the codes via smart phone apps where they can take a picture of the code and be redirected to a web page for more information, coupons, a contest, etc.
"Not everyone in my age bracket knew what they were about," she says. "But what intrigued me from the very beginning is seeing how they were like patchwork. The symbol had significance." This observation led her to craft a QR code quilt based on
Innovation is something Bonesteel is keen to pass on to her students. "I tell people that if they mess up or cut something wrong, don't get upset," she says. "It means you're going to make a more original quilt. We have to teach a pattern, so to speak, but we want you to make it unique, belong to you."
Bonesteel discourages her students from being copycats. "At first, people are very content to make things like the person sitting next to them," she says. "You have to tell them it's okay to make a mistake and do something different. As they become more confident, they become more innovative."
The Culture of Quilts
Before quilts came to be regarded as folk art, they were purely functional, born of thrift. For centuries women in Europe and Colonial America repurposed scraps of fabric to make a cloth sandwich — a decorative top, a solid back and batting in the middle — to warm up beds or hang over doors and windows to keep out the cold.
"When the Industrial Revolution started and people were making comforters in factories, quilts fell out of favor," says Bonesteel. "Then people started reflecting on what their grandmothers made and interest returned, but it became more of a craft than a necessity."
Quilts can also reflect cultural circumstances. Many quilters today practice their craft as a way to reach out to the community. Bonesteel reports that groups across the country have joined together on projects for soldiers returning from Afghanistan, for Ronald McDonald House Charities and for premature infants at hospitals. As visual memorials, quilts helped raise awareness of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and served as a reminder for those lost on 9/11.
While honoring handmade traditions, Bonesteel is not averse to employing new technology.
"Using a sewing machine instead of hand quilting is nothing to frown at today," she says. "Though, if truth be known, it can be more difficult to quilt on a machine."
Still, creative, handmade quilts cannot be sewn in a day — even by an expert such as Bonesteel.
"I tell people it depends on how much I eat and sleep," she says. "If I'm very driven and passionate I can get a full-sized quilt done in a month. Quilting means a lot to me. I love giving students another outlet to express themselves. Inspiring people and getting them excited to follow through with their ideas has been very meaningful to me."