Quilting has a long and proud history, but there are many who believe we are currently living in the "Golden Age of Quilting," says Carol Armstrong, who gave a presentation on "The Evolution of the Quilting World From 1970 to 2000," as part of the Utah Quilt Guild's recent Annual Quilt Festival.
"The last quarter of the 20th century was a time of unparalleled growth, variety and excellent workmanship," she said. New tools, new ways looking at quilts as more than bed coverings, a plethora of fabrics and notions all provided more and more options for creativity.
But first, consider the 1950s. "Back then, we used to iron our sheets and pillowcases. We had to iron everything," she said. So, when polyester fabrics came along, we embraced them wholeheartedly. Why? Because we didn't have to iron!
But what happened to the quilters? "Women had always made quilts out of what was left over from clothing. That's gone on forever — back to pioneer times, back to the 1930s and the 1950s."
However, when you made a quilt out of polyester, "you couldn't press crisp, open seams. And you ended up with thick, thick corners. Fabric stretched. I've found a few tied polyester quilts, but not many."
Then came the huge celebration of the country's bicentennial, and with it, a revival of interest in traditional handicrafts, including quilting.
But because not much had gone on in the quilting world until then, "the quilting supplies of the 1970s actually compared to the quilting supplies of the 1930s," said Armstrong. "Scissors, pencils, simple rulers, needles and pins with little variety, metal thimbles, newspaper patterns. At this point, there were no quilting stores, just plain fabric stores with sewing notions."
Any patterns found for applique were drawn on a graph, she said, "and you had to enlarge or reduce them depending on the size of the graph. Quilting templates were made from shirt cardboard, cereal boxes, newspaper. Some were made from wood or tin if they needed to last through several quilts."
But all that changed as quilters saw needs and stepped up to fill them, she said. One of the first was an Iowa woman named Marti Michell. "She is known as a pioneer in the quilt-making revival. She and her husband started the company Yours Truly in 1972, which was a patchwork-kit company. At that time, there was no quilting industry."
Over the next decades, some of the significant trends and developments, said Armstrong, include the following:
Scissors to rotary cutters. The rotary cutter made its entrance in 1979. It was first manufactured by a Japanese company so silk fabric could be layered and cut to make kimonos. "It was brought over by a businessman and given to Marti. She showed it to Mary Ellen Hopkins, who was teaching quilting. But they couldn't use it because it would cut the table surfaces. Shortly, the 'self-healing' mat came with the rotary cutters; you couldn't have one without the other," said Armstrong.
Wood rulers to acrylic rulers of all shapes and sizes. Once the rotary cutter became popular, the next trick was to figure out how to cut straight with it, said Armstrong. Michell and Hopkins began experimenting with acrylic rulers, which could be marked in measurements but were also see-through, so you could see what you were cutting. "It wasn't long before Marti's company was designing and selling acrylic rulers."
Quilt techniques including paper piecing, machine applique and embroidery. As cutting became quicker and easier, quilters began to look for other time-saving methods. "Time was of the essence, and headlines would read, 'Make a quilt in eight hours' or 'Learn to machine quilt in a weekend.' "
Unlimited fabrics and notions. As quilting became less labor-intensive and more and more women (and a few men) took it up, fabric manufacturers and sewing companies scrambled to keep up with demand. Stores that specialized in quilt fabrics sprang up, and more and more gadgets came along.
Hand quilting to machine quilting. In the early days, piecing and applique could be done by machine, but when it came time to quilt the overall piece, "you had two options," said Armstrong: "quilting frames or quilting hoops. All the quilting was done by hand."
Enter a woman named Harriet Hargrave. "When her mother tried to teach her to hand quilt, it didn't work too well. But she loved using the sewing machine and developed ways to use her machine to quilt," said Armstrong. "She essentially introduced nylon thread to the quilting world, and published her first book about machine quilting in 1987."
For years, machine quilting was done on regular sewing machines. Then manufacturers stepped in with the development of long-arm machines — where the fabric stayed still and the head of the machine moved — and machine quilting took off in whole new directions, including the use of more decorative threads.
Traditional design to art-quilt design. It wasn't long before innovative and artistic quilters began to do amazing things with fabric, drafting complicated patterns for piecing curves and copying scenes from nature. Women such as Judy B. Dales, Judy Mathieson, Ruth B. McDowell, Katie Pasquini, Carol Bryer Fallert and others developed reputations for innovative and amazing work, said Armstrong.
At first, there was some resistance among traditional quilters, who would not allow art quilts into major shows. "That's when Quilt National came along, as a place for art quilters to compete," Armstrong said.
But, she said, the wonderful thing is that the quilting world is big enough for everyone and everything. One of her favorite quotes comes from Karey Bresenham, president of Quilts Inc., who said: "I sometimes wonder if our quilting ancestors came back to Earth for a day whether they would even recognize some of the quilts, because that's how much quilting has advanced since the last quarter of the 20th century. Quilts provide a tangible link to the past, to generations of women and men who used their needle, thread and fabrics to create comfort for their families and beauty for the beholder. But the quilts also provide a bridge to the future, when residents of tomorrow's technological world will need the simple joy of touching something real rather than virtual, the comfort of the tactile qualities of quilts."