Quilting is no longer your grandmother’s sport. While the mere mention of appliqué may conjure images of gray-haired women in rocking chairs, more of today’s 20- and 30-somethings are saddling up to a sewing machine and slinging stitches. Even children are learning to quilt, adding their own youthful spin to the age-old trade and transforming it into a modern art form.
This is one reason why the Martha Washington Quilters Guild, a prominent quilting and charitable organization in Washington County, plans to offer youth quilting lessons next summer. Linda Seaman, president of the guild, said she was inspired by the number of children at the West Alexander Fair who approached her church’s sewing booth and wanted to use the machine.
“Their eyes get big, and they get a big smile on their face,” Seaman said. “They really enjoy it. But for so many of them, their mothers don’t sew, so how are they going to be introduced to it?” Mothers who sew often share that skill with their daughters, and if the interest sticks, those skills will be passed down several generations. This is especially true for the Ihnat family, for whom quilting is both a shared hobby and a business. Kay Ihnat, of Avella, learned sewing skills as a child, and she later taught her daughters, Valerie D’Alessandro and Melanie Beth Scott, how to use a sewing machine. Ihnat started quilting when she received a landscape quilt book as a gift, which was around the time her daughters were away at college. After that, she just couldn’t stop.
“Once you make them, it’s addictive,” said Ihnat, who has made 138 quilts altogether. “It’s my therapy … The hum of the machine, the feel of the fabric. It just calms you right down. You get into another world.”
“It’s a hobby, but it’s very therapeutic,” said D’Alessandro, 41, of Monroeville, who has made about a dozen quilts, but admits she also has many partially-made “UFOs,” or unfinished objects. D’Alessandro, Scott and Ihnat often collaborate on quilts. Ihnat opened her own business in the mid-2000s, named “Graceful Quilting by Kay” after her late mother, Grace. She also named her first Gammill longarm quilting machine “Gracie.” She recently retired and handed the business over to Scott, who splits time between her Bethel Park home and the Avella studio. At 32, Scott is the youngest member of the Martha Washington Quilters Guild, and she already has made a name for herself as a professional quilter. Scott primarily completes quilt tops made by other quilters, but also creates original quilt designs using a computer program.
Scott said she never envisioned she would be quilting for a living. Her career goal shifted from chef to psychologist to actress, and she ultimately graduated from college with a broad degree in communications and theater. Even though she is sometimes met with quizzical looks after divulging her career choice, Scott said she believes the quilting movement is gaining popularity among younger, creative individuals.
“I think it’s definitely picking up a lot more than it ever has been. The textile industry is expanding so much, and back in the ’30s, this was basically what you had to work with,” said Scott, referring to the traditional “Ohio star” and “wedding ring” patterns. “Nowadays, you have so many different palettes that speak to so many different creativity styles.”
The Internet has also attracted a community of unorthodox quilters, such as the BadAss Quilters Society, which provides an outlet for “thousands of other BadAss Quilters out there looking for a place to hang loose, talk fabric and swap the occasional off-color joke all the while being free from the oppressive notion of what quilters were ‘supposed to be,’ according to the website.
Scott said she idolizes Lisa Sipes, a pink-haired longarm quilter whose blog is entitled “That Crazy Quilty Girl,” and Dusty Farrell, a tattooed longarm quilter who owns a business with his wife in Cambridge Springs. Farrell has periodically held national “quilting in the dark” shows, where he free-motion quilts under a black light using ulatrviolet light-reactive threads, while upbeat music plays in the background. “People like him, they’re slowly breaking through that stigma,” Scott said of Farrell. Scott has even started teaching sewing skills to her daughter, Rowyn, who will turn 5 this month. Rowyn has a mini-sewing machine, but Scott said her daughter prefers to cut fabric and place it on the felt design wall at Ihnat’s house.
Karen Shoenberger, co-vice president of the Martha Washington Quilters Guild, has taught her granddaughter, Trinity Matchett, how to quilt. Shoenberger said she has brought Matchett to quilting gatherings since she was a 3-month-old infant, and she used to love arranging scraps of fabric into designs. Now 9 years old, Matchett’s artistic talent has continued to flourish, and she recently surprised Shoenberger with a “jelly roll race” quilt for Christmas that she made with help from one of Shoenberger’s fellow guild members. “I’ve received many gifts that are very, very expensive ... (but) I think this is the one that touched me the most,” said Shoenberger, of Bridgeville, adding that she was most impressed by Matchett’s straight lines.
“People look at these complex quilts where you have these beautiful pieced blocks and appliqué ... and yet you have to start someplace, and the best place to start is just to learn how to make a straight line,” Shoenberger said. “You think this is easy, but when you’re 7 or 8 years old, coordinating that is not that easy.”
Shoenberger hopes Matchett and her younger brother, Tyler Matchett, 5, will both enroll in the guild’s youth program next summer. Like Shoenberger, Seaman is helping her 13-year-old granddaughter, Bailee Seaman, make an “I Spy” quilt composed of unique blocks of fabric. Bailee Seaman, an eighth-grader at Trinity Middle School who plays soccer and is involved in her youth group at church, local 4-H club and Junior Auxiliary, said she never imagined she would be quilting. Yet she became inspired while watching her grandmother, “Mimi,” quilt. Linda Seaman started teaching Bailee basic sewing skills over the summer and helped her pick out fabric from her “stash.” Bailee said she likes quilting because it’s a way to express her creativity in a way that words can’t.
“Just the different kinds of fabrics, getting to pick out your own designs (and) piecing together the quilt – it’s fun to see and experiment what you can do with all the different things and the techniques that you can try,” she said. “I hope to keep going and learn different designs in quilting. I don’t know if I will have time, but I’m sure I will be able to make time for it, especially to spend time with my Mimi.”
Not only is quilting a fun artistic outlet for children, but it is also a way to bond with their mothers and grandmothers.
“I think it is something that young people are starting to notice and want to do,” Linda Seaman said, “but I think it’s a good legacy if you can do something with a grandchild.”