Traditional method requires hands-on commitment
It takes only a show of hands each week for the Thursday Quilters of Grand Junction to renew a 26-year commitment to the timeless artistry of hand quilting.
A group of nine women, most of whom are computer-literate and handy with a cellphone in this 21st century, gather around a 10-foot by 10-foot wooden frame to re-enact a scene more familiar in pioneer days — an honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned quilting bee.
Nimble fingers poke and tug needles and thread through layers of cotton, batting and backing fabric, enhancing with tiny, expert stitches a quilt top previously sewn together by one of the nine. They take turns meeting in one another’s homes, quilting their own quilts by turn as well.
The process for one quilt can take eight to 10 weeks, and it requires a large space to accommodate the frame, which is left in place throughout the time period. That’s no slight commitment on these women’s part.
Some of their homes have dedicated areas for quilt frames, and others have to alter their living arrangements when their turn comes.
For instance, quilter Nancy Neal completely clears out her guest bedroom to have space for her frame. And Gail Mosher jokes about how she gave away her couch to make room for the Thursday Quilters bee.
At this time, the quilters have set up shop in a large sunroom at Annie Albrethsen’s house. She joined the group in 1990 and has taught many new members the intricacies of hand quilting; current members credit her with the most expertise.
The group, first known as The Quilt Makers, originated in August 1986 at the home of the late Iva Allen, who asked friends to help her stitch a quilt top of blocks from the 1940s.
Some of those members first met in Grand Junction’s Newcomers Club, according to a logbook the quilters keep. Several are since deceased, the most recent being Mary Gadd, who died in April. Gadd wrote in the logbook in 1995, “I quilt in my sleep.”
Such is the measure of dedication for these Thursday Quilters, who all agree that once they learn the technique, they never want to forsake their needles.
They do not quilt for charity or for hire, because they’ve figured the many hours it takes and no remuneration could suffice.
These are heirloom quilts, “and we consider them priceless,” says Genny Beck, one of the longest tenured members.
On Dec. 15, JoAnn Topliss has invited the women, their husbands and significant others to her home for a Christmas potluck. Not only do these women share a quilting passion, but they enjoy breaking bread together.
During the Thursday quilting sessions, the women look forward to a lunch break around one of their dining room tables.
Socializing is as important as the quilting itself, as it was to their foremothers in ages past. Hashing over the issues of the day, laughing together and sharing family ups and downs bonds them together.
They are proud, too, of their shared accomplishments. A quilt of Gladys Olson’s won first prize at a 2009 show at The Art Center, and Topliss picked up a blue ribbon at the Mesa County Fair for one of hers.
Another thing this group has in common are calluses on their fingers, the ones unprotected by thimbles and held underneath the quilt while stitching.
Because they need to feel the needle to be sure the stitches go through all the layers, “you build up calluses so it doesn’t hurt,” Neal says.
The hand above the quilt frame requires a thimble with a rim, or lip, on top to position and hold the needle.
“And thimbles have to fit perfectly,” Albrethsen says.
Preferred thread is 100 percent cotton in a brand called YLI with “between” needles in a size 10 to 12. These are shorter than regular needles and can be purchased with large eyes for easier threading. Specialty needle threaders are welcome, too.
Each quilter strives for three to four stitches on her needle at one time, rocking the needle back and forth while pushing up from the bottom and pulling the thread through the top layer.
Quilter’s Dream batting in a lightweight version is a frequent choice that’s easy to quilt through, although Shirley Budai says she prefers wool batting because the oils in it “lubricate your needle.”
Two members, Olson and Albrethsen, wear thumbles in addition to thimbles to manipulate their needles. For Sharon Rufenacht-Lueck, a rubbery finger cot works well.
To pull a loaded needle through the three layers, most employ yet another tool: a hemostat, a clamp- like instrument generally used in an operating room. Though they may work as intently
as surgeons, the Thursday Quilters’ labors are not those of life or death.
Still, Beck says of their weekly gatherings, “It’s like therapy,” adding that sometimes the quilting bee offers more relief from ailments than even a doctor can provide.
Email Sherida.Warner@ GJSentinel.com.