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Quilters Get Personal At The Monroe County History Center

picture of a quilter's studio

The new quilt exhibit at the Monroe County History Center, is called "The Quilters Story." Rather than celebrating flashy quilting techniques or designer fabrics, the exhibit's focus is on the relationship of the quilters to their craft.

Sophia's Quilting Story

In the back of her garage in Spencer, Indiana, Sophia French has created a sewing studio packed to the brim with quilting books, fabric, and six sewing machines. She's an avid quilter, sometimes working in her studio for eight hours at a stretch. But she tries not to spend too much time and energy on each quilt, because doesn't want them to be too delicate to use. She calls her style "comfort quilting."

"It's not artistic," she says. "It's something someone feels free enough to cuddle with on the floor or anywhere. It can be precious, but it can wear out and no one's really hurt. I love the artistic quilts, but I just don't think I'll ever get there."

Recently, though, Sophia's quilts have made the leap from the living room to the exhibit hall. She submitted three quilts to the Monroe County History Center's Quilter's Story exhibit.

Two are vintage quilts from her collection, and one she made herself, a green and gold quilt with different leaves sewn into the top, using a technique called free-motion quilting. As part of her submission, she was asked to share her quilting story, and to talk about what connects her to her craft:

I've been around sewing all my life. My grandmother used to make quilts. As a matter of fact, my earliest memory is staying at their house, they lived in a log cabin and had just a central wood stove for their heat. And we had quilts so heavy that at eight years old you laid still, they covered you up and you couldn't move. I've just gone from there, to sewing blocks together, and I made seventeen quilts one summer for my brothers and sisters and grand-kids and things.

An Emphasis On The Personal

Next to each quilt in the exhibit is a small plaque that tells a personal story like Sophia's.

Jenny Mack is the Exhibit Manager at the history center. She curates their annual quilt exhibit, and this year she wanted to do a show that celebrated the emotional histories of the quilts, rather than showcasing the type of technical perfection that is on display at bigger quilt shows.

According toQuilts, Inc, a trade show producer, quilting is a 3.58 billion dollar-a-year industry (pdf). At quilt shows, quilters gather to show off their most extravagant creations and compete for prizes. They're a popular event for quilters, and the History Center timed the exhibit's opening to coincide with the Indiana Heritage Quilt Show, which this year had 32 vendors and 165 quilts on display.

The History Center's exhibit, by comparison, is smaller and quieter, with an emphasis on the personal. Jenny Mack says that "a grand theme of this entire exhibit is that people feel that quilts are comforting. You know, it's not just this visual showpiece, necessarily. It is also something that connects people, makes them feel warm. It's a gift."

Sophia says her personal quilts tell a story, and this is what makes the quilt exhibit connect with the History Center's mission.

"I just made one for my nephew and his new bride, as a wedding present," Sophia says. "And the very center block-they were married at the Napa country wedding chapel-and I wrote that on there with a heart and the date. And that's as personal as you can get. And that can be around for a hundred years, and someone could see it. "

There are sixteen quilts on display in the History Center, ranging from 19th century pieces from the museum's permanent collection to quilts made entirely of new fabrics.

Since the History Center wanted quilts with personal stories, many of those in the exhibit are first-time quilts, fading treasures pulled from grandma's attic, or quilts made for a family member out of old clothing. Â This is what makes the exhibit special, according to Jenny Mack. "I don't know if quilters really get that opportunity a whole lot, to show things that are more personal to them," she says.

Jenny hopes this personal touch will encourage people to connect emotionally with the exhibit, and hopefully in turn with Monroe County history. Sophia, for her part, will keep making quilts in her garage studio for her family, hoping to give them a little comfort.

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