If you, like me, are not one of the estimated 10 million quilters in the U.S., you may be as surprised as I was by the magnitude of the quilting phenomenon in Texas. Before I went on a months-long quilt quest, the craft seemed to me hair-pullingly repetitive and, well, boring. That’s because I had no idea what it actually was. I’d never owned a nice quilt or thought much about them. But as I started to piece together (forgive me, quilting lends itself to puns) all that this centuries-old art form is, I realized the robust quilting culture in Texas not only inspires and comforts those it touches, but it also tells a story about where we come from.
Quilt Festival Held annually in early November at George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida de las Americas, Houston 713-781-6864.
Las Colchas 110 Ogden St., San Antonio 210-223-2405.
Quilts with a Heart 5810 Schlee St., Priddy 325-642 1544.
Compass Centre Mount Calm 817-266-9025.
Texas Quilt Museum 140 West Colorado St., La Grange 979-968-3104.
Dolph Briscoe Center for American History 2300 Red River St., Austin 512-495-4515.
Beneath the deceptively simple definition of quilting—“the process of sewing two or more layers of fabric together to make a thicker padded material”—lies a multitude of dichotomies. It is both communal and individual; it can be wildly nonconformist and yet steadfastly rooted in tradition. It is both form and function. It stitches people together across age, racial, gender, and socioeconomic differences. It is a massive moneymaker in Texas but was born from the utilitarian practice of making do with what you’ve got (ever heard of the feed sack quilt?). And it is decidedly not boring.
Quilting is big in the Lone Star State. The International Quilt Guild website, quiltguild.com, lists 150 Texas guilds, clubs whose members engage in all-things-quilt. From the Rio Grande Valley Quilt Guild down in Mercedes to the Panhandle Piecemakers up in Pampa, quilting covers all of Texas. Francine Pons, co-owner of San Antonio’s Las Colchas quilt shop, once went quilt hunting in Montana, expecting to find some beauties in the northern clime. A shop owner told her, unaware of her home state: “Honey, if you want quilts, you’ve got to go to Texas.”
Texas’ strong quilt culture interweaves with its frontier and agricultural history. “As a pioneer state, Texas was still primarily rural until after World War II,” explains Karey Bresenhan, a fifth-generation Texas quilter. “So quilting continued well after the advent of readily available blankets and bedcoverings in urban retail establishments. And it has been, historically, the national leader in cotton production. Because of those things, many Texas quilters working as late as the 1930s could recall picking, ginning, and carding their own cotton to make quilt batting.”
And while Texas cotton and frontier life is a big part of the picture, it is no exaggeration to say Bresenhan herself has much to do with why quilting thrives here. In 1974, Bresenhan founded Houston’s International Quilt Festival. The mecca of quilters—now ranking as the city’s second-most attended annual public show—draws about 55,000 people to Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center. With 500 classes and lectures, more than a thousand booths of fabric and other wares for sale, and an interactive charity section, the festival draws all types—from quilting superstars to the merely curious.
I get a sense of just how big a craft magnet the Houston festival is when talking to Jeanne Strottner, a quilt-lover who works at the aforementioned Las Colchas, housed in a 1920s Sears-Roebuck kit home with vines running along the interior walls. We are standing over the tattered remains of a quilt—recently pulled from my mom’s attic—hand-sewn by my great Aunt Mary. The more I learn about the care and effort put into a quilt, the more I wished to salvage Aunt Mary’s. But Strottner gently explains the threadbare relic is not salvageable. While talking to her, surrounded by all of Las Colchas’ playful textiles, including fanciful Mexico-themed fabrics with the Virgen de Guadalupe to Lucha Libre wrestlers to Day of the Dead skulls, I get a micro-taste of the fabric buzz quilters must get when enveloped in all the pretty prints.
“There have been times when I’ve gone crazy and just got in my car and drove to the festival and back in one day,” Strottner explains. “It’s an escape. Now my friend and I make a vacation out of it. We get a hotel room, take some wine, plan out our days, what classes we want to take. It’s a big quilt adventure.”
Quilters like community, and countless small Texas towns are home to quilting retreats, like the Compass Centre in Mount Calm, population 316, or the recently opened Quilts with a Heart retreat in Priddy, population 227. Angela McCorkle, a full-time professional quilter who owns Quilts with a Heart, leads regular sell-out retreats. “Quilting has always been about sharing and socializing,” McCorkle says, “but life is so fast-paced now; retreats give us a chance to just slow down and be together. It’s not a hobby for the faint of heart. It’s an addictive but very fulfilling hobby.”
I only have one friend who is a dedicated quilter—Suzy Bates, a mother at my son’s elementary school who donated several of her quilts to our PTA, hauling in thousands of dollars for the school. “There are more quilts in my mind than I can make,” she tells me. Like Stottner and McCorkle, Bates lives and breathes in a world where phrases like “fat quarter” and “orphan blocks” are common parlance, where people are admired for their ability to execute patterns that can be so complicated that having a math background is an asset. And many of these projects can take hundreds if not thousands of hours to complete. With that much commitment, it’s no wonder there’s so much mutual respect in the quilting world, where the acronym TGIF means ‘Thank God It’s Finished.”
Bates is an avid practitioner in a growing wave of younger quilters popularizing the craft. In 2016, Bates joined the Austin Modern Quilting Guild and found fresh inspiration. Now she sneaks off to her newly built quilting shed to stitch in the early mornings before work.
“Honey, if you want quilts, you’ve got to go to Texas.”
While traditional quilting is still the most prevalent type, art and modern quilting are gaining momentum. Take the work of Texas quilting maven Kathy York—a two-time winner at the International Quilt Festival whose quilting blog, Aqua Moon Art Quilts, is a touchstone for her fans. Art and modern quilting can sometimes dig into deeply intimate or uncomfortable themes, both personal and political. It can also get refreshingly irreverent, as with the Mildly Offensive Fiber Artists Facebook group, which has a whopping 22,000-plus members. Their page says that if you like quilting, um, reproductive anatomy, this is the place for you.
To get a fuller picture of quilting in Texas, I pay a visit to the Texas Quilt Museum, a treasury of quilt culture tucked away in La Grange’s friendly downtown. Since it opened its doors in 2011, this former 19th-century furniture store turned museum—launched by Texas quilt queens Bresenhan and Nancy O’Bryant Puentes—has welcomed quilt pilgrims from each of the 50 states and across the globe.
Tours Coordinator Barbara White ably guides me on my quilt quest. The names of the different antique quilt patterns roll off of her tongue like a song: “Double Wedding Ring,” “Joseph’s Coats of Many Colors,” “Tried and True.” She explains how back in the 1800s, before synthetic dyes, many fabric colors—like the rosy “turkey red” or sunny orange “cheddar”—were just becoming available; these colors are among the clues that help determine a quilt’s date of origin.
“All quilts are artistries made by people who can see something others don’t see,” she says, leading me to the exhibition, Dynamic Diversity, Quilts from African American Quilters. She points to a quilt of shining organza fabric with an appliqué of two delicate white lilies called “A Kiss Goodbye.” “Alice Beasley made that quilt when she was grieving the sudden death of her husband,” White says. “Our staff member here who helped hang the piece had also recently lost her husband. It was very healing for both of them.”
Over and over again, I am struck by this craft’s singular power to bring people together. Nowhere did the quilt as connector aspect wow me so much as at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. Briscoe’s quilt collection was launched in 1967 when Ima Hogg, legendary Texas benefactress, gifted 17 of her quilts from the Winedale Historical Complex to the Briscoe. The center is now home to nearly 550 historically significant quilts spanning two centuries.
I head to the Briscoe to talk to Lynn Bell, the associate director for material culture, who happens to be consulting with the center’s former quilt curator, Kate Adams, on the day I visit. When I arrived in Bell’s office, a 90-block dark blue quilt of stars, planets, and other space imagery greets me. This, Bell explains, is the culmination of the 2013 Astronomical Quilts! Block Challenge, a bold project in which NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, in honor of the 40th anniversary of the International Quilt Festival, stitched a star block while aboard the International Space Station (in a YouTube video, you can see her in space wielding her block, hair aloft, explaining how it is “tricky” to sew in weightlessness). Nyberg invited quilters to contribute their own space-themed blocks; the response exceeded expectations, and in the end they received nearly 2,500 blocks from quilters across the world, from Russia to Japan to small-town Texas. The metaphorical impact is remarkable. Nyberg is one of the few humans to physically see the Earth as a whole, but here she and 2,500 other quilters have symbolically united the planet through a quilt.
Bell and Adams then show me one of the Briscoe’s other prize quilts, a soothing white and Nile green hand-appliqued Hawaiian beauty called Lilia O Ki Awawa (Lily of the Valley) made in the 1930s by Pine Eisfeller. This quilt is one of many whose history is explained in Adams’ book, published in 2016: Comfort & Glory, Two Centuries of American Quilts from the Briscoe Center. The handsome tome delves into what to me are the most interesting part of quilts—the stories behind them. You can read about the 1818 marriage quilt of Sterling and Mary Orgain, a founding family in Hutto, and about a quilt that wound up in a shipwreck off the coast of Cuba but later made its way back to Texas.
And in the book’s introduction, Adams writes about a daughter’s memory of her mother quilting, how her mother made quilts not only for family and friends but for the beds in a Franklin hotel she managed in the 1930s. Adams writes, “Her daughter recalled her mother sewing quilts all night after her family and guests were settled for the evening. She recorded that her mother ‘was never more relaxed than when she was making a quilt.’ ‘Quilt-making,’ she wrote, ‘satisfied a basic desire in her nature—the creation of beauty. She worked on them for the need of it.’”
That simple action of sewing two pieces of fabric together, like a ritual, links practitioners over time.
In this regard, the 1930s hotel manager mirrors modern-day quilters like my friend Suzy, stepping out to her quilting shed in the early morning to work. Quilting has transformed in ways unknowable to the Franklin mother stitching through the night; she would likely be astonished by contemporary styles and definitely by an astronaut quilting in space. Nonetheless, that simple action of sewing two pieces of fabric together, like a ritual, links practitioners over time.
Sitting in the garden adjacent to the Texas Quilt Museum in La Grange, I am taken by these words on a nearby plaque: “We invite you to enjoy our period garden,” it reads, “and perhaps to think about the difficulties of day-to-day life faced by Texans as late as the turn of the 20th century and beyond during the Depression. In spite of those trials, Texas women found the time, energy, and inspiration to create things of beauty from what they had to work with … things such as stunning quilts and lovely, peaceful gardens.” It seems to me that this is the essence of Texas quilting—figuring out how to make a thing of beauty from whatever you’ve got to work with. Whether you’re a quilter or not, that’s a goal we can all aspire to.
Writer Clayton Maxwell, not crafty, gained a serious respect for the quilters of Texas when researching this article; she now fantasizes about creating a quilt someday from her children’s art. Portrait and lifestyle photographer Nathan Lindstrom enjoyed photographing this story as a tribute to his grandmothers and all the other quilting enthusiasts in his family.