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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Quilt Exhibit A Treasure Trove of Handmade History

Quilt Exhibit A Treasure Trove of Handmade History
(Front page feature of Fairfield Sun March 3 issue)
By Mike Lauterborn
2011. All Rights Reserved.

Southport, CT – Quilts can tell a story, celebrate an event, provide warmth on a cold night and evoke memories of a beloved family member. They are an enduring constant in an ever-changing world. Now over 150 of them will be on display for all to experience at a local house of worship.

On March 4 and 5, the Southport Congregational Church at 524 Pequot Avenue will host “A Quilt Exhibit – Fabrics and Fabrications”, a special show focused on quilts as fashion through the decades. In addition to the unique handmade wonders, a boutique set-up will feature an array of high fashion quilted couture and accessories. A daily luncheon and silent auction round out the affair. A majority of proceeds will benefit Make-A-Wish Foundation of Connecticut, Emerge, Inc., and Project Learn.

The Sun caught up with the event’s founder and organizers as well as a leading group of participating quilters to get their unique perspectives about the exhibit. 

Event Inception, Quilting History
In Spring 2001, long-time quilter and Southport Congregational Church member Cecily Zerega traveled to Cohasset, Massachusetts to see a quilt exhibit at another congregation there. Recognizing that there were no similar shows in the Fairfield area, Zerega approached Minister Paul Whitmore about hosting one to benefit charity. He approved the idea, Zerega formed the Fabrics and Fabrications committee and secured the three charity partners.

“We wanted a couple of charities that were either local, small or benefited women and children. My husband was on the board with Make-A-Wish at the time, so that was a natural. Then we added Emerge and, two years ago, Project Learn,” said Zerega. Make-A-Wish grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions. Emerge provides transitional housing to survivors of domestic violence. Project Learn offers after-school programming in Bridgeport.

As to planning the event’s launch, Zerega said, “We put the word out to friends and family and, honestly, didn’t know how many quilts we would end up with. But we got 150 that first year, which became the maximum number for display going forward. The quilts really occupy every free space in the church’s Sanctuary, halls and chapel. Old quilts, new quilts, latest styles, heirlooms…Three Fairfield middle schools even have quilts in the show this year.”

Historically, Zerega said quilts have been around since 3,500 B.C. as evidenced by a figure shown in a quilted garment at one of the great pyramids of Egypt. She also cited early examples from the Far East and during the time of the Crusades in the 13th and 14th centuries. Crusaders bound for the Middle East used quilted garments under their armor to help prevent bruises and blisters.

Those same quilted clothing ideas were carried to Europe and became popular particularly with men’s clothing – vests and coats – in the 16th century. Very ornate quilted petticoats also came into fashion. All along, quilts were used for bedding and stuffed with such insulating materials as leaves, grass and animal hair. The Baltimore Album quilts in the early 1800s, as well as Friendship quilts, in which different individuals each contribute blocks to make a quilt, were given as wedding gifts, baby gifts or farewell tokens. They’ve become cherished heirlooms passed down from generation to generation.

Personally, Zerega began quilting 50 years ago. “I grew up sewing and knew how to sew. I took one set of workshops initially, and went to the Rhode Island School of Design and crafted needlepoint, stenciled rugs, quilts and knitting patterns.”

Exhibit Highlights

“Part of the original premise was that this would be low-cost,” said Zerega about the exhibit, now in its ninth year. She cited a low admission price of $7, a quilt registration fee of $5 and luncheon tagged at $12. Those funds along with in-kind donations, contributions from individual and corporate underwriters, and boutique sales benefit the partner organizations. “Better than 90% of proceeds are given to charity,” said Zerega.

A special exhibit in the church library supplements the main exhibit and carries a different theme each year. One year, it was maritime-themed, with quilts, scrimshaw and ship models. Another year, carvings and baskets were showcased. This year’s theme is “quilted couture – wearable art”, featuring 20 garments, from professional quilters from all over the country, displayed on mannequins. “These are complicated and gorgeous,” said Zerega.

Another favorite side element is the boutique, organized by fellow congregation members Joan Huntington and Susan Kunkel. A booth set up in the main room of the church, the boutique contains over 200 handmade items including mini quilts, needlepoint, knitted items, children’s aprons, quilted totes and backpacks, made throughout the year by fifteen active members of the committee.

“Angie Supernaw, who is 99, has contributed dozens of items for the boutique each year,” said Zerega. “She is always asking for more work. She only likes to get up in the morning when she has a project to do, so we try to keep her busy.”

Zerega said over 70 volunteers, like Supernaw, help out with the exhibition in some way, shape or form, from set-up and serving to the flower arrangements and raffle. They include representatives from nine different churches, a synagogue and unaffiliated volunteers. “This is really a community event,” she said.

Sally Conti is another noted volunteer, who takes it upon herself to make all the luncheon food. This year’s menu includes quiche, salad, homemade rolls and dessert. Conti makes enough to serve 100 people each day, who must advance register for the meal.

A show preview night will be held Thursday, March 3, featuring a reception with a self-catered simple buffet, guessing game to win a necklace or bracelet and a silent auction to win a doll donated by Washington-based artist Elinor Peace Bailey.

An Event Backbone: BeeAttitudes
Among the many quilting groups participating in the exhibit is BeeAttitudes. Its coordinator, Bridgeporter Karen MacDonald, formed the group 11 years ago when Rev. Laura Whitmore was seeking designer items for the church’s Rooms With A View fundraiser. MacDonald suggested a quilt raffle and, the first year, provided a quilt featuring landmarks of Southport. The group contributed a quilt annually until the quilt exhibit event emerged. Now, MacDonald and three other active members – Nancy Bertini, Judi Heath and Norma Wiser – provide a raffle quilt for the exhibit and create a giveaway quilt to donate to each of the three charity organizations the show benefits.

MacDonald is a fourth generation quilter who has been making quilts since high school. “I was taught by my mother who learned through her mother and grandmother. My mother enjoyed traditional patchwork techniques. My generation of quilters are now considered “fiber” artists, using techniques and textiles incorporating international influences.”

Quilts speak to MacDonald on many levels. “I enjoy the fellowship of our group’s time together and learning new quilting techniques. I also use quilts as my life journal, representing different stages of my life. It’s a wonderful creative expression, especially with the variety of fabrics that are available to the modern quilter.”

MacDonald says the exhibit is truly special. “There’s something very magical about the display of quilts in the church, even spiritual, with almost a hush as people admire the variety of pieces.”


Caught Up in Quilting

He’s a publicist working with the Fairfield Museum and has been assisting (for the past three years) the organizers of “A Quilt Exhibit” at Southport Congregational Church. He’s also a quilter.

Fairfielder Steve Gaynes caught the quilting bug initially from his wife, a quilter for over 25 years. But it was a tag-along to a quilt store in New York City that sewed up his interest. “In walked a professor from Brooklyn College who was displaying his quilts and I said, ‘If he can do it, I can do it,’” recalled Gaynes. “We bought some fabric that intrigued me and I signed up for classes through Close to Home quilt store in Milford. I made my first quilt, a Serger quilt, in August 2006. It was rewarding to walk away with a finished product.”

That same year, he and his wife went away to a quilting-focused bed and breakfast in Wisconsin where they spent the entire week quilting, eating and sightseeing. The quilting was all done on old sewing machines. “Mine was a 1945 Singer,” Gaynes said.

He made two quilts that week, one of which he showed at the quilt exhibit three years ago. He has entered another quilt this year, on which he has spent a good four years. “I worked on it in drips and drabs as time allowed around work and home schedules. It’s from a pattern called Just Can’t Cut It, which is a mix and match of all different sized squares.”

Gaynes said he has gained a real appreciation for quilting and what goes into it and, as such, has become a top promoter of the event. “No one should miss this exhibit – it’s really special and a great effort for charity. We raised nearly $40,000 last year and had over 700 attendees. It would be wonderful to top those numbers this year.”

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