Comforters Quilt Guild Has Gone from Sane to Crazy

Helen Thorkelsen © 2008

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The eighty-five member Comforters Quilt Guild held quilt shows every other year for many years in the south area of Puget Sound, Washington. In addition, the group has a long tradition of making many quilts to be donated for special causes.  In the last few years, rent for the bi-annual show became so high that we could no longer make enough profit to support our members' charity work. In the past, we made beautiful hand appliquéd and hand-quilted quilts that were raffled each year to raise money for our charity work. Therefore, a couple of years ago, we decided to give up the quilt show and now we show our work at a local library.

It takes about a year to make a masterpiece quilt and we sell tickets for that entire year.  "Quilters Newsletter" has published our past quilts on several occasions. There are many talented quilters of national repute in our group, and some members who have won blue ribbons at Paducah, Houston, the Hoffman Challenge, and the Quilt Barn in the East. There are also published authors in our group. Despite this, the guild always has a hard time finding a chairperson to commit to the making of a raffle quilt, which takes an entire year. The guild not only wants a queen size quilt, they want it to be close to perfection! In a weak moment, I raised my hand and volunteered. The last time I held this job, almost fifteen years before, the quilt we made was all appliqué.

Since I volunteered to be the chairperson, I would decide the design and techniques we would use. I determined that it would be a crazy quilt and I told the guild that I would need many helpers. I guess the members were so pleased to have someone take on the job that for the most part, they agreed to do what ever I asked. My friend, Marilyn Murphy, agreed to be my co-chair and I gave thanks every day for all of her help. We worked well as a team.

I spent about a month designing the 91" x 91" quilt and making lists for the members. I requested donations of silks, velvets, buttons, lace and charms. You would not believe the things that were brought in at our next meeting! Some of it was wonderful and some had to be returned. The $400 budget would help buy the backing, muslin, silks and thread. The nice thread and ribbon that would be needed to make this a very special quilt were some of the biggest expenses.

I was a CQ instructor at a lovely quilt shop, so they gave me a twenty-five percent discount on everything I bought, including a flat fold table of the most beautiful silks you have ever seen. The silks were run-offs from a mill back East and I bought eighth-yard pieces of many of them. Every time a new shipment came in, I purchased for myself and for the guild, which was a good excuse to add to my personal stash. The store also allowed us to use their back workroom one day a month.

“Let the work begin!” I had twenty-five women show up the first day, each of them ready to learn how to make a CQ block. Despite all the chatter, I was able to teach them how to start a block. The muslin was cut into 10.5" squares and each person took a piece to make a 9" finished block - we would trim the blocks to size later. I made a 9" square template of freezer paper that they used to mark the muslin on the back. After the women had pieced the crazy block to the edge, I had them turn the block over and use a basting stitch along the line they had drawn, so that it would show through to the front and serve as a guide when they began their embellishments. They were asked not to embroider outside of that line, to make it easier to assemble the blocks later. I had each person select ten pieces of fabric that she loved to make her block. Some women found this part of the process difficult. Marilyn and I were helping them to leave all their sane quilting knowledge at the door, so that they could think in a different mode. For many, this was the most challenging part of the project. We did the sew-flip-and-press method, because I knew this would be the easiest.

Many of the laces and trims that were donated were stark white, so we had one day where they had a lesson in toning down the lace. We used approximately a teaspoon of No. 16 Rit ecru dye in two cups of water to give the white lace a softer look. We met for six more months. More pieces of muslin were handed out as different people came and went. When all the blocks were pieced, we started the embroidery. Many had never embellished anything. Using my own method of embroidery, I had to teach them about thread, needles and how they needed to practice each new stitch on a piece of muslin. Over the course of the six months some women became over-achievers, and some came with blocks that had very few embellishments. Some of the over-achievers took the more sparse blocks home and added more embroidery. Some of the more talented appliquérs spread their wings and appliquéd leaves, flowers and other things on their blocks.

I took on the challenge of the 36" center block. I worked day and night; I even took my piece on a fifteen-day European river cruise, where for about two hours every afternoon, I would work in silence watching the landscape go by. When my room would become very dark, I knew we were going through a lock on the river. I did manage to get a lot of embroidery done. Each day the maid would come and see my progress. There were many little snippets of thread on the floor!

When all the blocks were turned in, there was much joy; the women were pleased with the work that they had accomplished. It was time to put the quilt together, so we put the blocks on the wall and started arranging the blocks in a pleasing manner. At this point, everyone had an opinion, because by now, they were Crazy Quilters. We put the blocks into groups of four and these large blocks were sent home with members to embellish the final seams. I might add that many women did not remember the first rule about not embellishing outside the basting line, so sometimes we had to remove beads, buttons and charms so we could machine stitch these blocks together. Then we had to go back and put those same things back on the block! Next we worked by rows and continued embellishing the new seams.

The borders posed another challenge. Black silk dupioni was the fabric of choice and we put a fusible lightweight interfacing on the back. It needed to be strong to hold this heavy quilt straight. We put graduated reverse appliqué CQ circles on the borders. I had developed a great method to do this on the machine where you never see a stitch. (That is a lesson for another day.) Around each circle, we did the feather stitch on the black silk in variegated pearl cotton. At this point, the quilt was so heavy that Marilyn and I were almost in tears, but we did persevere. I did not want to put in batting, but I lost out and a lightweight batting was used. Then we put the back on a frame, then the batting and then the CQ top. The quilt was then tied in areas where the thread did not show. We also did some hand quilting on the border.

We finished the quilt in time to enter it in the Washington State Fair; the fourth largest state fair in the United States. We had to enter in the professional category, because so many professional quilters had worked on the CQ and we were delighted to win Grand Champion. The tears now were tears of joy.

After the show, I needed to make a label for the quilt. I took a 10" square of muslin and pressed it onto a piece of freezer paper. With a black Pigma pen, I drew out a pattern of a CQ block. I wrote information about the quilt in the center and everyone that had worked on the quilt or had donated fabric or thread signed their name and their town in the remaining spaces. I put a binding around the label before stitching it on the back corner of the quilt.

During the assembly process, some blocks had to be discarded for one reason or another; we did, however, end up with eight extra lovely blocks. We put these into two different four-block pieces. We put our names in a box and had a drawing. Two very happy women won them.

Now that the quilt is completely finished, we will be very busy for the next six months selling raffle tickets to help with all the charity work that we do.

Additional photos courtesy of Keith and Sandi Mannen.


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