Friday, June 22, 2007

In stitches: Quilt show appeals to high- and low-tech


Peninsula Clarion

Verna Espenshade experienced machine quilting when she came to Soldotna three weeks ago. Originally from Pennsylvania, Espenshade is impressed by the delicate textures and loops a fabric freestyler creates, but says real quilting is done by hand.

“I think it’s beautiful,” she said, “but it’s not authentic.”

After 30 or 40 years of quilting, Espenshade can tell the difference between a hand-sewn quilt and a quilt done by machine just by looking at the fabric.

“When (quilting) started out people used patches from left-over sewing,” she said, scanning the walls of Cook Inlet Academy’s gymnasium at this year’s Quilting on the Kenai quilt show. “They didn’t strive to make something so gorgeous. You just needed a cover for your bed.”

Looking over quilts covered with star and diamond patterns, hand-dyed prints and tiny yo yos (squares of fabric stitched and pulled tight to form a pocket), she pointed to a rosy quilt in the corner and said it was hand-sewn.

“That’s very old,” she said, “you can tell by looking at the fabric.”

Quilts ranging from table runners and wall hangings to king-sized decked the walls of Cook Inlet Academy for the quilt show. The event started on Thursday and will last until Saturday afternoon, culminating in a treadle race and fashion show. The Art to Wear fashion show will be at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Mary Lee of Anchorage said the quilt Espenshade pointed to was known as a variation on a broken dish and was made from 1930s fabric blocks found in an antique trunk.

“(We) sewed it by hand and put it on a white background,” she said.

Entering a quilter’s world is to enter a kaleidoscope of color, patterns and fabrics. In this world of needle and thread, it’s easy to picture a circle of ladies engaged in an old-fashioned quilting bee. Nowadays, computerized sewing machines have brought the art of quilting into the 21st century.

Sharon Hale of Soldotna said she loves her sewing machine, but there were definitely purists out there. To her, the thing that makes contemporary quilting different from the quilts our grandmothers make are oranges, purples and other bright colors.

“Quiltmakers from years ago would roll over in their graves if they saw these colors,” she said.

Hale originally made her living sewing clothes, so instead of making bedspreads she quilts jackets, vests and other garments.

“It has a lot of the same techniques,” she said, “(I use) more beads and threads. You wouldn’t want all that stuff if you were going to put it on a bed.”

Thirteen years ago Pat Reese, owner of Robin Place Fabrics in Soldotna, originally held the show at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center with her four children to help her.

“It was quite an experience,” she said. “We’ve come a long way since then.”

With more than 150 exhibits and vendors, Reese said she expects 1,000 people to come have their quilts appraised, vote on their favorite quilt, compete in the treadle race and view the fashion show.

The treadle race was Jess Tubbs’ idea. President of J&H Sewing and Vacuum, Tubbs said he grew up playing with a treadle sewing machine and could sew faster than his brothers and sisters.

“Everybody gets a kick out of it,” he said, talking about the race. “As far as I know it’s the only one in the world ever.”

Way different from today’s high-tech sewing machines, these machines are heavy, made of wrought iron and are 80 years old or better. Tubbs said the contestants have to get through a three-foot long piece of fabric and whoever reaches the end first wins a race. When all the winners have been determined, they compete, vying for a Pfaff Smart 100 sewing machine.

“The people that sit down to those treadles, they get so much energy pumping the treadle that we started have holders for the chairs,” Tubbs said, “because they’re pushing the chairs away.”

After more than 40 years of pumping a treadle, Tubbs said even the fastest quilter can’t beat him.

“I’ve eliminated myself from the competition because I would be afraid of walking away with the grand prize,” he said.

In addition to the treadle race and fashion show, visitors will have a chance to get their quilts appraised, vote for their favorite quilt, view antique quilts and participate in lectures and demonstrations. There also will be a quilt walk with opportunities to win raffle prizes as well as the grand door prize, a Pfaff S1100 sewing machine. For more information and directions to the event, visit

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at

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