Members of WNC Quilters Guild reflect on 40 years
In the 1700s, the first European settlers of Appalachia started quilting out of necessity. Much like chopping firewood or salting pork, sewing coverlets from feed sacks and strips of residual cloth was a means to an end.
In the centuries since, a lot has changed. Homes are better insulated, mass-produced blankets plentiful, and mountain winters milder. Simply put, sheer necessity is a thing of the past. But in Hendersonville, the quilting tradition is still alive and well, thanks to the Western North Carolina Quilters Guild.
Founded in 1982 — 40 years ago this year — the Guild began as a fledgling group led by then-president Georgia Bonesteel.
A seamstress by trade, Bonesteel had rolled into town from New Orleans just 10 years prior. News spread fast that she had worked in the fashion department of Marshall Field and Company after college and, soon enough, a neighbor was knocking on her door.
“She came running down Estate Drive, saying she was moving and asking if I would finish the sewing class she was teaching at Blue Ridge Technical College [now Blue Ridge Community College],” Bonesteel remembers.
The newcomer obliged and spent the next three years espousing the fundamentals of sewing. But during the fourth year, Bonesteel piloted an 11-week course on quilting. It was an instant hit.
“There was a renewed interest in quilting, not just locally but nationally,” says Bonesteel, recalling that magazines like Good Housekeeping were prompting women to sew patriotic-themed quilts in honor of the country’s bicentennial in 1976.
Two years later, Bonesteel’s quilting series — “Lap Quilting with Georgia Bonesteel” — debuted on North Carolina Public Television, generating even more excitement. “The time was right,” says Bonesteel. “There was a need for an organized club dedicated to quiltmaking in our town.”
In 1982, she and her students gathered at St. James Episcopal Church on North King Street for the Guild’s inaugural meeting. Bonesteel was elected president, Jeanne Novak secretary, and Ruth Eaton treasurer. That same year, the Guild held its first quilt show at The Cedars. In 1984, the group hosted the North Carolina Quilt Symposium at the Kanuga Conference Center.
In the decades since, quilting has seen a number of technological advancements. In the 1980s, there was the rotary cutter, which replaced scissors and made snipping fabric much easier. By the 1990s, the sewing machine had finally become a more acceptable alternative to traditional, laborious hand stitching. “All of a sudden, you could connect three layers of fabric together without sewing by hand,” says Bonesteel.
“The revolution today,” she says, is “quilting by check.” This involves sending quilt tops to a professional with a longarm quilting machine. “Quilting by check essentially means paying to have the quilt completed,” Bonesteel explains.
But modern quilters aren’t just changing how they quilt; they are also changing what they quilt. As guild member Carole Carter explains, the newest trend is to eschew vintage patterns for more abstract, freeform designs. Known as art quilts, these coverlets use a variety of unlikely textiles, from silk to leather, and embellishments including beading, cording, and decorative stitches.
“They often incorporate geometric patterns with lots of negative space, leaving an opening for extraordinary needlework,” says Carter. Unlike the feed-sack coverlets of yesteryear, art quilts aren’t for keeping warm. Instead, they intend to “advance our perception of what quilts actually are.”
Carter believes this modern genre of quilting will “capture young people” and motivate them to join the Guild. However, attracting new members is easier said than done.
Despite outreach efforts at the North Carolina Mountain State Fair, regular activity on social media, and a scholarship fund for graduating high-school students interested in textile art, the Guild’s 150 members are mostly older women.
Bonesteel says she’s worried quilting will fade away with her generation. “There’s mostly gray hair at our Guild meetings,” she says. “We’re anxious — we don’t want to see our art die.”
Preserving the age-old craft will require a paradigm shift, says Carter. “All we can do is promote quilting as more than just making something you lay on a bed. We have to promote it for what it is: artistry.”
In honor of its 40th anniversary, the Western North Carolina Quilters Guild will present its 2022 “A Garden of Quilts” juried show on Friday, May 20 and Saturday, May 21, at the Youth Activities Building in the Bonclarken Conference Center (5 Pine Drive, Flat Rock, bonclarken.org). Show hours are 10am-5pm on Friday and 10am-4pm on Saturday. Admission is $5; parking is free. For more information, visit westernncquilters.org.