Quilters build skills, fellowship at Blessed Seelos Parish
You can hear a pin drop – literally – when the industrious members of the Crescent City Quilters gather each month to practice their beloved craft.
During a recent Saturday morning session inside the quilters’ meeting place at the Blessed Francis Seelos Parish hall, more than a dozen members worked with laser-like focus to turn small swatches of fabric into majestic quilts swirling with vibrant color and geometry.
The quiet inside the light-flooded space was broken only by the hum of sewing machines and the sound of troubleshooting tips being exchanged between quilters working in pairs.
“I like to create – quilting is just another way to express yourself,” said Irma White, who discovered quilting eight years ago and is a fan of the “bargello” quilting technique – a method of arranging fabric strips to create “movement” across the quilt top in the form of curves, waves, steps and other dynamic patterns.
“It looks complicated, but it’s really not,” White said. “It’s all in the technique.”
Members learn together
The CCQ formed in 2006, drawing members from another quilting guild and from a quilting class taught by the People Program of enrichment classes at its pre-Katrina campus in Gentilly. The group, which is affiliated with the four-state Gulf South Quilters Association, currently numbers 13 women, although men are welcome. They meet every second Saturday for four hours, floating over the years between classrooms at Blessed Francis Seelos and Blessed Trinity parishes.
“Personally, I like to work with squares better than stars and triangles, because I can feel my progress immediately. You can see feel a sense of accomplishment quickly,” said charter member Barbara Duhé, noting that members take turns to teach the various skills they have mastered, alongside their main teacher, Marietta Johnson.
After taking care of some housekeeping – which included ordering shirts emblazoned with the group’s needle-and-thread fleur-de-lis logo – Duhé, a parishioner of Blessed Trinity, presented the day’s lesson: the “inversion” pattern of quilting, in which fabric blocks are arranged in a way that makes them seem to “rotate” across the quilt top.
Other lessons range from how to work with the difficult curves of circular appliqués, using fabric binding to fashion realistic-looking flower stems, and harnessing the latest computer technology of scanning photographs of family members onto printable fabric for incorporation into quilt squares.
A quilting vernacular
New Orleans-born White, who discovered the group last year while casting about for something to fill her days after retirement, was instantly disarmed by how welcoming and encouraging her fellow quilters were.
“They love to share, they love to teach and they’re always teaching you a new technique,” White said. “Quilting is in our hearts,” she added. “You’re not often around someone who speaks your language. The average person can’t sit down and talk that language.”
To assist new members in that lexicon, Duhé compiled a glossary of fabric and quilting terms that help members locate their supplies at the fabric store. For example, a “jelly roll” means a roll of assorted strips that are 2 1/2 inches wide, and a “layer cake” is code for an assortment of 10-inch fabric squares. Quilters’ jargon also includes “fat quarter,” “charms,” “backing fabric” and “batting.”
Although members take their own sewing machines to the monthly quilting sessions, Ida Boutté, a 25-year quilting veteran, is the group’s sole hand-quilter.
“I like quiet time, and quilting was it,” said Boutté, noting that she was drawn into the craft when she admired the fine work of her employer’s grandmother.
“I knew I could do that – my mother told me I could do little tiny stitches,” Boutté recalls. “I used to do them so tight you couldn’t loosen them.”
Boutté, who often spends whole days sewing, said the only pain she experiences is when she forgets her thimble. In addition to her CCQ membership, Boutté sits in on other quilting circles and attends quilt shows.
“We swap ideas. Where (the other members) might appliqué something using the sewing machine, I do it by hand,” Boutté said. “In Katrina I lost three 18-gallon containers of quilts. I had to start all over again. I’ve replaced every last one of them. Everything I make is in bright colors, except for about eight black and white quilts.”
Sewing from the heart
The group’s handiwork also has a significant charitable dimension.
Last Advent, members delivered 20 quilts to Covenant House, while other beneficiaries have included Lafon Nursing Home, which received 30 quilted carrier bags for attachment to residents’ mobility walkers.
Another project will entail furnishing quilts to a bedroom at Hotel Hope, a residence for homeless women and their children planned for the former convent at Blessed Trinity Church.
Like true artists, the members use their fabric canvases to tell stories.
Beverly Winder recently completed a quilt called “When We All Get Together.” The appliqués, which depict a line of African maidens, feature “stipling” – machine stitching that adds a swirling effect to the material.
“Some of my quilts don’t make it out of the house – I tend not to let go of my work,” Winder said. “Even my (out-of-town) daughter said, ‘When you finish it, send it to me,” Winder said, adding with a smile: “I don’t think it’s going to make it out of New Orleans!”