Quilting- The Art, The Passion

By Willa Wick in Arts & Music, Community, People

The art of quilting is synonymous with homemaking. Born through necessity in days of old, rags and worn out clothing were tied together to make blankets. As time and pride progressed, women began to fashion bed covers into a thing of beauty as well as serviceability.
“Once upon a time” during the long cold winter months, girls, as soon as they could thread a needle, would help in the piecing and stitching of a quilt. Young women had a Hope Chest, and it was continually being filled with trousseau items. The more she accumulated indicated the level of her handiwork.
Needlework traditions declined, but fortunately there was a rebirth, and quilting leapt to new heights and color creations.
June Tomek, a retiree living near Clifford, has closets full of material just waiting for the scissors.
When she was 10, her Great Aunt taught her yarn and thread skills. The first quilt June made was in the mid ‘50s after a neighbor asked for flannelette scraps to finish a baby covering. June watched and learned. There wasn’t extra money for batting so she used an old wool blanket between the layers. Although her stitches were more like a line of basting, that was the beginning of a career which includes embroidery, appliqué, reverse appliqué, and piecing for quilt tops. One beautiful “Baltimore” style includes raised peony-type flowers of ‘Ruching’, plus rick-rack roses, fold-over buds, and puff-padded leaves and blooms.
Because her handiwork was so much admired, Mrs. Tomek was asked to teach in the city, which she did from 1975 – 81. During that time she started the Mississauga Quilters Guild with nearly 200 members. Her method of teaching was to make a Sampler Quilt – each ‘block’ was different so the top included all the styles.
June has entered and won awards at many shows as well as the Toronto Exhibition. After she moved to Clifford she joined the Teeswater 5-Star Quilters Guild.
From 1928 – 1961 the Kansas City Star published quilt block patterns about twice a week (1068 in all). June started collecting and then obtained all the back ones. Her aim is to make a quilt for each year. As the blocks are completed she stores them in pizza boxes, one year to a box. The first pattern in the series was the 1928 version of the Lone Pine Tree.
Mrs. Tomek uses only new, prewashed material in her designs and does all the stitching herself. At one time you could order fabric scraps by the pound through the Simpson’s and Eaton’s catalogues. She does not sell her work but rather makes quilts for various members of her family and relatives.
Although she has exhibited at many Quilt Shows around Ontario, since moving to Clifford June Tomek has not displayed her creations at any of the local Fall Fairs… but that may change.
Another artisan, Hazel Friel, watched and helped her mother and grandmother piece tops. When it came time for the actual stitching, frames were set up and several neighbor ladies were called in for a “quilting bee”.
While Hazel was raising a family of 9 in Palmerston there was no time for quilting. It was later, while living in Kitchener, she tried again. She pieced a top and sent it up to her daughter Pat Crispin who contacted the Presbyterian Church ladies to do the quilting. That was part of the incentive for Mrs. Friel to move to Harriston – to meet new people and become involved. Through the church quilting group she learned the proper stitching techniques, and gained experience which has now spanned nearly 25 years.
Most of Hazel’s quilts are made as wedding gifts for her children and grandchildren. She also indulges in many other artistic creations and at one point was a vendor at local Craft Sales. At those times she would offer her quilts for sale.
She uses new material for her work and used to get leftover scraps from garment factories. She has quite an inventory of fabric, “probably enough to piece 100 more tops”, she quipped. Hazel showed me a very beautiful piece of work, “That is the most expensive quilt I ever made” she said, ”I had envisioned a particular color scheme and didn’t have the variety in my own stash so I had to purchase new material at
regular prices”.
Hazel has several sizes of frames and does all her own quilting. She uses a thimble on her “push” finger but likes to feel the needle as it goes through the three layers. As a result she has a callous and scrapes on the end of her left big finger from years of needle pricks.
In discussing the actual quilting outlines she explained it has to match the design (i.e. no sweetheart roses on a boy’s appliquéd tractor top). Quilting is an overall stitching design and the free or blank space should be no bigger than the palm of your hand. If you have a very old quilt you will notice the stitching allows for no more than a couple of fingers free space. Back then cotton batting was used as the filler and it broke apart easily. Because of that it was added in pieces as the quilting progressed. The modern filler is woven polyester which comes in different widths and can be
cut to size.
Mrs. Friel has entered both tops and finished quilts in the local Fall Fairs and has won many prizes including Reserve Champion for an attractive pieced work in blue tones.
Farm gal Betty Tarr is also well known for her quilting talents. The first one she made was just before her marriage. She wasn’t able to get it done in time so Harriston’s Flossie Ivel finished quilting it for her.
Betty has a total of 72 quilts to her credit and three more in the making. She and Ralph have 8 grand children and each has been presented with a quilt. She makes several tops and tries to quilt at least one a year. She always does her own stitching on the family quilts, and has completely quilted about ¾ of those she’s made – others have been ‘sent out’ either to the Presbyterian Church quilting group or local Mennonite women.
The United Church women usually ‘tie’ quilts for Missions. Although referred to as a ‘tied quilt’ these are really a tied bed cover or comforter as there is no actual quilting or stitched pattern involved. A ‘quilt’ is a sandwich. The pieced or appliquéd design forms the top, the batting is the filling, and the bottom layer is usually plain. A pattern is mapped out on the top and tiny stitches follow the lines through all three layers. Only with that intricacy can it truly be labeled a ‘quilt’.
Betty wears a finger thimble for stitching the horizontal lines, and one on her thumb when working up and down. She likes to feel the needle on the bottom to ensure it’s all the way through, so like many others she has a calloused and needle-pricked left big finger.
Mrs. Tarr creates her own designs in appliqué work. She has also devised several shortcuts for strip piecework.
She doesn’t like idle hands so always has fabric and supplies with her. Some of her tops have been on cruises, others in Turkey or Taiwan, and many have been all over Ontario as she travels with her husband.
Betty believes quilts should be seen to be appreciated, and tells her family, “Put them on the bed and use them, don’t hide them away”. Most of her quilts are queen size so they double as spreads.
She always uses new material but doesn’t bother to prewash unless she thinks it will bleed. Local fabric stores are getting scarce but there are good sources in Mt. Forest, Gorrie, Spinrite in Listowel, several Len’s Mill Warehouses, and many outlets in the Amish and Mennonite communities.
Betty has sold some quilts and keeps a number in stock for purchase. She attends workshops for new ideas. Most of these courses offer a different twist on ‘Quilt-In-A-Day’ piecing such as the Stack and Whack, Wedding Ring, or the Whacky Star.
She has never quilted with the long armed sewing machine but has a top which contains heavy material so she intends to send it out to be machine quilted. There’s a woman in Atwood and another near Milverton who do custom work.
Betty Tarr has been exhibiting her work at Fall Fairs for about 10 years and has had two Grand Championships. From the local Fair the winner goes to the District, and if successful there goes on to the Agricultural Society Convention in Toronto.
When they were motherless young girls at Greenbush, an aunt of Shirley and Betty Fulton taught them housekeeping skills. The first quilt they made was a “9-Patch”. Next came “Fan Patch”… and they’ve been patching and quilting ever since.
These ladies have been a strong force in the Harriston Presbyterian Church Quilting Group which over time has dwindled to just four regulars – the two of them, Hazel Friel and Florence Fry.
At one time when there was a quilt in the frame many ladies would form a ‘bee’ in the church basement and sew all afternoon, everyday, until it was completed Now on a project the small group only quilts 2 days a week.
Various women enjoy making ‘tops’ but would rather employ others to do the actual quilting. Betty and Shirley Fulton accept these projects and spend hours quilting in their own home. They both do the quilting, and then Betty enjoys the finishing touches by laboriously ‘binding the edges’ (while Shirley does the housework and meals). The proceeds from these endeavors are often forwarded to the church.
The sisters have just finished a large rose/cream reversible quilt for a draw at the Harriston Fall Fair.
What is the future of quilting? Hopefully one day soon there will be a revival in stitchery and our younger female generation will add fabric, needles and thread to their technical gadget world.