A founding member of the South Minneapolis Quilters, Bonnie Morris has been swapping sewing stories, flaunting her finished patchworks and studying new quilting techniques since the organization was founded a quarter century ago in the basement of a Kenny neighborhood church.
“This strange thing happened,” she said. “We’ve gotten 25 years older since we started. I just don’t know how it happened.”
Morris, 68 and “on the younger side,” has lately been working on a pitch to attract new people to the group, which meets at City Church. “It’s kind of your original recycling group because nothing goes to waste,” she said. “It’s a green craft.”
An impulse to repurpose fabric lies at the heart of quilting.
“In the 1930s, they would take feed sacks in which oats and wheat and flour and sugar were packaged, and turn them into clothing and quilts,” Morris said.
The South Minneapolis Quilters have used scraps of fabric and batting to make dog beds for the Animal Humane Society and to sew quilted Christmas stockings for families affected by flooding on the Red River.
The group has also sold full-size quilts at art fairs in Pershing, Loring and Powderhorn parks and donated the proceeds — a total of $85,000 — to organizations like the Harriet Tubman Center, Urban Ventures and Midwest Community Hospice. The group continues to donate completed quilts to nonprofits like Avivo and Breaking Free, but no longer chooses to sell them. (The South Minneapolis Quilters were kicked out of the Powderhorn Art Fair around 2005 for undercutting the prices of for-profit vendors.)
“We decided we were getting too old to be able to handle putting up tents and taking them down,” Pat Hastings said. “We’re now making quilts because we love to make quilts.”
At its most basic, a quilt is three layers bound together with stitches: the backing (usually a solid pattern), the top (the decorative, piecemeal eye-catcher) and the batting (the foamy stuffing providing warmth and fluffiness). A simple utility quilt can be completed in as few as 40 hours, but more ornate quilts — using intricate patterns, complicated appliqués or highly detailed paper piecing — can require 600 hours or more.
Longtime quilters say the attraction the pastime holds can be hard for outsiders to grasp.
“You take fabric, you cut it into little pieces and then you sew it all back together,” Wisland said. “My father could see no rhyme nor reason to this.”
Different quilters are drawn to different elements of the needlework tradition. Wisland loves choosing patterns, while Andy Ramcharan, a newer member of the group, enjoys dyeing. “People take to different things, and for me it was fabric,” Rebecca Anderson said. “I love the feel. A good fabric feels luscious in your hands.”
Members of South Minneapolis Quilters say their favorite aspect of the organization is its focus on relationships and community. Members can find their niche in the organization’s many subgroups: the UFO Group (for “unfinished objects”), the Strip Club (which uses long strips of fabrics), the Material Girls (it’s “a play on that song”) and the Civil War Group (which reproduces the muted brownish-reddish-green colors of the antebellum era).
While most meetings of the group are dedicated to lectures, show-and-tells and organizational business, the 40 or so current South Minneapolis Quilters gather twice a year for a “work bee,” where they bring in their sewing machines, fabric swatches and half-completed quilts and labor together for the duration of an evening.
At the latest work bee in mid-August, the South Minneapolis Quilters got to talking about the past several decades of their hobby, speaking wistfully about quilt shops that have gone out of business. Eydie’s Country Quilting at 53rd & Vincent closed up shop years ago, while Glad Creations shut its doors at 34th & Bloomington this past January. Minneapolis quilters now have to drive to Shakopee or Apple Valley to buy material.
“When I first started quilting, we were using templates and sewing by hand, and now you use rotary cutters and digital cutters and can go on YouTube and can find just about anything you want to know how to do,” Wisland said. “The fabrics have changed and become much more bright and splashy colors, rather than the pinks and blues and homespuns.”
“It’s a lot of changes,” Morris said.
“Machine quilting is way too much and the quilts get too heavy,” Wisland said. “They’re not puffy and light. People are hanging them rather than using them.”
A few tables over, Anderson shared why she loves the slow process of hand quilting.
“It isn’t done as much because it takes longer,” she said, “but it’s very soothing and very calming, and when the news is terrible, you sit down and you quilt and then you have hope in the world.”