When looking at the art and stories that shape a community, quilting is often overlooked. The craft has been around for centuries and has seen many different iterations. Some of the earliest known pieces date back to the 14th century
, and smaller patchwork pieces have been found in tombs throughout Asia and the Middle East.
This textile art form became more accessible in the 1840s with the invention of the sewing machine. During the Great Depression, quilts made from cloth sacks became popular, and patterns were regularly shared in newspapers. According to Britannica, the 1970s marked a quilt revival thanks to an exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, where vintage quilts were put on display like art.
A quilt made from feed sacks made by Christine Paul.
In Wabash County, about an hour south of Fort Wayne, there is a rich tradition of storytelling through quilting and a strong community of quilters upholding that tradition. Different types of quilts tell different stories. Storytelling quilts are designed with a focus on a specific time or event, but even quilts made by previous generations tell a story through their fabric and structure.
Wabash resident and quilter Diane Morris says these types of quilts are not only part of our history, but a great way to tell a story or communicate a message. She says each quilt she makes tells the story of the love and care she has for the recipient.
“I think it’s the story of love I have for that person,” says Morris. “I really go by what they say. I sent an email to my family and friends, telling them I wanted to make them each a quilt. They pick out the coloring and pattern. I really like giving them away. My story is the story of love and caring that I pass on to them.”
The first quilt Diane Morris made, which she gifted to her daughter.
Older quilts were commonly made with whatever fabrics were available at the time, including old dresses and shirts. Morris, who also co-owns Borders and Beyond Gallery, a custom framing shop in Wabash, says some quilts can tell a story based on when and how they were made.
A quilt made of T-shirts by Diane Morris.
She’s been commissioned to make quilts from T-shirts in memory of loved ones who have passed, like the Harley Davidson-themed quilts she made for the family of a man whose unexpected passing hit the community hard. She describes making those quilts as a way to honor the memory and celebrate the story of the life of a cherished family member.
Another quilt maker in Wabash, Christine Paul, compares quilt-making to painting– some imagination and referencing other images.
“I used to attend an art collective group in Fort Wayne, where most of the artists were painters. I was shocked that they were using photos or pictures from magazines or books to replicate. I thought all the paintings I’d seen came from their imaginations! Quilting is like that. There are patterns and there’s improv.”
The techniques of quilting also vary as much as painting techniques. Paul prefers to hand quilt with embroidery floss, while others use sewing or long arm machines, which are large machines that are designed to quilt the layers of fabric together. An eye for color and pattern is something that unites quilting artists, regardless of their preferred style of quilting and the story they are trying to tell.
A quilt made by Christine Paul, featuring the handprints of the family it was made for.
Cheryl Ross, the owner of Heaven on Earth
, a fabric and quilting shop in Wabash, says even if you start with the same pattern, each quilt will look different, reflecting the creativity of the maker.
“Each quilt doesn’t always finish the way the original designer meant it, but you follow the pattern, pick out fabric, and have it come out unique,” she says. “I just let the fabric guide me. I take scraps and one thing leads to another. Every quilt has a visual art to it, whether it’s today’s modern art or yesterday’s treasures. There’s always something that draws the eye in.”
These quilts serve as art, but Ross also describes the craft as a way to destress and create community. At her store, she welcomes people in to learn and work on projects together. She says people come in for a friendly hello, for inspiration, or the push to get back in their sewing room.
Christine Paul with quilting students.
“Having a hobby to take away from the stress of the day is so important,” she says. “It gives so much value to our lives. If you share your creativity with others it helps our communities.”
And quilting helps the community in more than one way. Nancy Jacoby-Barrows, owner of Nancy J’s Fabrics
in Wabash, says there are a number of charities, organizations, and individuals the quilters in Wabash supports. They make and donate quilts to Riley Children’s Hospital and Peyton Manning’s Children’s Hospital. Some donate to Quilts of Valor
, a group that honors service members and veterans; others are made for firemen to take for victims of fires. One local club in Wabash, The Sew Peaceful Quilt Club, made quilts for the children at White’s Residential, a home and school for at-risk youth.
Quilting can also draw people into the community of Wabash. Jacoby-Barrows says when out-of-town visitors come to her store, they also get to experience the local culture and see all the interesting things Wabash has to offer. Visiting the two unique quilting stores in Wabash is the door that brings people in.
“We are fortunate to have two quilt shops that don’t compete as they carry different, phenomenal fabric,” says Morris.
A quilt made by Diane Morris.
Jacoby-Barrows and Ross encourage people interested in quilting to ask questions at their stores. Each store offers one-on-one help for quilters of all skill levels and can point beginners to additional help. The two quilting stores offer quilt-along and other group sewing projects, where people can work on their pieces together.
For people who may not want to begin a new hobby, but appreciate art, quilts are on display in both Nancy J’s Fabrics and Heaven on Earth. There, anyone can appreciate the artistry and storytelling behind the craft of quilting.
Wabash is the focus of a new Partner City series in Input Fort Wayne underwritten by Visit Wabash County and Honeywell Arts & Entertainment. This series will capture the story of talent, creativity, investment, innovation, and emerging assets shaping the future of Wabash County, about an hour Southwest of Fort Wayne.