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Quilting makes a comeback

There’s a good reason why quilting groups have remained active even in modern times.

“Quilting is an individual thing, but there’s also a lot of social networking that goes on. Quilters are a friendly bunch of people,” says local quilter Karen Asche. “It’s partly social. Quilters like to get together and talk. It’s partly a women’s social opportunity. The other thing is you get hooked on it.”

From Rogue River to Ashland and from Jacksonville to Eagle Point, Jackson County is home to at least eight groups devoted to quilting, knitting, crocheting, embroidery, needlepoint, cross stitching and hand weaving — hobbies that are both useful and artistic.

In addition, the Rogue Valley Genealogical Society celebrates the history of quilts with its free Quilts & Genealogy talks from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. the fourth Tuesday of each month at Jackson County Genealogy Library, 3405 S. Pacific Highway, Medford. Call 541-512-2340, email reception.jcgl@gmail.com or stop by the genealogy library for more information.

Asche, vice president of the genealogical society, says quilts date far back in human history.

“Quilting existed way back in the days of knights. Armor was quilted fabric. People also used quilting for bed coverings and tapestries,” she says.

In the days when humans were still fighting for survival, quilts were utilitarian and often made of scraps.

“People made scrap quilts for beds. They had to have something to keep warm,” Asche says.

Quilts were often a reflection of the maker’s wealth and social standing, as well as larger historical developments. During certain parts of American history, appliqué quilts, in which fabric patterns are stitched on top of other fabric, became more popular.

The Jacksonville Museum Quilters still practice this form of quilt-making. They meet at 9:30 a.m. Wednesdays and Thursday at First Presbyterian Church, 425 Middle St., Jacksonville. Call 541-941-2463.

Group members combine forces every year to make a large, elaborate quilt.

“The Jacksonville Museum Quilters are known for their hand-appliqué and hand-stitching,” says member Nell Mathern. “It takes almost a year to get it made. Everyone makes the blocks and then we put it together.”

She says the group has made a quilt annually for 39 years.

Members also make tactile quilts with fabric of different textures to give away to sight-impaired children, Mathern says.

Many of the large-scale quilts made by the group are stored at the Jackson County Genealogy Library.

The group’s “Manzanita of Kanaka Flats” quilt, made in 1980, has a traditional Hawaiian-style pattern that pays homage to early gold miners who came from Hawaii and settled on the outskirts of Jacksonville on what was called the Kanaka Flats.

The 1994 “Table Rock Mountain Quilt” has a central panel depicting Table Rock and the Rogue River. On the edges of the quilt, 18 hand-stitched, appliquéd and embroidered panels show wildflowers that grow on Table Rock — including Indian paint brush, camas, Western buttercup, shooting stars, hound’s tongue, cat’s ear, lamb’s tongue and mule’s ear.

Throughout American history, the focus of quilting groups has shifted with the times, Asche says.

“We have very few Civil War-era quilts. Quilting groups were making soldier quilts. They were of a size that the soldiers could carry them on their backs,” she says. “Very few of those survived because if soldiers died, they were buried in them. Or the quilts wore out and didn’t survive.”

During World War I, the United States government used massive quantities of wool for soldiers’ blankets. It urged citizens to “Make Quilts — Save the Blankets for Our Boys Over There,” according to the Quilting in America website.

Quilters used scraps of clothing, blankets and even feed sacks to piece together quilts during the Great Depression.

World War II saw the proliferation of “signature quilts” in which business owners and others in the community paid to have their names embroidered on quilt blocks. The blocks were sewn together and the quilts were raffled off to raise money for the Red Cross, according to Quilting in America.

The Rogue Valley Genealogical Society occasionally hosts Antiques Roadshow-style events in which quilt owners can register in advance, then bring their quilts in on a designated day to have them identified. Signature quilts have been among the mystery quilts examined by volunteers, Asche says.

“There are certain periods where patterns and techniques were popular. You can tell from the pattern and fabric where it came from. You can get a date range and tell its purpose,” Asche says. “It’s a detective story.”

After decades of war and economic struggle, Americans in the 1950s focused on modernization and progress. Interest in quilting fell to its lowest point in the nation’s history, according to Quilting in America.

Quilting and other fabric arts revived in subsequent decades, with people interested in learning time-honored techniques and forging new artistic paths. Fabric arts are now the subject of extensive research, and prized examples hang on the walls of people’s homes and in museums.

“Quilting has come back, and it’s extremely popular and recognized,” Asche says. “Quilts are now being recognized as works of art.”

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Charleen Ferguson Brown talks about details in a crazy quilt pattern, made by her grandmother, during a meeting at the Jackson County Genealogy Library in Medford.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Women discuss different fabrics used to create a quilt on display at a meeting at the Jackson County Genealogy Library in Medford.