This year, the Western North Carolina Quilters Guild will celebrate its 40th birthday. And, like anyone blowing out the candles on their “Big Four-O,” the Guild is taking a hard look in the mirror — specifically at the demographics of its members.
Founded in 1982, the group was first led by then-president Georgia Bonesteel, a quilting instructor at Blue Ridge Technical College (now Blue Ridge Community College) and host of the North Carolina Public Television series “Lap Quilting with Georgia Bonesteel.”
In the decades since, the Guild has hosted local quilt shows and national quilting symposiums, both of which have been well attended. The collective has also grown to include more than 150 members of all skill levels and backgrounds. But in terms of age, the Guild is relatively homogenous. That’s an issue Kathie Yancey is trying to fix.
Yancey specializes in modern quilts, or those that stray from tradition by emphasizing bold colors, negative space, and alternate grid work. Though purists balk at the idea of abandoning the eight-pointed star, the “wild goose chase,” or other centuries-old patterns, Yancey sees modern design as a way of attracting younger makers to the craft.
“Not everyone is into modern quilting,” she admits. “But there’s a group of quilters who want to grow and evolve.”
Yancey is one of them. Though the Etowah resident joined the Guild just a year ago, she isn’t new to the world of fiber arts. In middle school, Yancey sat down with her father in their Ohio living room and learned to sew. “It was his legacy, because my mother hated to sew,” she recalls with amusement.
Yancey spent her adolescence making garments. One Saturday a month, she and her best friend would get together to stitch a dress or a blouse. “My friend was allowed one bottle of soda a week,” Yancey remembers. “She would save the soda and we would share it on our sewing day.”
Yancey continued sewing into adulthood, making her wedding dress and later her daughters’ clothes and prom dresses. In the 1980s, she deviated from garments and waded into coverlets, teaching herself how to quilt. However, after mastering the log cabin and pinwheel blocks, she got bored.
“I quickly found out that quilting is pretty much all straight lines and angles,” she says. “I wanted more creativity. I wanted to do more than just sew squares together.”
Rather than give up the craft altogether, she started creating her own designs — designs featuring nonlinear patterns, jewel tones, and stark grays. She also used nontraditional materials such as silk. “There are some who believe quilts should [only] be completed with 100-percent cotton thread,” says Yancey. “But times are changing.”
Guild member Connie Nebesky agrees. Nebesky got interested in quilting 35 years ago when she and her husband lived in Alaska. Hoping to make a coverlet for her infant daughter, she took a quilting class and got hooked. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that she deviated from convention and began stitching bold geometric designs.
“Today, my modern quilts take traditional elements and methods and put them together in a unique way,” says Nebesky. Case in point: She often uses “straight line quilting,” an established machine technique, not to more evenly finish a traditional piece but to introduce clean, contemporary lines: her own pattern.
Nebesky hopes the look of the finished product — “fresh, minimal” — will attract younger people, as will the Guild’s social-media posts, presence at the North Carolina Mountain State Fair in September, and scholarship fund for graduating high-school seniors interested in textile art.
But, despite efforts to diversify the Guild’s membership pool, neither Nebesky nor Yancey are advocating for a complete departure from tradition. Yancey even suggests that aspiring crafters start with conventional patterns to learn the fundamentals of quilting.
From there, Yancey says making a quilt — whatever kind of quilt — is just about “taking some perfectly good material, cutting into a whole lot of little pieces, and putting it back together again.”
In honor of its 40th anniversary, the Western North Carolina Quilters Guild will present its 2022 “A Garden of Quilts” juried show on Friday, May 20 and Saturday, May 21, at the Youth Activities Building in the Bonclarken Conference Center (5 Pine Drive, Flat Rock, bonclarken.org). Show hours are 10am-5pm on Friday and 10am-4pm on Saturday. Admission is $5; parking is free. For more information, visit westernncquilters.org.