New quilters on the block
Sewing art grows in popularity in the Tri-Lakes
SARANAC LAKE — Their heads are bowed and their thumbs are moving, but they’re not looking at their phones. Quilters in the Tri-Lakes region are part of a national resurgence of a traditional craft, which owes some of its current popularity to the pros and cons of the computer age.
On one hand, quilting offers people a way to spend time together, working with their hands. It’s an antidote to the modern malaise of loneliness spread by machines that promise to keep us connected while making us literally turn our backs on those who are close to us. People in quilting groups talk to each other in real time.
On the other hand, quilting is easier than ever, thanks to modern technology. Quilters can find patterns, instructions, fabric and quilting events through the internet. They can access specialty machines to do the parts of quilting they find most tedious: Many quilters farm out part of the quilt-making process to long-armed quilting machines that sew computer-programmed patterns.
A number of quilting groups exist in the Tri-Lakes, including the Mountain Mama quilters — a combined Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake group — and the Log Cabin Quilters who meet at the Saranac Lake Free Library on Thursdays.
Another group meets once a month at the Saranac Lake Adult Center. The women bring sewing machines, bags of cloth and equipment, and settle in for a day or three of quilting. The long cafeteria-style tables provide a perfect surface for laying out large sections of cloth, so they can spread out their material and work while talking across the room. From Friday afternoon through Sunday they work on sewing projects, turning to one another for help and advice and indulging in some good-natured teasing.
“I come for the camaraderie,” said Dolores Commo. “I had some mending to do and I couldn’t thread my machine at home, so I brought that in [to the group]. In about a half hour I was done and I said, ‘Now what do I do?’ and Gina gave me some material.
“That was a year ago,” said Commo.
The quilting group started a little over a year ago, and although quilting is their stated mission, several who come don’t quilt — they just hang out.
“I’m the knitter,” said Joan Stratford. Although the others exert a certain joking pressure on Stratford to put down her knitting and join in sewing, they admire her expertise.
“I think I would like to be interested in sewing, but it’s too difficult,” said Stratford. “I know I couldn’t really sew a quilt.”
Stratford jokes that she’s working on “the longest scarf in history” and downplays how good she is, but the women insist that she knows a lot.
Even more than sewing, that’s what they do — support each other. “It’s a really great group of women,” said Gina Rabideau. “We have a lot of fun.”
In the evening they break for dinner, sometimes going to a restaurant, sometimes taking turns cooking. Their three-day events at the Adult Center normally begin Friday afternoon. They work for a few hours, then head out to Downhill Grill or the Belvedere or another local eatery, then come back and work some more before wrapping up.
You don’t have to even own a sewing machine to join. The ladies bring extra sewing machines, as well as books of instruction and extra material. Commo said she was drawn in by a lovely piece of material that only cost 10 cents at a garage sale.
Rabideau said she never quilted before she joined the group. “Ruth Sofield and Peggy Bailey ganged up on me and said, ‘You’re going to learn to quilt’ and we took it from there.”
All joking aside, the quilters’ creations are beautifully made, creative and unique. Although in the old days many quilts were made by recycling scraps of clothing or linen, the brand-new quilts use fabrics you won’t find hanging on a clothing rack. With the rising popularity of quilting, and new appreciation for art quilts and the social aspect of sewing together, specialty quilting shops have sprung up around the nation.
Traditional craft in the modern age
Diane Loeber, who works at Piece By Piece quilt shop on Bloomingdale Avenue, said all the fabrics in the shop are 100 percent cotton. Cotton cuts neatly and keeps its shape, making it perfect for quilts, and the cloth manufacturers cater to a quilters’ market by making colors, patterns and prints specifically for quilts.
Many sewers remember their mothers making their clothing, or making clothing themselves.
“There used to be sewing shops everywhere,” Loeber remembered. “Then, when manufacturing made it cheaper to buy your clothes than to make them, those shops disappeared, but quilting took off.”
Quilting and quilt fabric preserved what people love about sewing, even if the cost of producing a quilt is rarely met by its sale price. While a few afficionados will pay top dollar for a custom made quilt, most consumers are unwilling to spend enough to reimburse the many hours quiltmakers put in.
Therefore the quilts become a labor of love — for the craft, but also for other people.
Rabideau is working on an American flag-themed quilt, Commo finished a unicorn-themed quilt, and Shirley Allen is making a quilt that looks like a John Deere tractor. For the most part, the quilters’ creations become gifts for friends and family members.
“I’ve always loved quilts. I used to buy them,” said Anna Lapiczak. “My first quilt, I won in a raffle. I still have the little laptop quilt.
“But now, I’m making it for myself. It’s what I want if I make it. I have one I’ve been working on for five years. I’m almost done with it — I have to do the binding.” Binding is the cloth that goes around the edge of the quilt, and Lapiczak will rely on the others to coach her through it.
Some quilters produce Quilts of Valor, which are given to veterans in thanks for their service. Loeber said she knows a quilter who gives her creations to people at the Samaritan House, the local homeless shelter and another who takes her quilt up to the hospital to give to patients. At the moment, she’s working on a lap rug to be given to a veteran graduating from St. Joseph’s addiction treatment program.
Cruising and camping
Quilting offers social opportunities, from shopping expeditions to week-long quilt camps and even quilting cruises. During a recent trip to a quilt show in Erie, Pennsylvania, Saranac Lake quilters took a side trip to specialty quilter’s shop in Ithaca. Other quilters’ destinations that merit shopping expeditions are Adirondack Quilts in Glens Falls, Affordable Quilting in Tupper Lake and Crazy Moose in Inlet.
Although the popularity of quilting has led to museum shows and art quilts that belong on the wall, not on a bed, quilting groups are always happy to welcome people trying it for the first time.
“This group’s great because you never know what level people are at,” said Rabideau. Even the experts, she explains, never see their work as perfect.
“There’s no perfect quilt; the quilter sees all the flaws, but other people don’t see them.”
Shirley Allen is definitely one of the experts in the Adult Center group, whom the others can turn to for advice. She has been sewing most of her whole life.
“I’ve been sewing since I took Home Ec in high school. I used to make my kids’ clothes. I used to buy material in Newberry’s,” she said. Newberry’s discount department store operated in Saranac Lake from 1930 to 1997. “I’ve been quilting for a long time; it started because I mended some antique quilts for a lady.
“I couldn’t quilt, either, until I started doing it,” said Allen. “Then I thought, if other people can do it, I can do it.”
Pat McGuane joins the Adult Center quilters for their monthly gathering, but she hasn’t yet made the leap into quilting.“I’m working up my courage,” she said. “I’ve always liked needle arts of any kind.
“These women are friendly, helpful. They’re an incentive,” she said. “It’s just a nice bunch of women. If they took up bricklaying, I’d probably be down for that, too.”