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The quilter's ancient craft finds new admirers

A LITTLE over 100 years ago, three-quarters of the beds in the United States were probably covered with brightly patterned handmade quilts. Today, quilts are not only making a comeback as coverlets, they are taking a prominent place in the art world, competing for wall space with original paintings.

Thousands of people - including dozens of celebrities - have become collectors of vintage quilts. College courses are initiating the study of old quilts as cultural artifacts. Numerous books are being written on the subject. And quilt organizations are being formed all over America by those interested in learning to make their own.

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Speaking of the value of handcrafted quilts, Margaret Maddox Cavigga says, ``I predict that handwork will go out of sight.'' Ms. Cavigga is one of four Americans largely responsible for the quilt renaissance in this country. The others are Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof, a husband and wife who authored a definitive book on quilting and promoted museum quilt shows, and Mrs. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, responsible for obtaining foundation funding for Mountain Artisans, a previously poverty stricken group of quilters.

Also the author of quilt books, Cavigga owns a Beverly Hills quilt shop, and is a licensed appraiser, lecturer, and director of several quilt exhibitions. In her private collection she has over 2,000 antique American quilts, some valued as high as $50,000 each. There's not a single machine stitch in the lot, she proudly notes.

Aside from their beauty, the main attraction of quilts is an emotional one, she says. ``They recall memories of days gone by and fabrics worn years ago. They also represent security and warmth in these frenetic times.''

Quilting is an ancient process. Remnants of quilted fabric have been found in Egyptian tombs. The Saracen foot soldiers who fought the Crusaders wore straw-filled, quilted canvas shirts in lieu of armor.

The most valuable quilts are entirely handmade. Two layers of cloth are stitched together with an inner lining of some soft or warm substance, such as cotton or wool, sandwiched in between. The top layer bears a design achieved in one of three ways: the quilting (or assembling) stitches only; appliqu'e, stitching pieces of cloth onto a background fabric to form a picture or design; pieces or patched units of cloth sewn to create a ``new'' fabric with geometric patterns.

Old quilts that have remained in topnotch condition were probably used for ``show,'' covering a pile of older, more worn quilts. This special quilt would usually have been turned back at bedtime and was never sat upon. Antique quilt buyers should hold a quilt up to the light and look for signs of wear before making a purchase.

Quilting is not exclusively an activity for women. In generations past they may not have admitted it, but many men enjoyed helping their wives cut and piece material for a quilt. Quilt dealer/author Tom Woodard remarked that in ``a time when people didn't have a lot to occupy themselves, quilting kept many a mind, body, and soul together.''

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Cavigga's celebrity-studded customer list includes as many men as women. Among them, actors James Caan, Roger Moore, and Harrison Ford, comedians Richard Pryor and Jonathan Winters, and the late John Wayne.

The first quilts in America were applique'd ones brought over from Holland and England by the colonists. As these began to wear out, it became necessary to patch them with material taken from the users' own garments, since new material was scarce. The result was the patchwork quilt - the best known American contribution to this ancient artform. Says quiltmaker Nancy Halpern of Natick, Mass., ``Scrap quilts are bits and pieces of people's lives.''

American quilters named specific patterns after familiar things in their lives. As Jonathan Holstein notes, the names often reflect religion, history, nature, and politics - Yankee Pride, Underground Railway, Ocean Wave, Log Cabin, Basket of Scraps, Grandmother's Flower Garden, Double Wedding Ring, Drunkard's Path, Honeycomb, Mariner's Compass, Rose of Sharon, Courthouse Square, Ginger Leaf, and Whig's Retreat.

Each quilter's choice of colors and materials was unique, hence no two quilts were identical.

Victorian crazy quilts - much more elaborate - are not really quilts at all. Actually unquilted ``throws,'' they are showpieces done by individual ladies who might have taken up to 20 years to complete what were often called ``a master needleworker's tribute to life.'' They usually represent the finest satins, silks, and velvets, and a wide range of embroidery stitches and appliqu'es.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of quilts is learning of customs pertaining to their creation. Around the turn of the century, young country girls traditionally were expected to have as many as 12 quilt tops made by the time they became engaged to be married. A professional quilter might be hired to finish them off or a quilting bee would be held.

``All the neighborhood would come in and have a wonderful party and do the barn raising and quilting,'' says Cavigga. The design of the 13th quilt would be chosen together by the happy couple.

Also, unmarried girls would strive to take the last stitch in the bridal quilt, since superstition held that the person who took that stitch would be next at the altar. As work drew to completion, the married girls would considerately retire to the kitchen on some pretense or other, leaving their spinster sisters to scramble for that last ``good luck'' stitch.

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