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 Pennsylvania 'quilt extravaganza' was a bucket list dream come true

Beverley MacGown, of Concord, New Hampshire, was surprised

Beverley MacGown, of Concord, New Hampshire, was surprised to see her quilt "Baskets & Butterflies" displayed on the stage at the Pennsylvania National Quilt Extravaganza at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, Pa.  Credit: The Philadelphia Inquirer / TNS/TYGER WILLIAMS

OAKS, Pa. — When "Baskets & Butterflies" was unfolded and could be seen in all its glory on the Pennsylvania National Quilt Extravaganza stage, master quilter Beverley MacGown’s handiwork got a round of applause, and so did she.

"It’s such an honor," said MacGown, 86, who sat in the audience next to her friend, neighbor, and fellow quilter Jean Donahue, 81. "This is the biggest quilt show I’ve ever been in."

The two widowed grandmothers (MacGown also has 11 great-grandchildren) traveled from Concord, New Hampshire, to the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, courtesy of My Jump, a nonprofit that grants bucket-list wishes to older Americans.

"We have a group called the ‘Kranky Kwilters’ that meets at my house, but we don’t just sit around and moan and groan," Donahue said. "There’s a camaraderie because we all love the same thing."

A blue-ribbon winner at the 2004 Vermont Quilt Festival, "Baskets & Butterflies" was brought on stage as a surprise for MacGown and Donahue during the 28th annual Extravaganza. The show is one of the largest of its kind in the country and was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19.

Despite smaller crowds than seen in years past — overall attendance was down by about a third from the usual 7,000 to 8,000 people — the vibe on the floor of the expo center was as exuberant as the 600 quilts on the walls. Quilters, a majority of whom are women of a certain age, are a sociable lot.

"Quilters are very giving. They’re willing to help each other and share information," said Eileen Mannion, 66, who stitches large quilts for customers at her Quilting Solutions business in Sewell, Gloucester County. "It’s inspiring to see all these quilts up close, rather than on a screen."

Said Kevin Devine, 51, the president of the Philadelphia Modern Quilt Guild: "It’s very cool to see quilts in person again."

A survey released in 2020 by the Craft Industry Alliance estimated that quilting is a $4.2 billion annual business in the United States, where between nine million and 11 million people, 98% of them female and 65% retired, are active quilters. At the Extravaganza, quilts were arranged like paintings in a gallery, with handmade quilts, machine-quilted quilts, and long-arm quilts — some stitched on computerized machines — displayed next to title cards. There were "alphabet" quilts that use individual letters as design elements, art quilts featuring original images, geometric quilts, optical-illusion quilts, and quaint quilts that evoked Norman Rockwell.

Some quilts took on political or pop culture subjects, such as Joe Biden and Elvis Presley, respectively; an exhibit called "Black Threads" included two dozen quilts created by West Philly’s Christian Compassion Quilters. Overall, the show’s abundance of colors, shapes, textures, and subjects, as well as the exquisite detailing and precision craftsperson-ship on display, made the Extravaganza aesthetically pleasing, emotionally engaging, and fun.

"I watched the spectators pointing and saying, ‘Ooh, look at that,’" said Joye Hollingshed, a cofounder of the 30-member Christian Compassion group. It’s been around for nearly 20 years and meets at the church of the same name in West Philly’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood.

"It’s just so wonderful to know that people enjoy our work," said Hollingshed, 91, who created the exhibit’s signature quilt. Titled "Rejoice," it’s based on a painting by the artist Andre Thompson and depicts a stylized (and stylish) Black woman, in profile, at a moment of praise and worship.

Sheila Colson, a retired educator who has been part of the group for more than a decade, noted that Black quilters embody a tradition whose roots entwine with slavery and struggle. Quilts made by Black women from scraps of old clothing often became heirlooms that testified to a family’s resilience.

"Quilting can keep the history of our ancestors alive," Colson, 63, said. "African Americans should know our history. Every piece of it, down to the quilting."

Stitching layers of cloth together for warmth, either as garments or bed coverings, probably originated in the ancient Middle East and developed centuries later in Europe. The practice of collaborative quilting, or "quilting bees," began after 1800 in the United States and became identified with Amish and other rural American communities. A 1969 New Yorker magazine story about the rich tradition of quilting among Black women in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, drew national attention and helped the craft gain recognition as folk art and, eventually, fine art; the National Quilt Museum opened in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1991.

The COVID-induced shift from in-person quilt-making sessions to Zoom has been deeply felt across the quilting community, where the sociability and stimulation of quilting together can mean a lot, especially to older people. The pandemic’s impact also was reflected in the show, where "Quarantine Quilts" was the theme of an exhibit by the Main Line Quilters.

"People had a lot of time, obviously, and they made really intricate quilts," said member Abra Perrie, 48, a Realtor who lives in North Wales and is a member of the suburban Philadelphia guild.

Although based on a pattern called "Another Brick in the Wall," after the indelible Pink Floyd dirge, Perrie’s quilt depicts colorful stacks of masonry.

"I wanted a happy quilt," she said, citing what she wrote in its title card: "The concentration needed in creation of this quilt allowed me to briefly escape from the stresses of pandemic quarantine ... the bright colors of the fabric made both my children and me a little happier during the early dark days of the pandemic."

Other quilts at the show also made strong statements. The Philly Pie Chart quilt, by the Philadelphia Modern Quilt Guild, reimagines a map of the city as chunks of vividly hued fabric, hand-embroidered around the edges by phrases such as "end homelessness" and "reform police."

Devine, who’s among 2,800 members of the Men Who Quilt group on Facebook, said the pie chart quilt arose from Mural Arts Philadelphia’s "Stitching our Futures" project, which was centered around "reenvisioning" the city budget.

The guild was among a number of organizations participating in the project; after it was completed, 21 guild members made fabric blocks for a second version of the piece chart quilt. Designed by Nancy Arico, it was included along with two dozen other guild quilts in the show; Devine’s "Crystal Court" won a blue ribbon for best long-arm machine quilting in the innovative category.

Visiting the show, MacGown and Donahue — who was hard to miss in her sparkling cobalt blue cap — got a bit of celebrity treatment as a video crew and still photographers followed them around the expo center. Both said the experience was "first class all the way."

Webb Weiman, a veteran TV producer for "Project Runway" and other shows, was very much hands-on during the visit of the two quilters from New Hampshire, even picking them up at 30th Street Station in a rented minivan.

He founded My Jump in memory of his late father.

"We believe there are no bad bucket-list items," said Weiman, noting that one recent wish fulfillment involved a senior citizen who wanted to learn to drive a tractor-trailer in memory of her late husband. Next up: Two women from South Carolina who want to visit Shenandoah National Park in an RV.

Over the course of several conversations, MacGown and Donahue spoke about what the trip — and quilting — means to them.

Like the Compassionate Christian group, whose members donate between 50 and 100 quilts annually to children and senior citizens, the quilters of Concord, New Hampshire, also do a lot of charity work. And there are always family members and friends who could use a quilt.

"Every family should have a Christmas quilt," said Donahue, who likes to listen to the blues while she quilts.

Quilting is not just what they do. It’s an important part of who they are.

"I’m very fortunate. I can ‘read’ a quilt, meaning I can look at a quilt and figure out how it’s made. I can make whatever I see," said MacGown.

She works on her quilts with her wire-hair fox terrier, Molly, looking on. "She’s my quality control inspector," said MacGown, whose chatty blog can be found at MissMollyQuilts.com.

So what’s next?

"We’ll take a look at our fabrics," said Donahue, "and start something new."

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