Since the mid-19th century, quilting bees have been a way for women to come together to sew, share ideas and socialize. The practice became less popular in the modern era, as interest in sewing waned, but bees have enjoyed a resurgence of late, thanks in part to social media, legions of DIYers and a modern quilting movement.
The quilting bee’s latest incarnation began a few years ago when young quilters started using Facebook, Twitter, blogs and picture-sharing sites like Instagram to post innovative designs that broke the traditional rules of quilts.
Precise, block-style patterns that were typically placed in uniform grids transformed into more modern quilts that feature bold new fabric designs in eye-catching colors, lots of negative space, waves and circles, and intentionally wonky-cut pieces sewn together in inventive formations.
As the modern movement took off, online quilting bees inspired quilters to follow new patterns and share their work online. Mini-quilts, mug rugs and other small projects were “swapped” through the mail among people who never met.
Eventually, this new generation of quilters wanted to meet in person, craving the social atmosphere people enjoy at face-to-face quilting bees. So in 2009, the Modern Quilt Guild was formed and held its first annual meeting, QuiltCon, in 2013.
Today more than 170 local guilds comprise the Modern Quilt Guild; the Triangle has its own chapter.
Its members include some men but mostly are women who range in age from their 20s to 60s. Some are stay-at-home moms; others work full-time or are retired. Some are hobbyists, but many are sewing professionals who participate in the guild as a way to carve out time to sew for fun. Some of the people who meet for monthly guild meetings in Raleigh have been sewing for decades; others are just getting started.
But they all share enthusiasm for a quilting movement that knows no boundaries.
“It’s not your grandmother’s quilting anymore,” said Cathy Kirk, a professional longarm machine quilter in Cary and member of the Triangle chapter. Modern quilting, she said, “is anything you want to do.”
Breaking the rules
“Anything” often means breaking traditional quilting rules.
At a recent meeting, guild board member Valerie Luberecki encouraged the 25 or so women in attendance to try improv piecing, which, she said, was an important element of modern quilting.
“There is a lot of precision and use of rulers in what we quilt that help us make points and squares,” she said. “This is completely opposite of what quilters are used to. There is no right or wrong. Just see what happens. Let’s play.”
Luberecki showed the women how to rough-cut shapes with scissors, to use a rotary cutter to create gentle wavy lines, then sew the mismatched pieces together. Soon, small groups were gathered around the sewing machines throughout the room, watching each other experiment with the improv concept.
Learning new techniques is what brings people like Patty Dudek of Cary to the meetings.
“Two or three meetings ago, somebody shared information about needle-turn applique,” she said, referring to a more traditional way to sew smaller fabric shapes to a larger piece of fabric. “I never would have done that without coming to this guild. I watched other people do it and it turned out to be really cool.”
Amanda Gilmore of Haw River started quilting about a year ago and was attending her first Modern Quilt Guild meeting. “I wanted to learn more things I haven’t had exposure to,” she said. And she wanted to meet people. “Especially people who quilt.”
Bringing people together
Throughout the year, the guild brings people together through day-long workshops and weekend retreats, swap projects where members are encouraged to create and share projects with each other, and fabric exchanges. In one case, each person was asked to bring in a yard of fabric in a color from the rainbow, cut into 56 5-inch squares. The squares were then distributed equally among everyone.
“You end up with a stack of fabric from what everybody donated,” said Laura Poole of Durham. “It can be really nice.”
Because being charitable is an important part of the national guild’s mission, the members of the Triangle Modern Quilt Guild also work together on projects throughout the year to benefit a local charity of their choice.
This year, the national organization challenged each chapter to create a quilt to be displayed at their national meeting. The color palette included blues, pinks, grays and yellows. The theme was scale. Guild members voted on the design, then volunteered to make blocks, quilt and bind the quilt. When it was returned from QuiltCon, which took place in Savannah, Ga., in late February, it was given to a foster child in Durham County.
Building a sense of community
Quilting together – whether on a charity project, at a guild class or in small quilting bees that pop up at someone’s home or a local library – builds a sense of community, said Michelle Wilkie, the guild’s outgoing president. And it’s that desire for community that keeps guilds and quilting bees so popular.
“We try to build on that community every year,” she said.
As they develop, the gatherings often become more than just sewing.
“It’s about what’s going on in the family,” she said. “We bounce ideas off each other. It doesn’t have to be about quilting once you build that community.”
Modern Quilt Guild
The Modern Quilt Guild meets 3-5 p.m. on the second Sunday of every month at the Harrington Grove Swim and Racquet Club in Raleigh. The next meeting will take place March 12. For information, go to facebook.com/TriangleMQG.