In the Society of Quilters

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This story was originally published in the August/September 2014 Issue of Chattanooga Magazine. 

The art of quilting dates back many centuries, perhaps even to the Middle Ages and beyond when quilting methods were used to provide comfort and warmth in garments. Quilting in what is now the United States began out of necessity with the colonists. Quilt tops were pieced together from worn out clothing, sewn together with other layers of fabric for warmth and used as blankets, window coverings, floor mats and more. Yet even in these humble, utilitarian beginnings, quilts were far from ordinary.

“Quilters were the original recyclers – making something new and useful out of something old and worn out. But these women weren’t just recycling; they were creating works of art. Even though they were cutting out of old dresses and shirts, they were using the most beautiful parts of the fabric and piecing them together in the most beautiful ways. Quilting has always been art,” says Kim Thomas, owner of Chattanooga Quilts on Main Street in Ooltewah to share the art with others.

Thomas’ plan to open her shop grew out of a love of quilting and a desire to share the art with others. Three years ago the elements of family timing and location came together and she was able to see her plans come to fruition. In the 1930’s a pharmacy occupied the space that now houses Chattanooga Quilts in Ooltewah’s Main Street historic district. The shop’s elegant tin roof, vintage wood flooring and floor-to-ceiling shelves are all original to the space.

“A lot of women will come in just to see the shop. Many of them tell me they got ice cream here as a child. It’s so fun for them to be able to come in and craft now,” says Thomas.

Steve and Melanie Coakley demonstrate programming a quilting machine at their East Ridge shop, Ready, Set, Sew, where customers gather for classes.

Steve and Melanie Coakley demonstrate programming a quilting machine at their East Ridge shop, Ready, Set, Sew, where customers gather for classes.

The shop’s nostalgic ambiance lends itself well to the shop’s traditional focus. The tagline “Where Tradition Meets Inspiration” seems to fit both the shop’s offerings and its customers. Thomas stocks her displays with a variety of fabrics from historical prints to more modern patterns to satisfy a wide range of customers. It is obvious though, with its large selection of 1930’s sackcloth reproductions and choices of Civil War fabrics and patterns, the store caters to the more traditional quilter.

“We’re not as much into the modern movement here because there are other shops in town that do that well. I feel that there will always be a large interest in traditional quilting because women have quilted throughout our country’s history and even before that. People will continue to look back and want to recreate the look and feel of historical quilts,” says Thomas. Fortunately Thomas and her staff, and a few of her regular customers, are on hand to guide both newbies and veterans alike through the process.

“Everyone who works here is a quilter. We consider ourselves to be a full service quilt shop. Not only can we design a quilt, but we know how to pick out fabrics and colors and do the math to determine how much fabric is needed for each quilt. For someone who is just starting out in the quilting world, I will simply ask them to point out something they like. I watch as they pick out fabrics. Then I can help guide them to the variety of pattern colors and sizes that will make a good mix,” says Thomas.

She is, however, very careful to let her customers do the choosing. “It’s not my quilt. It is their quilt and it will have their personality. That’s really the beauty of quilting. Each quilt, like any work of art, has its own unique personality,” says Thomas. She enjoys the social aspect of quilting as much as she does the artistic side of it and thrives on the store’s energy when customers are sharing ideas.

Many customers bring back finished pieces to show them off and have their picture taken to be featured in a “Sew and Show” on Facebook. At the shop’s Sit and Sew gatherings on Thursday evenings, Thomas provides coffee and cookies for anyone who wants to come in and chat.

“Quilters love to work together. There is and always has been a real social aspect to the craft. As women, we are hard wired to create. We come up with these beautiful creations but they don’t mean anything unless we are able to share them,” says Thomas.

Steve and Melanie Coakley of Ready Set Sew in East Ridge specialize in modern quilt designs. Unusual and artistic fabrics are often used in their Block of the Month morning classes and Beyond the Basics evening classes. The shop also sells sewing machines by elna, Janome and baby lock, as well as state-of-the art quilting and embroidery machines.

“The quilting community here in Chattanooga and the entire country is booming,” says Melanie. “It’s a big deal.” Both the Coakleys and Thomas say that in any given week, they have numerous customers from other states and countries stop by to see their shops. They are excited about Chattanooga being chosen to host the American Quilter’s Society’s AQS QuiltWeek show for the next three years.

embroidered-squares“I don’t think Chattanoogans realize what a large show this is,” adds Melanie. The Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau projects there will be 20,000 visitors per year adding an estimated $30,000 economic impact over the next three years. On selecting Chattanooga to host the show, Executive Show Director Bonnie Browning says, “When we looked at Chattanooga, we felt their facilities were a perfect fit for our show. We were impressed with the city’s thriving and vibrant arts scene, museums, galleries, and all the other activities throughout the city. We are looking forward to a great time in Chattanooga.”

In preparation for the American Quilters Society convergence in Chattanooga, the Creative Discovery Museum worked with local quilting guild Grateful Threads last spring to present a quilting experience for children and families. The squares they created were assembled by guild members and worked into two quilts: a 30”x30” quilt and a 40”x64” inch quilt.

Both quilts will hang at the museum the entire month of September as part of a quilt exhibition called Quilting With Kids. The exhibit will also showcase quilts made by area quilters. There will be an opening reception on Thursday, September 11 from 6 pm until 7:30 pm and light refreshments will be served.

Chattanooga Workspace will also sponsor a show during the week of the expo. Local quilters will have the opportunity to display their works and Workspace resident artists will be working on quilt themed artwork in their own variety of mediums.

For centuries, quilts have provided a means to warm our homes and our hearts. They have served as a canvas to record family history and wrap us in cherished memories. These masterpieces have decorated our houses and become family heirlooms. It is obvious with the energy and interest still surrounding the craft today, that quilting is certainly not a lost art.

Story by Tara Williams
Photography by Deborah Petticord

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  1. Pingback: In the Society of Quilters – Chattanooga Magazine | Unilty

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