tampabay.com

It's anything but square

Quilting is far from passe. A Brandon guild creates quilts to depict Florida life.

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
Published April 28, 2006


BRANDON - The other day while browsing in a consignment store, an antique quilt caught my eye. Carnation-pink and white, it was stitched in a grid of small diamonds that formed a larger pattern of delicate, geometric squares.

Rows of pink fabric ribboned around the edges, creating a pretty, feminine confection that I imagined covering a feather bed somewhere around the turn of the 19th century.

I paid $75 for it, a small fortune on a writer's income, but cheap by quilt standards - one draped over a sofa in a recent issue of Country Living was priced at $1,000. The dealer told me that my fraying and slightly stained beauty was more than 100 years old, handmade, and in need of some repairs.

"You won't find a machine stitch on it," she said with pride.

I am a longtime collector of quilts, both old and new, of family heirlooms and those lovingly pieced together by anonymous hands. Quilts have always added a deeply personal touch to every home I've ever lived in. Antique quilts sewn with scraps of worn dresses, even new quilts patterned with cheery tropical fabric, warm my rooms far more than those ubiquitous chenille throws.

Folded over the back of a wicker chair or stacked in an open wardrobe cabinet, they add color and texture, and they make cool bed coverings on balmy Tampa nights.

After moving back to my native Florida from the Midwest, I thought that quilting was a dying art, one best left to aging farm women, presumably the last gatekeepers to this arcane handiwork.

How wrong I was.

A Florida quilt guild Web site (www.quiltguilds.com/florida.htm) lists dozens of groups in Florida, including many in our area.

Today, one of the strongest of those guilds, the Brandon Piecemakers Quilt Guild (now 140 members strong), will unveil its annual "Challenge" quilts, an array of brightly colored, amazingly creative and beautiful quilts depicting life in Florida.

The Florida quilts will be displayed in a private gathering of the 20 or so members who took part in the contest, which upholds such a tradition of secrecy that quilters submit their creations in brown paper bags.

"It's really kept a secret until everyone gets to see them," said guild member Kathy Coryn. "And then it's like Christmas because they're all so different, and it's fun to find out who made each one."

The Brandon Piecemakers, well over a decade old and made up mostly of women (there's one male member), meet the second Monday of every month at First United Methodist Church of Brandon. Throughout the year, they hold workshops with local and national instructors, an annual bus trip to the Jacksonville Quilt Fest and regular quilting bees at members' homes.

"I just like fabric - I've been sewing since I was 6," said Coryn, who made her first quilt for a niece 27 years ago. "My mom taught me to sew, and I've still got her Singer Featherweight sewing machine, something a lot of quilters treasure."

The challenge posed to members this year was to create quilts depicting Florida past, present and future, said guild member Jayne Torres.

Contestants were each given a scrap of fabric - in a bold yellow, batiklike pattern - and instructed to somehow work it into their quilt. Quilts couldn't be bigger than 40 by 40 inches or smaller than 12 by 12 inches.

"The women take this very seriously," Torres said.

This year's Florida quilts, she added, are nothing short of fabulous: Brightly detailed scenes of the state are splashed like sunshine on the fronts of every quilt. One woman stitched an illuminated spaceship at Cape Kennedy at night into her masterpiece; another depicted an underwater scene at SeaWorld Orlando with beads and fish and coral; another quilted an all-wool buccaneer ship and embellished it with citrus blossoms and strawberries.

"The Challenge makes you stretch and grow and have fun," said Pat Gispert, a guild member who created a quilt based on the type of piecing used by the Seminole Indians.

Gispert, who grew up in the original community of Bloomingdale, is a native Floridian whose paternal grandmother migrated to Plant City in the 1930s. Her grandmother was a quilter of "utilitarian" quilts, useful "on cold nights," she said.

Gispert and her husband still sleep under quilts every night, quilts made by both her grandmothers as well as her own hands. "They really are comfortable," she said.

Cozy warm in the winter, cool in the summer, any quilt lover will tell you. And perfect on most Florida nights.

TO LEARN MORE

The Brandon Piecemakers Quilt Guild meets from 7 to 9 p.m. the second Monday of every month at First United Methodist Church of Brandon, 120 Knights Ave., north of State Road 60. Annual dues are $20. For more information about the Guild or the Florida "Challenge" quilts, call Jayne Torres at 651-4468.