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Posted on Thu. Jan. 24, 2013 - 12:07 am EDT

Threads of tradition

Sisters of the Cloth keep quilting alive in black community

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•To learn more about the group, go to or call Maxine Stovall at 312-2323.

Maxine Stovall remembers that the first time she came to a Sisters of the Cloth quilting group meeting, she didn’t even know how to use a sewing machine.

“I spent like 45 minutes just trying to thread it,” the Fort Wayne woman confesses. “I didn’t know you could pop open the front and it had a diagram right there.”

Stovall became interested in quilting when a friend invited her to her home for a business meeting. Quilts were hanging over a railing, and Stovall was enthralled. She asked the woman, Sandra Brothers, if she could teach her to quilt.

“No,” Brothers said, “but I know who can.”

She pointed Stovall to the group, formed in 1999 by seven Fort Wayne women who had met at a local quilt exhibit.

Now Stovall, wearing a T-shirt with the group’s name on the front and “Each One Teach One” on the back, is heading the organization, which has grown to about 40 members. The women work on their own and charity-related group quilting projects and teach area schoolchildren how to sew and quilt.

Sisters of the Cloth has exhibited at the Indiana State Fair, and last year the organization was chosen by the Traditional Arts Indiana program to represent the Hoosier state at the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

“(The festival is) a preeminent event in the world,” says Jon Kay, director of Traditional Arts Indiana, a partnership between Indiana University in Bloomington and the Indiana Arts Council. Organizers were interested in the group because members “pass on the tradition of quilting in the African-American community,” he says.

“When you think of Indiana and the arts, you might not think of black quilters, but it’s a long-standing and vibrant community,” he explains. “There are (other) primarily black quilt guilds, and there are white groups and integrated quilting groups as well. But I think the difference is the Sisters of the Cloth have a commitment to African-American aesthetics and creativity, as well as history and the building up of the community.”

At a recent group meeting at the Allen County Public Library’s Hessen Cassel branch, several members from Fort Wayne displayed their work during a session members call “Sew and Tell.”

One member, Metrice Smith, showed a quilt she made for her grandson using T-shirts he got for participating in activities at Bishop Luers High School. Another, Martha Peterson, displayed a rainbow-colored, three-dimensional bowtie pattern.

To a chorus of “oohs” and “ahs,” Frances Campbell unfolded a quilt she is making for her son’s wedding. The quilt features a blue-and-white wedding-ring pattern of interlocked circles with the words of the couple’s vows embroidered in white thread on some of the pieces.

“I’ve noticed that a lot of people tend to use lots of bold patterns and bright colors, vibrant colors,” says Stovall, when asked what makes quilts made by blacks distinctive from other American quilts. “And we tend to use a lot of ethnic-patterned fabric, and some have used African fabric.”

A block-of-the-month quilt, in which members make foot-square blocks of smaller pieces that are ultimately assembled into a larger quilt, illustrated her point. The blocks included fabrics in bright greens, golds, oranges and browns, with patterns inspired by giraffes, African cats and tropical plants.

Members have diverse quilting interests. Some like to do reproduction quilts – quilts that replicate antique quilts made by blacks or traditional American patterns. Some do contemporary styles, while others work on smaller projects, such as wall hangings, purses or aprons.

All of the group’s founders – Denise Jordan, Helen Stewart, Amy Powell, Jaquei Seals, Campbell, Michelle Williams and Bertha McLemore – are still active quilters and attend meetings, which move among Allen County Public Library branches and usually include a potluck lunch and time to work on projects.

Unlike in some quilting groups, the women don’t sit around a frame at meetings and hand-stitch their quilts. Most do machine quilting, says Stovall, who has now made between 35 and 50 quilts.

She’s given some to family members and donated others to fundraisers for St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Fort Wayne. “And I have one on every bed in the house,” she says.

Member Kathy Muhammad of Fort Wayne confesses that she’s not much interested in traditional bed quilts. Instead, she does pictorial quilts, both of her own design and from patterns.

Two of which she’s most proud are portraits of her late grandmother, Elizabeth Crumes, and her mother, Irma Powell of Fort Wayne, who is shown in her graduation gown – “She went back to school when she was 68,” Muhammed says proudly.

“I come from a family of quilters, but I never wanted to quilt,” adds Muhammad, who’s been at the craft about five years. “I made clothes, and then transitioned back to quilting. I made a bed quilt. But then I saw these art quilts and said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ”

Some of the women – and young protégés who are learning to quilt with them during sessions at L.C. Ward Education Center – are now working on baby and children’s quilts and other items that will be sold at a Feb. 1 fundraiser at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. The event is being organized by Williams, a hospital employee, and will benefit the Riley Children’s Foundation.

Upcoming projects include making quilted ornaments for the 2013 Festival of Trees and turning the pages of a guest book from the Smithsonian festival into a quilt.

At the festival, members did a bed-turning, a tradition in which quilters pile a bed high with quilts and turn them down, one by one, while telling stories about their making, their fabrics, their inspiration or history.

Because generations of blacks were not educated to read or write, the tradition was important for preserving family history, especially the stories of women.

“The stories would be lost if you didn’t do that,” Stovall says. “A lot of the quilts I have at home, my mom or grandmother had made or had gotten from ancestors of theirs. The stories are important, and I can pass all that down through their handiwork.”

Kay says the bed-turning at the Smithsonian festival was well received.

“It was by far one of the most popular programs of the festival, basically because of the storytelling,” he says, adding that the participating quilters were able to visit with another black quilting group in the D.C. area and place some stitches into the AIDS memorial quilt.

Sisters of the Cloth have “maintained a commitment to teaching the next generation,” Kay says. “It’s an interesting group, and it was a whole lot of fun to hang out with them for a few days.”

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