For two days they came, the young and old, to view over 200 colorful quilts of different styles, from traditional to modern. There was a lot to see, but the stories behind the quilts were just as interesting as the stars of the show.

Jeanette Gregory, a member and past-president of the Piece and Plenty Quilt Guild was speculating. She was trying to encapsulate the longevity of interest in the art of quilting at the group’s Ozark Festival of Quilts, held this past weekend at Rolla Middle School. For two days they came, the young and old, to view over 200 colorful quilts of different styles, from traditional to modern. Adding to the event were many vendors who offered quilting materials. Piece and Plenty Guild classes demonstrated old and new techniques of the craft.

Why  the latest seemingly booming interest in the craft? Jeanette surmises it may be the simplicity of the art form that can scale to levels only limited by the imagination. Take a utility object like a cotton blanket used for warmth on a cool night, and dress it up with colorful cotton scraps and thread patterns. It may be simply decorative or it might hold a deeper intrinsic meaning, reminiscent of connections to family or community ties. The learning curve and a willing group of quilters to show others how it’s done is attractive to both beginners and experts.

But you may be missing out if you attend a quilt show just to look at quilts, like pretty pictures in frames in a museum. This art form is something different. Even to an untrained eye, one can sense the work and talent involved—the fabric selection, the color scheme, style, the varied techniques such as applique to add texture and paper piecing for exact cuts and sewing skill, all add up to a cohesive piece that can make you smile and contemplate in wonder. To understand the art of quilting and the people who do it is like peeling back the layers of a well-papered wall. It’s exciting to see the pattern-behind-the-pattern.

Jeanette’s interest in quilting hides undercurrents of love and affection for not only the art form but the bonded friendships she has forged with other quilters for decades. One of her quilts titled “The Grand Old Flag,” was on display, and with it, a special story. It was a traditional-style quilt with red, white and blue flag blocks within cream-colored frames, set off by blue shades and patterns on the background.
At a quilting retreat, Jeanette was recovering from shoulder surgery and couldn’t sew. She said member Liz Rowden suggested they do a block exchange. A block is  a miniature scene, simple or complex that is made from fabric that might be an 8 or 10 inch square. It might have incorporated folds of different colored fabric, just pieces stitched together or as an applique and then stitched on the block backing. A block exchange is a group project where everyone gets to pick their own colors out of a selection of fabrics within a color scheme, so no two blocks will be alike, but the colors are similar. The “blocks” are then sewn in a pattern on what will be a full-sized quilt.

Member Cynthia Felts wanted to help Jeanette. “Cynthia said, ‘Give me your block [pieces], so by the time your surgery is finished, you’ll be able to start putting them together.’ Because of her kindness and allowing me to be a part of that little activity, my [physical] therapist was tickled.” Through 21 weeks of therapy, she was sewing just a little bit each day and she attributes her recovery success to the daily arm movement she engaged in while sewing.
“She (Cynthia) was my little angel, because she got me to the point where I could join in [on the project],” said Jeanette. “I give many of my quilts away, but I won’t give up this one.” Memories. “That is why a label is so important,” she explained, showing a stitched label with description sewn on the back.”

Wendy Howell was born in England and she’s one of the earliest members of the Piece and Plenty Quilt Guild that started in 1986. Joyce Darr, one of the founding members was her teacher. One of her quilts on display was what is called a “log cabin sampler,” a traditional quilt. “All of my blocks are hand pieced,” she noted proudly, thinking back to the date the quilt was made as a beginner, when she was a younger woman.

One of the more striking (and humorous) quilts at the show was a large purple elephant that was put together with shades of purple that gave the elephant an abstract look, but still, very much a recognizable elephant. At it’s feet was a tiny gray mouse. “My great-granddaughter was two in June,” said Yvonne Meloy. “Her room has a jungle theme, so we have an elephant. We spent the whole day picking out the colors—it was an arduous job.”
The quilt was 60” X 60” so it took roughly four yards of material for the elephant.
“It’s paper-pieced,” she added.

Gana Harris from St. James won three awards for her quilt entries. Her quilts are hand-pieced and hand-quilted, as opposed to using sewing machines for those processes. “Quilting” refers to the somewhat usually understated, but beautiful, patterned stitching that holds the cotton material backing, to the designed front. Gana has been a guild member for seven years and she credits her grandmother for getting her started. Gana has a creative story to tell about all of her quilts and even if the pattern comes from a commercial source, she will change it to make it fit a personal narrative—something she admires or something relating to her family, such as a Route 66 quilt that shows a 1960’s-era Cobra her husband is restoring.
(Read more about Gana and see a prize-winning quilt of hers in Thursday’s RDN St. James section).

Rolla native May Black won several first places for her large, pieced quilt category. Colorful and striking might best describe her quilts. Her “Vintage Rose” quilt won the Festival’s Viewer’s Choice award, that was voted on by quilt show visitors, as well as second place in the category. Two other entries of hers placed first. “I just like bright, vivid colors,” said May.
She uses the “paper piece” method. It’s basically sewing onto a paper pattern and once sewn, the paper is removed.
“It’s how you get really precise points,” she said. May travels the country teaching the paper piece technique credited as “the Judy Niemeyer Method.”

The Piece and Plenty Ozark Quilt Show was greater than the sum of its parts—the quilts themselves. They told stories, some are strikingly colorful and others are muted, some were made in solitary quietness and others were constructed with lots of conversation with dear friends, never to be forgotten.

“I can’t tell you what an astounding feeling it is, to start something out of little pieces, watch it grow, and then hand it to somebody—and [later] they’ll say ‘grandma made this’ or ‘your sister made this,’” said Jeanette Gregory. “It empowers you with enthusiasm, self-esteem, and I think when they talk about “the arts,” it’s more than just the arts, more than the fellowship—it’s helping each member find their little niche in life.”