Quilter uses technology to transform outcomes of long-time hobby

Published 1:00 pm Sunday, March 24, 2019

Before stepping foot on Elaine Hart’s property, visitors get a hint at what they might see behind the door to her workspace. Outside her home and a ways down the driveway is a sign, decorated like a quilt block of red, white and blue shapes in a star pattern edged with a geometric border.

Inside her studio, a similar quilt — this one the size of a coaster — hangs on the refrigerator. Hanging from magnets next to it, thank-you cards from a few children’s hospitals in the Twin Cities showcase how much people appreciate the quilts she stitches together and then donates.

Hart has quilted for 39 years. She was pregnant with her first child and saw a pattern for a cute baby blanket. She said she bought the panels and put the quilt together.

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Before buying the longarm machine she uses now, she pieced and tied her quilts. But one of her girlfriends got a longarm machine, and Hart would take her quilts to her to have them finished.

“And then I started looking into getting one, because golly,” Hart said. “Why should she have all the fun?”

The longarm machine is computerized, and she can choose to lean on that computer as much or as little as she likes when quilting. Hart will sew the quilt front together with a sewing machine, but after she puts the bunting between the front and the backing, the longarm machine stitches designs into the quilt, which also sews the layers together.

“That’s what this does is put the quilt sandwich together,” Hart said.

The quilts she is able to make with the longarm machine seem nicer, Hart said, with a more professional look and a longer hold. She can free-hand a design, then clean it up in the computer program before it gets stitched onto the quilt. She can also save designs so she has them to come back to for future quilts. Hart also purchases some quilting designs, like the one she used to stitch a 108-inch-by-108-inch flower quilt dyed in a pastel rainbow ombre.

“The machine does a lot of the work,” she said.

With it, she said she gained the confidence to quilt for other people. Though she had done some for others before, they were simpler.

“I think some of the stuff that comes out of it is pretty spectacular,” she said.

One such quilt is a large depiction of a lion’s face, for which Hart said she won a ribbon at the Freeborn County Fair.

After seeing a picture of the quilt again, fair judge Betsy Munroe said she remembers it as unusual and noteworthy — “hence the purple ribbon,” she said in an email.

“The pattern was interesting, fabric choice was good, good piecing,” she said.

The quilt will go to an auction for Shiriners Healthcare for Children – Twin Cities in the spring, and money raised will be used to buy wheelchairs, Hart said.

Hart estimated that approximately 60 to 70 percent of the quilts she makes are commissioned pieces. The vast majority of her customers come in with a quilt top and ask her to quilt it with her longarm machine — “which is where I put the pretties on it,” Hart said.

This process usually takes between eight and 10 days, she said.

Hart also makes T-shirt quilts, which she said take her about three weeks.

While she occasionally will make a full quilt for a person, that can be a challenge, she said. The best option is for customers to know what they want and to buy their own fabric so Hart knows what the customer wants, she said.

She said she likes having technology on her side to quilt.

“There’s lots of improvements since Grandma was doing it,” she said.

She also likes the faster timeline.

“I need instant gratification,” she said. “I couldn’t possibly take nine months to do a quilt.”

While she tries to do just one quilt at a time, Hart said it is typical for her to have three quilts in progress at any given time. When there is a gap in a current project — or if she just needs a break — she may start on another one.

For Hart, who is retired, quilting started as a hobby.

“Otherwise, I can’t imagine how long the days go,” she said.

She said she likes that she can share that hobby with other people, and participates in bus trips, retreats and quilting clubs. They serve as good places to exchange thoughts.

That is how the Hawaiian shirt quilt she made ended up with a little tie embellishment on one of the quilted mock button-downs.

“Everybody’s always got a better — or different — idea,” she said.

She enjoys the construction of a quilt, and recently, with machine in hand, she has begun to enjoy the challenge, she said.

“For me, it’s just fun,” Hart said.

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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