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Video Review: The Great American Quilt Revival

 As you start up this DVD and get ready to select from its menu of choices, you are serenaded by jaunty but laid back Appalachian fiddle music straight out of the hills of North Carolina. This is pleasing and appropriate, reflecting as it does both the long residence of the Bonesteel family in Hendersonville, and the country roots of American quilting. But this film is a whole lot more than a nostalgic look back at pioneer quilting. It is the chronicle of how American quilting has emerged from its humble domestic origins to become a major art form and a world-wide economic phenomenon. 

Georgia Bonesteel, a pioneer in quilting television with her long-running “Lap Quilting with Georgia Bonesteel” on public broadcasting, and her son, Paul, have made the documentary that captures the quilting revival we have lived through during the last half of the 20th century. "The Great American Quilt Revival," originally made for PBS, has now been issued as a DVD which includes extra bonus footage, and it was the hit of last fall's Houston Quilt Market.  

With a total running time of nearly two hours (including extra footage), this documentary is a rich study, through the memories and perceptions of many of its primary shapers, of the sudden explosion of interest in quilting over the last 30 years. As it explores the factors that fueled this amazing cultural and artistic revolution, the video features such contemporary quilting luminaries as Jean Ray Laury, Cuesta Benberry, Yvonne Porcella, Barbara Brackman, Jinny Beyer, and Karey Bresenhan, musing on the ways a traditional and practical craft became transformed into high art -- and big business. 

The early part of the film explores the historical and cultural origins of quilts in America, and through an interview with art historian and author Jonathan Holstein, the origins of a groundbreaking quilt exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1971, entitled “Abstract Design in American Quilts.” Holstein has a wry sense of humor, and tells how he originally puckishly suggested “Up Against the Wall, You Mother’s Covers” as the title for the exhibit. Holstein theorizes that the uniquely American contribution to quilting, the artistic breakthrough idea, was the realization that quilt blocks could be used in groups to make overall geometric designs of great beauty.

As quilting grew more visible and popular, spurred on further by the 1976 Bicentennial celebration, the development of quilting magazines and television shows spread the gospel even further. Georgia Bonesteel’s own show on PBS was a breakthrough event, blazing the trail for many quilting shows to come over the next three decades.  

Jean Ray Laury, looking back, also sees an important impact of quilting on the social and economic lives of women. The quilting revolution, as it spread, gave women permission and showed them a way to break out of their routines as homemakers and mothers, and make time for their own creative endeavors. Repeating the popular adage “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” Laury points to the important role quilting played in the liberation of women into more self-fulfilling realms. 

Related to this is the further development of quilting as a business – these days, big business. A key to this story is the celebration in the documentary of the life and accomplishments of Marie Webster. As early as 1911, Marie Webster single-handedly created and marketed her quilting patterns and kits, and created one of the first large-scale quilting businesses, “The Practical Patchwork Company.” She also wrote the very first book about quilts, “Quilts, Their Story and How to Make Them,” in 1915, which set the how-to standard and led the way for many, many books to follow. It is Marie Webster’s house in Marion, Indiana, that has become the home of the Quilting Hall of Fame. 

The effects of technology on quilting are also explored in “The Great American Quilt Revival.” Major quilt show organizers Karey Bresenham and Meredith Schroeder recall how early quilt shows disqualified machine-quilted entries, but point out how this has changed, especially with the advent of the long-arm quilting machine. “To the eye,” Bresenham says, “[machine quilting] has almost become the standard. They are just beautiful quilts.”  

The styles and impacts of ethnic quilting, the growth of the Paducah and Houston shows, the AIDs memorial quilt, the quilting response to 9/11 and to the Iraq War, are all part of the comprehensive story this documentary tells. Especially moving is the interview with Jinny Beyer, who tells the story of her own 9/11 memorial quilt, and of the loss of a good friend in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon that day.  

“The Great American Quilt Revival” concludes by featuring the Quilting Hall of Fame, its contemporary inductees, and the dedication of its new headquarters in Marion, Indiana, which was donated by Marie Webster’s family as a permanent home for the organization.

All of this dazzling history has been artfully blended by Bonesteel Films into a riveting narrative that chronicles the journey not only of American pioneers but of the women who led the way for those who followed to become artists and businesspeople, and to extend the reach and influence of quilting. Supplementing the main video is an extended interview with Georgia Bonesteel about her own life, quilting, and the making of the film, a half-dozen other bonus interviews with film contributors, two tours of quilt shows, and more about the Quilting Hall of Fame. The ultimate “chick flick,” this is a great addition to your personal or guild video library.

The Great American Quilt Revival is available at the Planet Patchwork store.

(c) Copyright 1995-2012 by The Virtual Quilt Company. All rights reserved.

 


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