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QUILTER PROFILE: Amanda Sherwin

Amanda Sherwin's quilting roots go deep into the midwestern farm life of her ancestors in Missouri and Illinois. Now an easterner by choice, and America Online Quilt Forum co-leader by happenstance, Amanda is also at the forefront of quilting's newest frontier in cyberspace.

About her quilting origins, Amanda says, "My Great-Great-Aunt Massie (Catherine Massa Farmer) died in the late 1930's. Somehow her unfinished quilt blocks wound up in my grandparents' house, and my mom and I found them in the 1970s. We each pieced a number of quilts together - 9 in total- which were then quilted by a local church guild, and given to all Aunt Massie's female descendents. (I kept the Old Maid's Puzzle pattern, which is on my bed.) That inspired me to take a quilting class, and I am using the pillow made in that class (1978) as a back brace. But at that point my interests were more crocheting and knitting, so I stopped quilting. I got to the point in knitting when I was designing my own patterns, but most of them were traditional quilt patterns, such as the Carolina Lily. I finally realized what I was doing and switched .

"Although Aunt Massie was the only documented female quilter in our family, quilting must have been a part of life on the Illinios and Missouri farms where my ancestors lived. One of my prized possessions is a quilt my Grandfather Steward made when he was 12, in 1900. My mom used it as a doll quilt, so it is worn and faded, but you can still see the ninepatch pattern and quilting stitches.

"My first quilt when I began again was for my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. After beginning a very complicated birds and trees top, I switched direction and decided to make a heritage quilt. Although the pattern was a very simple 12" block with straight sashing and four-patch corners, the quilting incorporated hand outlines from each of my parents' children and grandchildren. One of my brothers used his then two-year-old son to get Mom and Dad's hands too. In the border are quilted symbols of my parents' life and interests: camera, book, their church, club logos, caduceus for my doctor dad, etc. Even though I had no idea what I was getting into, the quilt was fully hand quilted and finished two weeks before the date :-D"

Quilt - 'Celestial Pond'Amanda says her own quilt design style is a bold one: "I like to make quilts that are visually exciting, that show movement, have strong colors and contrasts. Most of the designs are traditional patterns which have been updated, such as Fish and Frogs, fast double wedding ring (my current project), etc. Most say something about my life at that time. For example, I have a wall hanging made during a period of stress at work. 'Celestial Pond' is full of fish, frogs and flowers, bordered with star fabric. I hung it in my office so that whenever things got too hot, I could jump in my pond and cool off for a few minutes. It works!

"Much of my work has been gifts for others -- quillows, baby quilts. With all my past crafts, I realized that no one could ever recognize or appreciate the work I put into a gift, no matter how grateful they were. So when I make quilts for people, I try to create something that will have meaning to them, and that will be a challenge for me. That way, each gift is a gift of learning to myself, as well as something special for someone else."

Amanda says computers have both helped and hindered in her quilting life, though she doesn't appear to have any inclination to give them up: "One of the first ways computers enhanced my quilting was in the project for my parents. I was able to use computer clip art, such as a camera, print it out, and simplify it into a quilting pattern. I have just broken down and purchased a computer quilting program, including BlockBase, which is terrific. Early on, I subscribed to all the quilt maillists I could find. But as I've become more involved with the AOL forum, there just hasn't been time to keep up with the other groups.

"The volume of email that has to be answered is one way that computers have NOT enhanced my quilting life, but instead cut into it. Overall, though, the greatest benefit I've found from going online has been the many friends and acquaintances gained. What I love about the Quilt Forum, as well as other hobby groups I belong to, is the sense of community and sharing. It's been my privilege to meet some of these friends in 'real' life, too. Those meetings were special because we clearly knew each other; we weren't strangers at all. For someone like me, who's always been a little shy, meeting people online helps get over that slightly awkward stage."

Like many who begin online life innocently enough, Amanda found herself slowly being drawn deeper into the workings of the Quilting Forum. "I started on AOL when quilting was just a topic on the sewing area message board, and you had to go five levels down to find it. No wonder there were fewer than 200 quilters then; many of them had been online for several years. There was a wonderful camaraderie as we swapped ideas and fabric, and dreamed of having our own forum."

The development of the forum from an AOL afterthought into a full-blown presence on the world's largest online service, was a long process with many fits and starts. Amanda   is quick to point out that the forum has always had two leaders, with Betsy Brazy and Micki Mello  working closely with her to bring it to full fruition. She credits many others as well:

"Getting the forum was purely a group effort: Nancy Rosenblum started hosting superchats, Cathy Bauer started hosting regular chats and keeping counts till we got a time in the Hobby Shop, Linda Breshears and Mary Ann Harpe made several proposals to AOL, and many others participated in keeping the dream alive. During a message board brainstorming, we came up with the idea of making a quilt to celebrate AOL's 10th anniversary (see TVQ #1 for the story behind this quilt). I volunteered to contact their PR department, and by default became the contact to AOL. (It taught me that there are times when e-mail is not enough.) Betsy and I took the proposal Linda and Mary Ann had sent before, adapted it, and the third try was the charm.

"We became a forum on December 15, 1994, with a message board and library. The keyword allowed quilters to pour in. Micki and Cathy started a newsletter, the NinePatch News, and subscriptions soared from 200 to 2400 by April, 1995. We obtained a chat room in March, 1995, due largely to Cathy's consistent chat reports which showed strong attendance.

"In AOL's view at that time, volunteer hosts provided technical services: managing the message boards, virus checking library files before release, maintaining contact with AOL. Only a few forums, such as ours, had a strong sense of community, requiring leadership beyond technical expertise. In talking with other forum leaders, most have achieved leadership the same way we did: by volunteering to do one thing, which led to something else, which evolved into something bigger than we ever imagined.

"AOL is now more organized in its training and development of Forum leaders, primarily in reaction to the paid areas. But when Betsy and I started, there was no template, no training. We learned through our mistakes, as did everyone else. Much of our focus was on keeping pace with the area's growth, responding to the needs of the new and old cyberquilters, and justifying our continued existence to AOL, to ensure we could continue to get more space and resources.

"Overlaid on this was the effort to maintain that sense of community and camaraderie, to respond to the membership, and to create 'a cozy place for all quilters', as Betsy put it. Any group growing at that rate has internal struggles, and we had our share. I think the most difficult challenge for a forum leader, particularly in AOL's environment, is to provide space for the huge diversity of cybercitizens.

"The Quilt Forum debuted a new look and new areas in July of this year. The Forum staff actually began planning the area last October, and 'construction' began in November. Micki and I both trained to learn AOL's programming software, so that we could build each area.

"The new Forum is soooo much better: we have three message boards, devoted to Quilting Fun, Serious Quilting and Not Just Quilts. We have an online exhibit of quilts, and a separate area for each member's work. There are reference areas to help enhance the online experience, and links to quilt-related websites, including the newly remodeled Planet Patchwork.

"For me, the pleasure of being a forum leader lies in the fact that quilters all over the country can meet to share ideas, information, pictures, and have a flexible space that evolves to meet new needs. I enjoy the technical side of planning a new space, building it, adding to it. And I love meeting quilters from all over the country and world, getting to know them, seeing what they do.

"We now have nearly 4,000 quilters in the Forum, counted by active subscriptions to the NinePatch News. This gives us several challenges for the future. One has been, and continues to be, content. There's so much information about quilting available, and Micki and I are trying to bring it online."

Asked about her family life, Amanda says, "My DH, Bobby, is 24 years older than I. We met when his oldest son and I worked together at an advertising agency. We've now been married for 13 years, and have 9 grandchildren through his three grown sons. (The sons call me the Wicked Stepmother, the grandchildren call me Grandamanda.) We have two bassett hounds, Mr. Peabody and Cera, who are very dear, spoiled kids, as well as three cats.

"I recently left my job in Connecticut and we are moving to our vacation home in Southampton, New York. I grew up in St. Louis, but have lived on the East Coast for 20+ years and absolutely love it here, particularly the seashore. In addition to quilting, my hobbies are gardening, collecting matchsafes and early lighting (candles, lamps), and doing crossword puzzles."

Amanda's devotion to the quilting community at America Online over the last several years shows in the increasing stature that quilters on the service enjoy and the sense of fellowship which still prevails despite the explosive growth of AOL and the Quilt Forum. Quilters on AOL are a long way from their original place there, "five levels down."

 

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