Quilting Evolves Into An American Art Form

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Dorothy Tatsch wants you to know she doesn't go dumpster diving on a regular basis, but the one time she did, she struck pay dirt, so to speak.

"When my marriage ended in 1972, I moved into a large apartment community in the Wilshire Miracle Mile area of Los Angeles," Tatsch recalled. "As circumstances would have it, my assigned parking space was right next to the dumpster.

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Dorothy Tatsch, Marlla Hinds and Marlene Bonney (left to right) admire one of the quilts featured in "Quilting Beneath the Rim," a new exhibit at the Rim Country Museum. Once a necessity, quilting has evolved into a passion. "It's almost like an addiction," Tatsch said. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is $3 for adults; $2.50 for seniors, 55 and older; $2 for students, 12 to 17; and free for those 11 and younger. The museum is in Green Valley Park.

"As I was moving my meager possessions in, I noticed the dumpster was piled high with the unwanted stuff of an outgoing tenant. Hanging dejectedly from the cast-off pile was a quilt."

Needing a blanket, Tatsch took the quilt out of the dumpster and had it cleaned. Then she had it appraised.

"(The appraiser) identified the fabric and everything in it as circa 1870," Tatsch said. "It's hand-quilted and hand-sewn and I treasure it. I've used it for over 30 years."

Tatsch's dumpster treasure is one of many historic and recent quilts now on display in a new exhibit at the Rim Country Museum. "Quilting Beneath the Rim" was made possible by the efforts of the Shoofly Quilters of Payson working with a grant from the Tucson Quilters Guild.

"In this exhibit, we hope to present the many forms of this utilitarian function that has evolved to become an American art from," Sharesse von Strauss, director of the Northern Gila County Historical Society said.

In a book about the exhibit that can be purchased in the museum gift shop, von Strauss explains that the practice of quilting was initially brought to the United States by European immigrants.

"The purpose of the quilt ... was to provide warmth during long, cold winters," von Strauss said.

But quilting served other functions for early pioneers, according to von Strauss.

"It was a time for women to be able to gather together to accomplish a needed task for the general welfare of the community," she said.

The social aspect of quilting appealed to pioneer women who often lived some distance from one another in an era without telephones and other conveniences.

"A lot of the ladies had rocking chairs that folded flat, and the purpose of that was to put them in the back of the wagon so when they went to quilt they'd all have their own chairs and they'd sit around a big frame and quilt," Shoofly Quilter Marlla Hinds said, "My grandmother used to do that."

It is the design of quilts that gives them their uniqueness and elevates some to the status of art.

"The design might commemorate a special occasion such as the birth of a child, a wedding, a holiday or one of the four seasons," von Strauss said.

The quilting exhibit tells many stories, "providing an extraordinary window into the very private lives of many of these individuals."

Hinds is especially excited about an older quilt made entirely from men's trousers.

"I can look at this and I can see the trousers," she said. "My grandmother had nine children and you don't go out and buy blankets. She used fabrics from shirts or dresses or whatever was around."

One of the newer quilts on display, "Voices of the Past," was made by Alyce Leach of Payson. It features fabrics that are reproductions from the Civil War era.

Individual blocks depict the underground railroad; Coxey's Camp, where a group of unemployed men protested during the depression; Abraham Lincoln's presidential campaign platform; and "Tippecanoe & Tyler Too" from William Henry Harrison's campaign slogan.

During the six months the exhibit is scheduled to run, many of the quilts on display will be rotated out and replaced by others.

"They will be changed every two to three months," Hinds said.

Eventually quilts were replaced by manufactured blankets and the practice died off during the early to mid-1890s. But the United States bicentennial celebration brought a resurgence of quilting in the 1970s that continues to this day.

"It's something that bites you like a bug," Shoofly Quilter Marlene Bonney said.

"It's almost like an addiction," added Tatsch. "The quilt store on the Beeline Highway next to Back to Basics has just enlarged for the third time in the two-and-a-half years they've been in business, and they have a lot of women who take classes."

Why, in an era when people barely have time to eat, has quilting become a multi-billion dollar industry?

"For me, I'm making quilts for my grandchildren and it's a gift of the heart," Hinds said.

After a seven-year romance, Tatsch married the manager of the apartment complex where she found the old quilt in a dumpster.

"Although it has been patched, is stained and deteriorating in places, it covers both one of the happiest and saddest times of my life," she said. "I love it."

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