Quilts have always been associated with domestic loveliness, a homey craft that, paradoxically, can require enough geometric precision to interest a math geek. • The best-known American quilts became popular in the 19th century: formal, repetitive patterns made from pieces of fabric fitted into blocks that were joined together. • The sawtooth pattern was such a design, named because the placement of its triangles resembled saw blades. The sawtooth was the starting point for "New Quilts from an Old Favorite," the 2008 competition by the American Quilter's Society that invites quilters from around the world to interpret a different traditional pattern each year. • The works by the five winners and 13 finalists are making a stop at the Dunedin Fine Art Center, and most turn those old saw blades into cutting-edge conceptual designs that require high-tech sewing machines and sometimes computers.
This reliance on electronic gizmos has rankled some purists but I can't see why. Women (who were for generations the only quilters) began using sewing machines to aid their craft from the moment they were invented. Having one was a status symbol. Examine the intricate (machine) stitching on some of the quilts here and you'll be impressed by the artistry. It may be done by a machine but the hands at the control are as accomplished as those of a good painter. As is the composition in most cases.
The first-place quilt translates the pattern most liberally. Claudia Clark Myers and Marilyn Badger collaborated on Berry Patch; Myers seems to be the design guru and Badger the quilting wizard, according to the catalog, an interesting show-and-tell even if you do not practice the craft. The blades become large leaves, pieced with smaller blades on which nestle a clutch of fruit. Smaller blades also dot the background, a blend of four fabrics arranged in asymmetrical strips. The fabrics are beautiful but the stitching, like puffs of whipped cream or roiling waves, gives the work its great distinction.
Web of Life by Ann Horton, the second-place winner, combines a traditional arrangement of the sawtooth pattern with a rollicking, free-form border illustrating a tropical paradise. She uses hot and cool tones for the most audaciously colored quilt in the group. You could spend a good hour picking out all the animals flying, swimming or crawling around the perimeter.
The most geometric dazzle belongs to Ann L. Petersen's Caramelized Sawblades. The circular "saws" seem arrested midwhirl, cleverly disengaged by carving a quarter of the circle from each component. She gets an interesting shadow effect by thread-painting the circular designs on part of the border. Sherri Bain Driver, a finalist, also uses a muted palette with colors of the Southwest for A Gathering of Geckos. Hers, too, is a virtuoso design job with the clever use of lizards as conveyances of the sawtooth. Her background is masterfully understated, a modified bow-tie pattern that emulates the weave of a basket.
Both Beyond the Sea, fourth-place winner by Jill H. Bryant and Nancy S. Brown, and Down the Rabbit Hole, a finalist by Robin Gausebeck, derive their impact from a narrative element laced with humor and whimsy. In the former, the sawtooth is elaborated as fish scales on a group of happy, hungry aquatic creatures floating in a medallion arrangement around central squares formed by their joined tails. Lightbulbs sprout from their heads, illuminating the small appliquéd fish swimming into their open mouths. Alice's journey through Wonderland is the theme of the latter quilt, another variation both of the sawtooth pattern and the appliquéd medallion quilt. At its center is a spiraling hole, its depths suggested by thread painting that gets heavier toward the bottom. It's set into an undulating series of sawtooths and green vines anchored at each corner by roses. More images from the book are appliquéd: the Cheshire cat, a pocket watch, a teapot and top hat. The blue border is stitched with the traditional feather motif modified into what Gausebeck calls a sawtooth feather, and the opening lines of the story are embroidered on each side.
This is the 15th "New Quilts from an Old Favorite" traveling exhibition and the fourth one I have seen. Each year I learn new things and can appreciate more why one quilt bests another even if I don't like it as much, which was true, again, this year. I am not a quilter but did attach myself to a group of them visiting the show and was gratified when they, also, were unimpressed with a few of the finalists, such as Sawtooth Garden, which was certainly quirky and visually arresting but, to my eye, didn't have the technical finesse of the other entries. Tastes are subjective, of course, and there is enough variety here to sink your teeth into.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.