Chris Sudberry is obviously a detail person. You don't hand-sew hundreds of feathers on birds in a quilt pattern unless you're really into the details.
And her knack for the meticulous is paying off. Sudberry is making quite a splash among followers of the quilting craft in the Tampa Bay area.
She has been making quilts for only five years, yet she won what some locals might dub a triple crown of quilting.
She took first-place ribbons in the Florida Strawberry Festival and Florida State Fair this year and Dade City's Pioneer Days competition last fall.
A bigger surprise, however, was learning what her handiwork is worth. She says quilting experts valued each winning entry at $2,500 or more.
"I had no idea,'' Sudberry said recently. "I wouldn't want to have to pay that to buy a quilt.''
Her relatively new love has made her part of a trend, according to Quilt Inc., a company that produces quilting shows. The ranks of American quilters have grown by 9 percent since 2006, according to a survey the company helped sponsor last year. People spend $3.6 billion a year on this age-old folk art.
Sudberry's state fair entry is the most traditional of the three quilts, a notoriously difficult design of interlocking circles called the Double Wedding Ring pattern. The Strawberry Festival quilt is composed of hand-sewn appliques featuring breeds of roosters and chickens. The Pioneer Days winner, which also won second place at the state fair, is a hand-applique work showing pottery designs.
Quilting judge Kimberly Einmo, author of three books on the craft, was wowed by Sudberry's Strawberry Festival entry.
"Her worksmanship was just outstanding,'' says Einmo, adding that it was obvious she put great thought and care into the details. Einmo considered the visual appeal, balance, color and fabric choices and, finally, how skillfully it was put together.
Sudberry, 61, a homemaker who had created needlepoint for years, found out about a quilting class from a friend in 2006 and decided to give it a try.
In the few years Sudberry has been a quilter, she has become her own tough taskmaster, taking apart designs that don't line up and doing them over. It's one thing to sew a section of circle onto a "block,'' or square, of cloth. It's another to match it perfectly with the section of circle in the next block.
"I'm very, very careful when I initially cut. And I'm very careful when I sew on the sewing machine that it is exactly a quarter-inch. If you vary one way or the other, it's going to throw off the blocks.''
On the hand-applique quilts, the stitches are turned under the designs so they don't show. Material is stuffed into the appliques — each leaf on a vine, for example — to give them a three-dimensional effect. It was after creating a number of machine-stitched quilts that Sudberry decided to take on the hand-stitching challenge of applique quilts. It takes about twice the time — nine months — to finish one.
Judges look at the complexity of the work, how even the lines are, how well the corners are mitered.
Although Sudberry did not win the overall "best of show" at the state fair, her machine-sewn Double Wedding Ring quilt beat out 14 competitors in her category, says Lois Duffey, coordinator of the quilting and other competitions at the Florida State Fair. The judges laid out every quilt and looked at practically every stitch. "So to get a first place in any quilting category is damn good,'' Duffey says.
Quilt patterns beckon like exotic candies, and it's tempting to jump to a new project before finishing the current one. People who do tend to have a bunch of incomplete quilts lying around, says Sudberry, who resists the temptation, sticking with each project until it's finished. She works on quilts about five nights a week, sewing while watching TV. "I think it's a great stress reliever.''
Sudberry guesses she has made about 30 quilts. "Everybody in my family has quilts.''
That inventory is probably worth thousands. And though Sudberry now knows that, she doubts she'll start selling quilts.
"I want to keep them in the family. They'll be something that's here after I'm gone.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.