With needle and thread, Shirley Kerstetter is an artist. And no "canvas" seems too large for her.
The 81-year-old Kerstetter, who took up quilting after she retired as a designer of little girls' dresses — "when little girls wore dresses," she noted — recently put the final stitches in a 98- by 116-inch quilt that features needlepoint portraits of the U.S. presidents surrounding an embroidered presidential seal on a pieced background of red, white and blue.
The presidential quilt, 10 years in the making, is the centerpiece of a story and photo spread about Kerstetter and her works in the current issue of The Quilter magazine.
"I never thought I'd be quilting," the diminutive octogenarian said last week. "But for some reason, I wanted to quilt. It's an extension of sewing."
Kerstetter's fingers are nimble, her eyesight through granny glasses sharp, and her creativity and imagination seemingly boundless as all of her quilts are meticulously and minutely stitched, one-of-a-kind and originally designed.
For instance, the presidential portraits are carried out with 24 stitches to the inch, so well-shaded and highlighted that one must feel the needlework to ascertain that they aren't photographs in a fabric frame.
Calvin Coolidge was president when Kerstetter was born in 1928. The first president she voted for when she came of age was Dwight D. Eisenhower.
On a visit to a museum near Orlando that focused on presidential memorabilia, Kerstetter bought a dinner plate with a rim that carried postage-size portraits of the presidents.
"That was my inspiration," she explained.
Her next step was a trip to the local library, where she checked out books on the presidents, photocopying their pictures to a size from which she could ascribe details. And she began a search for suitable fabrics.
"I collected fabric for the presidential quilt for years," Kerstetter said. "Every time I saw a patriotic fabric, I bought it. I stashed it."
While her presidential quilt is a monumental accomplishment, Kerstetter's other quilts of wall-hanging size display her creative talent. One features three-dimensional flowers in a rope-like basket. Another is embellished with tiny jewel beads. A sort of family portrait depicts in fabric and thread her sister and herself as children with a mother figure that is Kerstetter as a grown woman. An all-blue piece is assembled with a dozen differing hues of the color.
These smaller works, in the range of 30-by-30 inches, she created for competitions known as "challenges" in the quilting community — most of hers in the Hernando Quilters Guild. Kerstetter won so many of the challenges that the guild finally declared her a professional so she is no longer eligible to compete.
Although Kerstetter loved competing, she said she didn't mind being nudged aside because it opened the field for additional quilters to have a chance for honors. Ironically, when Kerstetter moved from her native Pennsylvania to Florida in 1978, she was put on a waiting list to join the local quilting guild, limited to 150 members.
A highlight of her guild affiliation was the creation with fellow stitchers of a quilt connoting pieces of Hernando County history. Kerstetter and her peers carried the quilt to school classrooms and to civic club meetings, telling the county's history, before donating the work to the city of Brooksville on its 150th anniversary in 2006. It hangs at Brooksville City Hall.
Now Kerstetter teaches quilting — most recently a class for guild members in the Japanese style of shasiko, which requires five to seven stitches per inch over a minimalist design.
And she tutors fellow quilters who arrive on her doorstep and in her workroom, the latter resembling a blueprint drafting studio with measures, grids, parchment paper and pencils, with the addition of needles, threads, fabric swatches, scissors and a sewing machine on the side.
Kerstetter does not offer her works for sale. Prices, if based on the hours of work, wouldn't be affordable to most, she explained. Although she labored on the presidential quilt for 10 years, it wasn't steady work, she said.
"I don't count the hours," she said. "It's something I love to do. I do this for my own well-being and happiness."
Beth Gray can be reached at email@example.com.