by Grant Moser
Mt. Airy resident Sarah Bond, 55, says quilting isn’t complicated. “It’s squares and triangles. You cut them up and sew them together,” she explained. These make the patterns, and the patterns make up the blocks of a quilt. Next, you make it warmer by putting a batting between the blocks and the backing. According to Bond, the batting can be nearly anything: cotton, wool, synthetics, silk, bamboo, etc. Once all the layers are sandwiched together, you anchor them together. This can be done by hand or machine, but since Sarah “still has a day job [at an investment firm], I go with machines.”
There are as many designs for quilts as there are quilts — and as many names for each design depending on when and where they are made. There is the “Lone Star,” also called the “Star of Bethlehem.” “Jacob’s Ladder” began to be known as the “Underground Railroad” after the Civil War because its pattern resembled train tracks. The “Grandmother’s Fan” looks like a hand fan, and the “Pickle Dish” looks like those football-shaped glass condiment dishes.
“A lot of quilt blocks are pictorial,” Bond explained, “suggesting what they look like. There are a lot of geometric patterns that recollect familiar things. People name them after things they see all the time. Other people rename them based on things that are relevant to them.”
Unfortunately for conspiracy buffs, the theory that quilts were used as maps and codes to help slaves escape the South is unfounded. Bond has read the book, “Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt,” about a slave girl who sews a quilt with a map of how to escape. She understands that people want this great story to be true, but there is no evidence to support the theory.
“That is not to say that domestic objects and quilts were not used as signals,” Bond explained, “but the idea that there was a pervasive code known across a geographic area has pretty much been discounted in looking through relevant literature or slave narratives or diaries.”
Bond began quilting in college, when one day she just decided she needed to make one. She had experience sewing clothes and found a pattern she liked in a book. Growing up, her family had quilts on the beds, but Bond didn’t know where they had come from. It wasn’t until 15 years later at a family reunion that she discovered her great-great-grandmother, Jane Arthur Bond, had been a well-known slave quilter.
A great-grandmother, Luvinia, was also a quilter. She had two daughters, Bertha and Roseabelle, who was Sarah’s grandmother. Luvinia always preferred Bertha, so when Luvinia died, Roseabelle ran over and absconded with all the quilts before Bertha could get there. When Sarah’s father passed away, the family discovered a dozen quilts in the basement, still hidden away from Bertha.
When Bond begins a quilt, she likes to honor her ancestors and the traditional patterns they worked with. However, she likes to reinterpret them by using a different color palette or a different method of construction. This is also the approach she takes in the classes she has taught for 15 years.
While many of her classes are taught through the Mt. Airy Learning Tree (MALT), Sarah has also led classes at Round Bobbin in Horsham, Byrne Fabrics in Doylestown and the now-defunct Fabrics on the Hill, 8432 Germantown Ave. This past fall she taught three classes, and has a repertoire of about 10 different classes.
A class with Bond takes either the form of a workshop or a lecture and a beginning, step-by-step approach. “I’m either teaching you individual blocks and how to make them, or I’m teaching you a technique, and you have your machine with you and work on your technique. Most people come knowing how to sew, but I’ve had beginners as well. I like to convince people they can do it themselves. I try to empower people that they can do this…
“When I talk with other artists who aren’t doing their work, I tell them to teach a class at MALT. It makes a space for art in your life and creates a group of people who think you’re really smart about something.”
When Bond begins a quilt, she has no idea how it’s going to look when she’s finished. She finds a pattern, chooses color and fabric and then lets it unfold as she goes along. At certain points she finds herself seeing something new happening and will follow that. She values the process itself, not just the end result.
This can be seen in how her quilts have changed over the years. “During my early years, it was a lot about color and palette, keeping it subtle. I stuck with very traditional patterns. I’ve gotten a little bit bolder with palette as I’ve gone alone. I compare it to when you’re young and not liking a lot of strong flavors because you’re taste buds are learning, but as you get older, you like it spicier and more flavorful.”
One question she hears often is: “Don’t you get bored teaching the same pattern over and over?” Bond actually finds the repetitiveness liberating because she doesn’t have to think about how to do it, only different ways to do it. She will give herself new color or fabric parameters every class, such as combining colorful African patterns with black and white, or denim with silk, just to see what happens. She has taught “Underground Railroad” for 15 years, and every quilt she has made is different.
She is glad to see quilting beginning to receive the recognition it deserves in the art world. “Quilting is largely a women’s art, and it is being elevated to a place of aesthetic admiration. I’ve been to shows at museums in New York, D.C. and Philly. Mt. Airy Art Garage is mounting an art show in February called ‘The Quilt of the Art.’ Quilts being viewed as art; I think it’s a wonderful thing.”
When asked if she considers herself an artist, Sarah replied in the affirmative, but that “it took me a long time to get to that place.”
Bond has a studio at Mt. Airy Art Garage, where she holds classes. The MAAG Quilt Club meets monthly for quilters to share stories, techniques and quilts. Quiltapalooza is a working session every other month for four hours that allows people to work on existing projects and offer advice to one another. More information at mtairylearningtree.org or mtairyartgarage.org.