Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

August 14, 2008

'Painting' with fabric: Andover quilter's work shown around country

By Bethany Bray

Betsy Abbott dreamed of quilting for years before taking a beginning quilting class at a local community college. Now, nine years later, she has several prize-winning quilts in shows around the country.

"I didn't think I had a creative bone in my body," Abbott said with a laugh. "I'm absolutely amazed by what you can do, what you can create with fabric. I consider myself a landscape artist, using fabric as my medium."

Abbott mostly creates free-form quilts, different from traditional quilts that have geometric, repeating patterns. Although she respects and admires traditional quilting styles, she said, she enjoys the open-endedness of creating a quilt without a pattern.

"I love color, I love fabric. There's something very tactile about it (quilting). This art form allows me to hold, move and manipulate cloth. That's why I fell in love with it," she said.

Abbott has been selected as a semifinalist in the American Quilter's Society annual Quilt Expo in Nashville, Tenn., held Aug. 20 through 23. Her quilt "Shag Rock" was chosen from a field of 472 quilts, and will be displayed and judged with quilts from all over the world.

She also had two quilts selected for the Images 2008 quilt show in Lowell: "Praise for the Morning," which depicts a sunrise, and "Fidelity," a scene with two osprey, created in memory of her parents. The Lowell quilt show is part of the four-day Lowell Quilt Festival. Abbott was notified that one of her two pieces won a third-place prize, she said.

Abbott lives on South Main Street with her husband, Don Abbott. For each of her quilts, she envisions a design, and meticulously cuts shapes out of different fabrics, piecing them together and pinning them on a large board.

Stepping back from the design, Abbott changes, adds and moves pieces until the quilt matches the idea in her head. Working several hours a day, she can spend anywhere from five to seven months to finish one of her quilts, depending on its design, she said.

Abbott has learned her technique through trial and error, and during several quilting classes she's taken since her first course at Northern Essex Community College in 1999. She also gains inspiration, insight and ideas from talking with other quilters at shows and in a quilters guild, the Watertown-based Quilter's Connection.

Quilting has changed and grown as an art form in recent decades, Abbott said.

"Quilting has undergone such an amazing transformation. Since the early 1970s, people have begun to rediscover quilts. There has been a shift, a revitalization, of quilting from craft to art," she said. "There are over 30 million quilters in the U.S. right now. It has completely revitalized the textile industry in this country, which was all but dead. Lowell, Lawrence, this whole area was born of textiles."

Betsy and Don Abbott have two grown children and four grandchildren. They moved to Andover in 1992, and she worked at the Andover Bookstore for 16 years before retiring last year. Don Abbott works in the development office at Phillips Academy, and has plans to retire at the end of this month.

One of Abbott's first quilting projects was to make a storybook quilt for each of her four grandchildren. Using storybook illustrations as a template, she made each grandchild a quilt picturing a scene from a children's fable or nursery rhyme.

The Townsman sat down with Abbott last week to discuss quilting.

Talk about "Shag Rock," the quilt in the AQS show in Tennessee.

"Shag Rock" is of five cormorants on a rocky coast. Some people think cormorants are ugly — they have a long neck and are all black. In the water, they're extremely fast and sleek. Their feathers absorb water (they don't have the oil glands that ducks and other water birds do), so they have to spread their wings out to dry.

They look so ungainly and awkward, hanging themselves out to dry on rocks, it makes me smile.

What was your first quilt?

The first quilt I made was in the first quilting class I took (an introduction to traditional quilting at Northern Essex Community College). It was a quilt sampler. We picked contrasting fabrics, and did seven different patterns.

How has quilting changed you?

The class just unlocked something in me. ...

Quilting is a whole new way of seeing for me. It has heightened my way of seeing.

I'll see something, and say, "How would I depict in cloth, that light shining that leaf there?" It makes you look in a very different way, you're noticing things in a very different way.

Part of the fun is looking at a piece of fabric, and seeing something else in it.

What inspires you?

The kinds of quilts I like to make, I'm making out of my own experiences. (She and her husband vacation each year on Monhegan Island, Maine, which has inspired several quilts of ocean scenes.)

In a visual way, being able to share stories is very important to me. I think all quilts tell a story. There is a story behind the decision to make one quilt over another.

My quilt "Fidelity" is of two osprey, which have always been important birds to me and my parents. The two osprey represent my parents, one on a nest and one flying toward her. I made it in their honor, in their memory.

It (quilting) is a chance to express something personal.

Why do you enter your quilts in shows?

I enter shows for the chance to meet other quilters; it's fun to share. Not to win.

I enter to keep myself growing and learning from other quilters, and get feedback from the judges.

When I mail quilts (to submit them for a show), I kiss them goodbye and tell them to do their best.

To you, how is quilting an art form?

Quilting is definitely an art form. I consider myself an art quilter. It's like any other art you might chose — some people are painters or poets.

Quilting is an expression of an artistic self I didn't know I had. It's a way for me to express my artistic self, and sharing that is important. It brings people together.

What do you wish people knew about your art?

There is a whole world of artistic expression being created through cloth.

Quilts are not just for beds. It's much, much more than that. People are most astonished by how quilting has become a way to express a whole range of artistic expression.

Do you have advice on how to get started?

Take a class at a local adult education center. Quilting classes are offered at many senior centers, quilt shows, community colleges, fabric stores — and the Lowell Quilt Museum offers classes too.

Small, simple venues are a good place to begin to learn and will introduce you to other quilters.

Put yourselves with other people (quilters); join a quilters guild.