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Uncovered! The Unseemly Side of Quilts

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 2009

The issue is wrapped in a prim plastic sleeve, but the lurid electric blue display copy still leaps from the page:

Shocking!

Controversial!

Quilts!

Quilts?

As in, "Shocking Quilts: We Show You the Controversial Patchwork." Advertised right on the cover of Quilter's Home.

(The magazine's other cover lines: "5 Popular Appliqué Glues Put to the Test," "Read This Before Buying That Longarm.")

Mark Lipinski, the editor of Quilter's Home, knew that the January/February issue might be perceived as scandalous.

This is why he took precautions -- $2,500 worth of precautions, which is what it cost to wrap each of some 45,000 copies in plastic before distributing them to newsstands and craft stores across the country. Doing his best to protect the unwary public from the adults-only images inside (but you buy it for the articles).

The precautions were fruitless.

Jo-Ann Fabric and Crafts, the sewing and scrapbooking mega-chain with several locations in the Washington area, opted not to carry the sordid edition -- a little "too hot" for Jo-Ann is what Lipinski says his distributor told him. Phone calls to Darrell Webb, chief executive of Jo-Ann, and Lisa Greb, public relations director, were not returned. "Good grief! What year is this???" writes a poster identified as "Sara Volk" in response to the news on Lipinski's blog. "Since when did JoAnn Fabrics become the arbiter of MY morals? I'll go to church for that . . . and when I want styrofoam chickens I'll go to JoAnn's."

Lipinski, who takes pride in his magazine in showing the "irreverent" side of quilting (see: the feature on "Quiltzillas" or the regular column Cocktails With Mark), says he fully supports Jo-Ann's right not to carry the issue -- especially as the magazine is available at Barnes & Noble and Sam's Club. And he has 35,000 subscribers. Jo-Ann stores usually sell about 7,000 copies per issue.

Lipinski says, however: Jo-Ann "might be out of touch with their customer base. . . . When you consider that a 70-year-old could have been dancing naked at Woodstock and a 50-year-old could have been smoking pot in high school -- sometimes you have to change your marketing."

Dude. What kind of quilts we talking about here?

And, how much of this "controversy" can be traced back to Lipinski's own flair for dramatics? Pre-Quilter's Home, Lipinski was a talk show producer. He must know that scandal sells.

Let's have a look-see at the offensive material. Flip past the ads for stencil companies and portable ironing tables to Page 24. Behold, seven straight pages of shocking quilts. We're talking fabric phalluses. Gun-toting Jesuses. A newborn peering out from his mother's lady parts (constructed out of lots of soft, embroidered orange cloth).

Some of the images are disturbing -- and moving -- like quilter Gwen Magee's "Southern Heritage/Southern Shame," which depicts five lynching victims hanging in front of a Confederate flag.

Others are whimsical. Consider "Helping Hands," a Charlottesville quilter's ode to Viagra. The work was inspired by a present from a friend: "A fat quarter of fabrics with all these itty-bitty penises and sperm," says Mary Beth Bellah, describing the pile of remnants with delight.

The finished product is asymmetrical and somewhat abstract: dozens of little blue pills spiraling out from a central hand. It's nothing like what you could buy in Amish country, although it does seem appropriate as a wedding quilt. Bellah considers herself an artist and has displayed her quilts in private shows. At a recent show in a hospital, "Helping Hands" ended up stashed in a closet after a few complaints.

This, participants say, is the crux of the quilting kerfuffle. Not whether the buck-naked-man quilt depicted on Page 28 is too salacious but whether it should be placed in the same category as the carefully patterned Sunbonnet Sue quilts that have defined the genre and the community. It's the needle-and-thread medium that makes the Quilter's Home creations anything close to "shocking." The same images on canvas or cardstock would not receive the scarlet stamp of salaciousness.

But Bellah's medium is fabric, not acrylic or oil paints.

"People respond to quilts like nothing else," Bellah says. "There's a familiarity -- you're surrounded by fabric your whole life. . . . There's not this pretentiousness to it. I love that people can't resist touching my quilts." Even the naughty bits.

Magee says that the contrast between her soft fabrics and her harsh social messages is exactly what makes her work effective. She did see a letter from one guy protesting her quilts, asking, "Who would want to cuddle under such a thing?" "He had no concept that this wasn't that kind of quilt," Magee says.

Lipinski has received no such complaints from overly shocked readers.

"I did get a letter complaining that the issue was in a bag, though," Lipinski offers. "She thought that I should be more concerned about the environment."

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