THE BIG revival of interest in the art of stitchery is one of the livelier outgrowths of the national facination with folk art, the American heritage, and doing anything and everything yourself.
A year or two ago the emphasis was on embroidery including samplers, needlepoint (it boggles the mind to think of the hundreds of thousands of cushions sewn), bargello and crewel work.
Now it appears to be quilts that are coming up, as wall hangings, and lying down all over -- on beds, tables, sofas, chairs and even on the floor. A recent issue of a home decoration magazine showed a quilt as a throw rug. Our foremothers would have shuddered.
The early settlers in this country, using up scraps of material and worn-out clothes, made quilts to cover beds and keep warm at night. The designs, some very beautiful, some brought along from the old country, and many more created here, were almost always geometric because it is easier and neater to sew small pieces together in smooth lines than in wavy organic shapes.
Americans, consequently, tend to think of quilting mainly in terms of patchwork and the resulting geometric designs. Actually, ancient quilted fabrics (some have been found dating thousands of years B.C.) were often plain; the design was formed by the stitches holding the several layers of material and the soft lining together. In Europe, where quilting was popular for centuries, the plain quilted fabrics were used for coverlets and clothing. Quilted jackets, for instance, were worn under coats of mail and suits of armor.
In response to the latest were of interest a number of new books have appeared.
Let's Make a Patchwork Quilt" by Jessie MacDonald and Marian H. Shafer (Doubleday, $10.95). Part One is a beginner's guide with clear descriptions of basic techniques: the quilter's vocabulary, choosing fabrics and colors, needed supplies, and step by step instructions for making a sampler quilt using both pieced work and applique. For those who don't feel ambitious enough to start with a quilt, instructions for pillows and tote bags are on hand. Part Two for advanced quilters deals with more complicated quilt block designs. There is a good index and plenty of helpful drawings and illustrations in color are included to spur you on.
Few things have as many names, and all of them fanciful, as quilt patterns. Two books offer definitions.
"The Collector's Dictionary of Quilt Names & Patterns" by Yvonne Khin (Acropolis Books Ltd.; hardcover $29.50, paperback $16.95). This definite reference work contains over 2,400 traditional American quilt patterns arranged according to seven categories: square, rectangle, diamond, circle, hexagon, applique, miscellaneous. Sources of designs are given whenever possible, and a cross-referenced index of pattern names follows. gQuilts designed and worked by the author (many pictured here in color) have been exhibited in this area at the Renwick Gallery and Sully Plantation.
Illustrated Index to Traditional American Quilt Patterns" by Susan Winter Mills (Arco; hardcover $11.95, paperback $6.95). The author tells us that Favorite of the Peruvians, Wind Power of the Osages, Chinese 10,000 Perfections, Pure Symbol of the Right Doctrine, Battle Ax of Thor, Catch Me If You Can, Heart's Seal and Mound Builders are all names for one quilt pattern. It just depends on what county in what state you come from.
In order to help the reader in the search for a particular pieced quilt design, over 600 black and white renderings have been grouped under broad headings: Stars, Triangles, Circles, Combinations, and Squares. The index lists the patterns by names, from Aunt Sukey's Choice to Zig Zag Tile.
"Patchwork Patterns" by Jinny Beyer (EPM Publications; hardcover $24.95, paperback $15.95). In its third printing, this whopper of a book by a local quilter (whose other book is listed below) presents a simple way of drafting patterns in any size using not much more than a triangle and tracing paper; no mathematical equations, conversion charts or slide rules are necessary. It is Beyer's aim to encourage the needleworker (and other craftsmen) to adapt traditional geometric designs or to invent original motifs. The chapter entitled "Original Design" could be particularly helpful. There is an intelligent index (including quilt patterns by regional names), plenty of black and white illustrations and a few color photographs.
"The Quilter's Album of Blocks and Borders" by Jinny Beyer (EPM Publications, $16.95): includes a catalogue of square geometric patterns arranged according to the number of patches (pictured in black and white), sources for each design as far as possible, and a long section on border designs. It would have been nice if the photographs of quilts at the beginning of each category had been in color. As it is, the total effect is somewhat lackluster and uninspiring.
"Advanced Quilting" by Elsie Svennas (Seribner's $16.95). Translated from the Swedish, this one has a flavor distinguishing it from the American counterparts. The fabrics are, of course, different; there are fewer geometric patterns, less patchwork; the colors are subdued and subtle rather than primary. Bedcovers, clothes (especially jackets), handbags, cases for fragile objects, table cloths, mats, toys, wall hangings, etc. are described and pictured. The many designs, while obviously requiring a good deal of skill and experience, are experimental and lighthearted, and could inspire the ambitious needleworker to try something out of the ordinary.