Donna Laing recalls the moment in 1969 when she fell in love with quilting.
“I did everything by hand back then, because we were hippies living in a fourth-floor walk-up in Newark, and we had no money, and I went to the Newark Museum every day because it was free,” she said.
One day, the museum in the North Jersey city opened a quilt exhibition, and “I just went crazy.” She asked the curator how quilters sewed hundreds of tiny triangles and squares together and somehow made it work. The curator wondered if she sewed, and Laing replied that she’d made her mini-dress from Indian bedspreads and had hand-stitched everything else she was wearing, except her John Lennon glasses and Jim Morrison boots.
The curator pulled out an antique quilt top and turned it over so Laing could see all the seams in the patchwork. “Birds sang and a light bulb went on over my head,” Laing recalled, laughing. “I said, ‘Wow! I can do this!’”
She’s been doing it ever since.
Laing, 67, moved to Bucks County in 1970, had a 28-year career there with a major insurance company, retired in 2005, and opened her North Star Quality Quilting workshop in a back bedroom of her Warminster home.
Three of her quilts will be among the 121 displayed on 25-foot-high ceiling beams at the Bucks County Visitor Center in Bensalem for the 13th annual Bucks County Quilt Show, from Saturday through Aug. 30. The exhibit, featuring the work of 80 quilt makers, is free and open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. The pieces won’t be for sale.
Laing’s quilts are two to three months in the making, depending on the amount of hand-stitching. “I’m a pokey sewer,” she said. “I don’t want to rush. It’s supposed to be joyful.” Her favorite in the show is a Perkiomen Valley Split Nine Patch pattern that has 1,200 pieces of 300 to 400 different fabrics. “I love scrappy quilts, which is what I started out with; making something out of leftovers,” she said. “The scrappier the better.”
Many of the coverings in the show come from the Quilt Academy in Bensalem, a full-service school and supply store where co-owner Linda Armbruster explained that “quilting started out being a utilitarian thing. Quilters used scraps of cloth they had and made blankets to keep warm. Now, it’s an art form and lets quilters show people who we are.”
Quilting is addictive, Armbruster said. “Making quilts is kind of like eating potato chips. You’re not happy with just one. When you find a design that makes you feel good and you put colors in it that make you happy, the quilt becomes personally yours.”
Linda Weingard, who co-owns the Quilt Academy with Armbruster, said the show is stress-free.
“When people hear ‘quilt show,’ they’re thinking, ‘Oh, they have all these judges and my work’s not good enough,’” Weingard said. “But this is a nice place to show their work without being judged. We award best in show, but it’s by visitors voting for what they like, not judges. This is a fun thing.”
When Laing started out, she said, she avoided quilting anxiety by making gifts for newborns. “I was real young, and all my friends were having babies,” she said. “So you know the quilt is going to get spit up on and there’ll be no evidence of your mistakes.”
Now, she crafts patchworks that never see a crib.
“You’re making a gift, and it’s like quintessentially the best existential object because it’s functional and it’s beautiful,” Laing said. “I feel about quilting like people who do fashion feel about fashion. Why just wear something when you can wear something beautiful? Well, why just put something on the bed when you can put something on the bed that’s warm and gorgeous?”