The three quilts could not, at first glance, be more different.
The first, a rich blue beauty decorated in what looked like white puzzle pieces, hung across the room from a gorgeous quilt displaying green material dancing in lovely patterns of half-circles and triangles.
The third was spectacular, with white, flower-specked windmills popping against royal blue.
All quilts have names, and the name of the third was Not Your Mother’s Drunkard’s Path.
The Drunkard’s Path is the theme of this year’s annual Three Rivers Quilt Show, which runs from March 30 through April 1 at Hollywood Casino at The Meadows. It’s the largest fundraiser of the year for Three Rivers Quilters Pittsburgh, which will celebrate the storied quilting pattern with more than 100 exquisite quilts designed in Drunkard fashion and several non-thematic entries from artists throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania and beyond.
“The (Drunkard’s) Path was a pattern from England. Basically, the foundation block is a square with a quarter-circle,” said Liz Hays, show committee co-chair for Three Rivers Quilters.
Like a quilt, which the closer you look, the more details emerge, the simplicity of the Drunkard’s Path is surface only.
“In the early 1900s, when the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement started working, they adopted the block and called it the Drunkard’s Path and started making the quilts to raise money for their programs,” said Pam Bice, vice president of Three Rivers Quilters. “They chose blue and white because white is purity and blue is water, which is the purest thing to drink. Most two-color quilts made in that time period were red and white.”
The pattern, also called “Rob Peter to Pay Paul,” “Solomon’s Path,” and “Wanderer in the Wilderness,” has, some speculate, origins in Ancient Egypt. But the design on that first puzzle-y, royal blue masterpiece is more akin to Path patterns that emerged during the early 19th century.
That quilt itself was hand-sewn by quilt show committee co-chair Jan Burke’s grandmother.
“It’s one of the oldest patterns. The quilt behind you was made by my grandmother. And that’s a Drunkard’s Path and it was probably, I’m guessing, made in about 1918, somewhere in there. I was quite surprised because most of her quilts I have are very scrappy, from feed sacks. This one was blue and white, it’s a lot of blue. We pretty much believe why that one was made that way because of the blue, the significance.”
There are countless ways to quilt the Drunkard’s path. Some artists prefer the traditional pattern, while others, like Liz Hays, who crafted the green blanket, take liberties in their design. The design itself, while remaining true to the original pattern of squares and quarter-circles, has been modernized; take, for instance, the spectacular windmill quilt that will be raffled off on the last day of the show.
The artwork was pieced by Burke, quilted by Sharon Hansen and bound by Beth Conlin.
“When they brought it to me at the Creative Arts Festival to display, I was like, how is that a Drunkard’s Path,” laughed Bice. “It took me a while. I actually cut out a hole in a piece of paper so I could put it up and say, see that block.”
Quilting has in recent years been seen differently. In fact, one might say it’s having a moment. There are between 10 million and 12 million quilters in North America, and quilting is expected to be a $5 billion industry by 2026, according to Craft Industry Alliance’s 2021 report.
“Quilting is not a craft; it’s a fine art,” said Burke. “From that humble quilt,” she nodded to the royal blue quilt, “to this one, that’s unique,” she pointed to the green quilt, “we have fun as quilters with the themes.”
Along with this year’s Drunkard’s Path theme, the guild spent last year working on a Busy Bee collection. Each month, members receive a concept and spend time quilting, with no idea what the final product will look like or represent.
“They would just say, make 24 log cabins one month, and then at the end of the year you get how it all goes together,” said Bice. “We featured Famous Women Lost to History. We’re going to have a display at the show about the women.”
Those women include Madam C.J. Walker, an African American entrepreneur, political and social activist, and the first female self-made millionaire in America; and Stephanie Kwolek, a Western Pennsylvania woman who invented Kevlar.
“It’s kind of cool that this is National Women’s History Month,” added Hays.
That nod to the past ties history to present day, and the Three Rivers Quilters hopes a new generation will attend the show and carry on tradition.
“We don’t hoard our knowledge,” said Hays.
Along with the annual show, the guild hosts monthly meetings and show and tells, periodic lectures and other member events. Guild members spend time creating for arts festivals and making beautiful quilts for nonprofits including the Linus Project, the Ronald McDonald House, the Oncology Center at Jefferson Hospital and Mom’s Place.
“We donate between 120 and 150 quilts a year,” Burke said.
Donations are heartwarming – no pun intended – and it’s nice to see quilting efforts help the community. It’s also great to see quilts dazzling from displays at the annual show.
“There’s nothing to match the thrill of going in there and seeing your quilt hanging,” Burke said.
Anyone of any skill level or expertise is invited to watch demonstrations, learn history and techniques from area quilters and appreciate the fine art of quilting during the three-day event.
“There’s always, no matter what, there’s fabric. I think that’s what we all start with: the love of fabric,” Bice said.
For more information on the Three Rivers Quilters and upcoming events, visit https://www.threeriversquilters.org/index.html.
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