It has been more than 25 years since Tooele resident Betty Johnson helped start the Tooele County Quilters group, but she still looks forward to the meetings each month.
“I love it,” she said. “It’s just been a fun group. I love the sociability and meeting new people. It’s just been a life saver to me — something to look forward to.”
Johnson, 85, was one of five women who, in 1986, took a few quilting classes and decided to form a group to collaborate and refresh their skills. Today, the group has blossomed to 55 members, and still meets monthly like clockwork.
Quilters in the group have classes and demonstrations, work on group projects and make monthly quilt squares to finish into a completed quilt by the end of the year. Some of the finished projects return home with their makers and are used or carefully packed away for posterity, but many are given to the Children’s Justice Center or other charitable organizations.
For some members, the group helps them learn or develop a new skill. For others, the group facilitates an environment where they can learn new techniques and skills to add to their formidable arsenal of sewing abilities. But for all, the companionship and exchange of ideas with like-minded quilters is what makes the group dear.
“Just the camaraderie and exchange of information — the ladies are always willing to tell you what they know and teach you what they’ve learned and it’s a great way to keep up with the newest techniques,” said Mary Fojtek, who has been a member of the group for nine years. “Plus, just the social interaction’s wonderful.”
Fojtek, 65, has been in quilting groups before, when she lived in Roy and Garden City. When she and her husband moved to Tooele, she was glad to find a quilting group locally to join, she said.
Like many of the members, Fojtek’s quilting ties run deep in family tradition, and she was taught the craft by her mother and grandmother. Her knowledge of sewing was mostly used to make articles of clothing for many years, but she turned her focus back to quilting as her family got older.
“I’ve been in clothing construction and my kids didn’t want me to make clothes for them anymore but I still wanted to sew, and I’ve always had an interest in quilting,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in quilting — my mom was a quilter and my grandmother was a quilter. It’s a family tradition. With all the different tools and techniques it’s quite a bit different than when they were quilting.”
One thing that has not changed through the years, though, is the patience required to carefully piece seemingly random scraps of fabric into a cozy kaleidoscope of colors and shapes.
“It’s so encompassing, but you have to really enjoy the process to be involved in quilting,” she said. “Like any other hobby, it can be difficult and expensive, and you really have to enjoy doing it.”
Janine Manzione, 78, of Tooele, said the tools and techniques used for quilting have even changed significantly since she joined the group 26 years ago.
“When we first started everything was hand-quilted and now everything’s machine-quilted,” she said. “When I first joined, you learned the rotary cutter.”
What she loves most about quilting is the endless amount of themes and variations available. Even after quilting for so many years, she said, there are always new techniques, patterns or simply color combinations to consider, and a person’s quilts are often as unique as a fingerprint.
“There’s a lot of new concepts and new ways to do the old blocks. There are new conventions and new variations. There are endless possibilities in quilting,” she said. “But you can still pick out peoples’ quilts by what colors they choose or what pattern they do. Everyone’s got their style.”
Manzione said she believes the craft is an art form and a medium to preserve family and cultural heritage — drawing one generation together with the one before it and the one after. Although most of the group’s members are somewhat older, she said, some of the newer members provide an injection of youth and fresh enthusiasm into the mix.
“I think it’s an art. It’s good to learn to appreciate the past. It’s an art to sew and quilt,” she said. “It’s nice that we’re getting some younger girls in now. They’re really enthusiastic and they’re not afraid to try new things.”
At 30, Michelle Jensen, of Tooele, is one of the youngest. She joined the group about two and a half years ago when she became interested in learning how to sew but did not know where to begin.
“I didn’t know anything about sewing or quilting or anything, and I’ve always seen quilts in stores and I’ve always really wanted to learn how to make a quilt, so I just asked one of the members if anybody could join,” she said.
The annual membership fee verses the monthly classes and meetings offered by the group was pretty easy to weigh, she said. Now, she said, she has learned not only enough that she can confidently make a quilt on her own, but also enough to go into business as a quilt pattern designer and long-arm quilter, as well, and hopes to one day become a fabric designer.
Jensen said she feels quilting is a relatively user-friendly craft to learn because there are many projects and resources available for people across the scope of abilities. While there are some projects that require a lot of fine, practiced skill, she said, the simplest projects require comparatively little knowledge or experience.
“I’ve done a bit of sewing clothes, but I feel like quilting is a little bit more creative because you’re not trying to fit a person so I feel like you can do all kinds of different styles, and then for me, I use it to decorate my house, so seasonal and gifts, it’s great,” she said. “I think quilting is really easy to catch on, and there are easy patterns to do and free stuff on the Internet. It’s a really easy hobby to pick up, whereas clothes I’ve found are a little more difficult to begin with. You can start with something simple in the beginning and it can look great, and then you can move onto something more advanced when you’re ready.”
Jensen said some of her friends have joined or become interested in quilting since she began, and she has seen many other younger people become interested in quilting, as well, though it is often seen as a craft only for old women. This renewed interest is likely from a growing movement to appreciate items of quality and skill, as well as a rediscovered means of preserving the past.
“I feel like it’s a new scrapbooking in a way. It’s definitely around to stay,” she said. “I think it’s good that Tooele offers something like that around here. It’s just incredible that they’ve done this all these years. They’ve made a difference in my life and to my friends.”
Fojtek recently moved from Tooele to Utah County, but she said she still intends to continue to attend meetings with the Tooele group. Her husband, who is partially retired now, will still travel to Tooele for work twice a week, and she plans to ride in with him for meetings. A little extra effort is worth the sociability and continued learning the group provides, she said, especially for something so deeply rooted in family tradition.
“I have three sisters who quilt, and I think that’s kind of how it is with everybody,” she said. “They have a lot of family ties drawing them together. So many of the ladies want to take retreats with their daughters. Even some of my daughters have started piecing and making things for their friends. So many times it comes full circle.”