Jinny Beyer: Master Quilter

Meet Jinny Beyer, a contemporary master quilter who developed a unique paper-folding technique to achieve patchwork perfection.

072 jinny beyer master quilter 1 medallion quilt

Master quilter Jinny Beyer next to the medallion quilt that won the Great American Quilt Contest.


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Over the past few years there has been a real rebirth of interest in traditional North American crafts. Part of the reason for this handiwork renaissance, perhaps, is that people today yearn for the satisfaction that comes from creating a lovely object with their own hands. In many cases, too, a modern craftsperson will undertake a project simply because he or she has been moved by the beauty of an old piece of folk art, and—through a personal interpretation of it—hopes to pay homage to its heritage and to inspire other folks to continue the evolution of the craft.

Of course, there are very few people who can approach this ideal, whose work can successfully integrate the traditions of the past with the influences of the present. MOTHER EARTH NEWS recently was privileged to meet one such artisan, though: Jinny Beyer, a master quilter, writer, and teacher from Fairfax, Virginia. Jinny's creations deserve mention not only for their obvious beauty, but also because her quilts—while remaining faithful to the heritage of quiltmaking—show what contemporary craftsfolk can accomplish using modern-day fabric and an imaginative approach.

Now most people have had the opportunity to examine—often with some awe—age-faded patchwork quilts, and anyone who's ever sewn has marveled at the skill and love that typically went into such coverlets. Oddly enough, we appreciate this form of American folk art today far more than did our ancestors of the mid-1800's to early 1900's. During that time people tended to regard quilting as a lowly occupation, a craft suitable for young girls beginning their sewing careers or for older women whose failing eyesight would not permit them to do finer "fancywork." Quiltmaking was also looked down upon because it was considered a "labor of necessity," and the term conjured up images of utilitarian bedclothes pieced together by poor folk from castoff scraps of cloth.

Ms. Beyer relates a story reported by one of her students, who asked her grandmother about quiltmaking. The older woman replied, "We did no quilting in this house. We did no quilting."

"But Grandmother," Jinny's pupil persisted, "there must have been some quilting done. I've heard Aunt Sally talk about it."

"No, no. we did no quilting," asserted the grandmother.

Later, long after the old woman had died, the family cleaned out the attic. "They discovered trunks full of beautiful quilts," Jinny said. "But my student's grandmother hadn't wanted to admit that they'd needed to make quilts in those days."

Fortunately, attitudes have changed, and quilting is now receiving its due recognition. It's not unusual for groups of 200 to 300 people to meet regularly to work on their creations and attend lectures about the craft. And MOTHER feels it'd be difficult to find an individual who could better inspire anyone thinking about starting a first quilt (and bring some new ideas to advanced practitioners of the art) than Jinny Beyer. Therefore, we asked her to tell us about her involvement with this traditional American folk art.

Today's Art

While no one element makes Jinny's creations "different", several factors do distinguish her patchwork from that of others. These include her love of geometric designs; the unique paper-folding method by which she achieves the often complicated patterns for her blocks; the manner in which she combines fabrics to achieve visual effects that weren't present at all in any of the original materials used; and her frequent use of borders.

Many of the special features in Ms. Beyer's work can be traced to the seven years she and her family spent in the Orient, which not only influenced her early ideas about design, but enabled her to develop ways of using patterns and fabrics in relative isolation (a situation that will be familiar to many of MOTHER EARTH NEWS' homesteading readers). She started her first quilt in the spring of 1972—while living in India—using scraps of locally available cotton she'd bought to make patchwork skirts for relatives.

"I didn't know anything about the `rules' of quiltmaking," she recalls, "because no one in my family was involved in the craft. I was just doing what I liked and combining fabrics in a way that appealed to me At that point, I was still insecure enough about my creativity that I'm sure, had I been in the States, I would have studied contemporary quilts and made sure that my first one followed the accepted guidelines."

However, upon Jinny's arrival home in 1973, her self-confidence received a big boost when her family and friends raved over the Indian-cotton patchwork. When the time came for her to find a frame and quilt the top, she discovered a newly organized quilters' group and immediately joined up.

As Jinny worked both with the group and on her own, she became more proficient and eventually started teaching beginning quilters' classes. During that time, she also made the decision to continue exploring the geometric patterns that she'd come to love, and resisted suggestions that she venture into free-form patchwork. Ms. Beyer discovered that the structure and framework of geometrics—rather than limiting her creativity—seemed instead to spur her on to expand the boundaries imposed by the fabrics.

Paper Folding

Traditional patchwork quilts are assembled by first piecing a number of blocks and then stitching them together, so the process of establishing the block's pattern—and sizing the segments that compose it—is very important. And, as many handyfolk know, it can be pretty difficult to draft a geometric pattern ... particularly if you have, let's say, an original design that's based on a 15" square and want to reproduce it upon blocks that are only 11 5/8 " on aside.

When Jinny started her bicentennial quilt, which was to be made up of historical motifs, she required 10" quilt blocks. It didn't take her long to become frustrated with hunching over graph paper and laboriously enlarging or reducing the patterns she'd elected to use, so she was quite excited when a friend showed her how a geometric quilt block could be divided into smaller squares, and how those units could be broken down further into their individual components. That revelation helped Jinny to develop the paper-folding method that she now uses and teaches.

Simply stated, Ms. Beyer's system begins with a true square of the desired measurement (a drafting square—or a compass and ruler—is used to insure that the corners are right angles). Once the rightsized square has been measured and cut out from thin but sturdy tracing paper, the block is divided—with creases—into smaller units corresponding to the individual segments of the chosen design, whatever size that original may be. Through repeated horizontal, vertical, and diagonal folds, one can arrive at the proper-sized components for a block of the exact dimensions required without tedious enlarging or reducing on graph paper.

The "Flower Basket" quilt pattern can be analyzed and adapted using the paper-folding technique. The pattern drafter first figures out the pattern's correct components, which are composed entirely of small squares and right triangles. To arrive at the correct size for the individual patchwork pieces, he or she creases a piece of tracing paper into 16 small squares and bisects one of those squares diagonally.

The quilter then cuts out one square and one triangle from the tissue paper block, transfers those two shapes to cardboard (or sandpaper or clear acrylic) to make templates; figures out how many of each shape will be needed in each fabric being used; adds seam allowances during the cloth-cutting process ; and stitches the pieces together to complete one quilt block. (Obviously, paper-folded patterns would also be useful in other crafts involving geometrics, including woodworking, needlepoint, mosaics, Jewelry, and weaving).

Finding Fabrics

Jinny's knack of combining fabrics to the best effect—balancing light and dark colors, playing large and small prints against one another, and adding contrast pieces that encourage the eye to rove over the entire quilt—is the result of constant and careful observation. For example, as MOTHER EARTH NEWS' photographer was shifting powerful studio lights around and taking pictures of the quilts, it was apparent that Jinny was mulling over something not connected with the goings-on. Finally she asked, "Would you mind if I checked some fabric under your lights?"

The artist then brought out an elaborate, unfinished quilt top and explained that she'd been thinking about replacing its background material. Jinny spread out the patchwork (which looked gorgeous just the way it was), arranged the substitute pieces, studied the result from all angles under the harsh glare, reached a conclusion (she did decide to try a different fabric design), and folded up her work.

This anecdote illustrates a point that Ms. Beyer makes repeatedly in her teaching and books: A quilter must continually experiment with different textile designs to come up with pleasing and harmonious combinations. She recommends arranging the various pieces on cardboard and studying the different effects possible in each block ... and later, after the squares have been composed, shifting the blocks themselves around in order to find the arrangement that brings the best balance.

Jinny's work also depends upon her "marriage" of stripes to produce optical illusions, borders, and geometric shapes. To obtain such effects, she uses "repeat stripes," as fabric manufacturers refer to them, which are usually symmetrical bands of varying width, printed across a bolt of cloth. Such material is rather difficult to find; textile mills—whose wares come out twice a year—don't generally include more than one or two suitable patterns in any one season. Ms. Beyer, who's been collecting lengths of attractive material ever since she started quilting, suggests that beginning craftspersons buy a number of "spare" yards of fabric whenever they see an interesting design.

The Border

The use of borders—often created from repeat stripe material—is yet another characteristic of Jinny's work. Such trimming may be no more than a single narrow band snipped from material and used to frame a block ... or it could be a highly intricate pieced border that becomes one of the main components of a quilt. Ms. Beyer says that her love of "frames" resulted—in part—from her years of exposure to Oriental culture.

"There's so much more pattern to my life now," Ms. Beyer said. "I think all of my traveling—seeing the ornateness of things in the Orient—is reflected in my work. I saw borders everywhere I went ... an elegant temple design with a frieze around the top, and the beautifully decorated edges of women's saris. I began to think of the border as a stopping place for the eye."

Quilting Techniques

After we'd talked about the artistic elements in her work, we asked Jinny to give the quilters among MOTHER EARTH NEWS' readers some tips gleaned from her experience as a teacher. First, Ms. Beyer prefers to handpiece her quilts. "I enjoy the serenity of doing handwork. I can take time to make all the tiny points match in the blocks, and I don't get the hurried feeling that I do when working at the sewing machine," she asserts.

When the top is finished to her satisfaction, she places it—with its filling and lining—in a large traditional wooden frame. "There aren't many things I'm adamant about in quilting, but I do feel that some kind of frame is essential," Jinny maintains. "When you're quilting, you have to give the thread a bit of a tug with each stitch ... and that tautness results in a small amount of puckering that makes the quilting look really nice." When not using a frame, quilters run the risk of getting their stitches too loose or too tight, thus reducing the overall effect of their work.

Ms. Beyer also uses all-cotton material to piece her quilts because most commercial battings do contain some synthetic fibers to prevent lumping after repeated washings ... a problem that frequently occurred with the all-cotton battings used by old-time quiltmakers. Cotton fabrics—unlike synthetic blends—don't encourage fiber migration (or "bearding" as quilters call it), which results in a white fuzz popping up over the quilt's surface. Synthetic material in the top will act as a magnet, drawing the polyester fibers of the filling to the surface. There'll be some bearding in almost any quilt, even when the top is all cotton, but the natural fabrics suffer less from fiber migration than do the synthetics.

Getting Started

The best way to get started in quilting, Jinny says, is to begin a quilt. "I've seen too many people get bogged down with small, unsatisfying projects just because they're afraid to start a large one. Quilting isn't hard, though. It just requires a little time and practice."

A beginner should set aside a year to work on his or her first quilt, allowing perhaps six months to complete the top, and the rest to get the knack of quilting on a frame. Ms. Beyer also firmly believes that a novice should select a pattern that interests him or her, even though it may appear imposingly difficult at the outset. "By the time you've finished piecing two or three blocks, you'll have mastered the design," she says. "You may have to redo the first few clumsy attempts later on, but at least you'll be involved with a design that excites you!"

While teaching, Jinny has noticed that most beginners aren't as intimidated by the thought of piecing their patchwork as they are afraid to begin quilting the finished top. To counter this fear, she introduces her students to quilting during their second lesson (the first class is devoted to paper-folding patterns).

"When I started quilting my first top," she remembers, "my back hurt, I was poking my fingers with the needle, I was making large stitches, and I was going very slowly. I'd really enjoyed the handwork of piecing the quilt, but found that I wasn't enjoying quilting at all."

After three or four weeks, though, Jinny had solved her problems: A lower chair eased her backache, she learned to use a thimble, her stitches became more uniform, and her speed increased. Novice quilters just need to hang in there at first, she says, and keep in mind that their painstaking quilting stitches are just as important to the finished product as were the tiny seams that pieced together an attractive top.

Classes and quilters' groups can be good places to get the instruction and support that beginners so often need. If there's a class taught in your area, sign up. There are also a number of helpful manuals—including Jinny's own books and newsletters on the subject.

And, to ease the minds of those of you who look at elaborate quilt patterns and think (understandably!), "I could never do that," here's a word of encouragement: Jinny finished her magnificent "Ray of Light" medallion quilt  in 1978, less than six years after she started her first quilt. Furthermore, the coverlet—which was one of more than 10,000 entries—won the Great American Quilt Contest, sponsored by the U.S. Historical Society and Good Housekeeping magazine .

Can you think of a six-year apprenticeship better spent?  

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jinny's first book, Patchwork Patterns, explains her paper folding method and shows a reader how to make templates for any number of geometric designs . . . quilt blocks based on squares and triangles, eight-pointed stars, hexagons, and even curved pieces. Her second volume, A Quilter's Album of Blocks and Borders, catalogs more than 750 quilt patterns which can be created by means of the paper-folding technique; gives hundreds of suggested border patterns, and contains a very thorough explanation of the author's theories about combining fabric. Patchwork Patterns and A Quilter's Album of Blocks and Borders were both published by EPM Publications.

In addition, Jinny recommends the following titles: 

The Quiltmaker's Handbook by Michael James (paperback, $7 .95, Prentice-Hall). Mr. James has a new book, too, called The Second Quiltmaker's Handbook (paper back, $10 .95, Prentice-Hall).  

The Perfect Patchwork Primer by Beth Gutcheon (paperback, $7 .95, Penguin) and The Quilt Design Workbook by Beth and Jeffrey Gutcheon (paperback, $6.95, Raw son Wade).  

The following newsletters and magazines are also useful additions to a quiltmaker's library:  

Quilter's Newsletter Magazine 

Quilt  by HarrisPublications 

Finally, Jinny Beyer conducts an annual workshop in quiltmaking and design in January at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The 1982 workshop has already been filled.