Master quilter Jinny Beyer next to the medallion quilt that won the Great American Quilt Contest.
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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
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
"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.
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
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
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
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
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).
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
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
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."
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.
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
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
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.