As with many arts, quilting produces finished products that are functional as well as aesthetically pleasing. But quilting hasn’t traditionally been recognized as the art it is–something Audrey Chase and her fellow Gems of the Prairie Quilters hope to rectify.

The Gems of the Prairie Quilters are a group of central Illinois quilters–beginners through experts–who meet monthly to enjoy the friendship of other quilters and improve their quilting knowledge and skill, she said. "This group was formed in 1990, when a small group of women who belonged to the Peoria Stitchers Guild decided to start an evening guild for quilters. The purpose of this organization is to contribute to the knowledge of and promote the appreciation of fine quilts; to sponsor and support quilting activities; to encourage quilt making and collecting; and to contribute to the growth of knowledge of quilting techniques, textiles, patterns, and the history of quilts and quilt makers." 

When the group first met 13 years ago, 20 women attended. "Today, we have a membership of more than 200 quilters from a five-county area. The age range of the members is from late 20s to our oldest member, Norma Smith, whoÕs 101," Chase said.

Along with the increase in membership, she said the purpose of the group has evolved over the years. "Quilting has become a distinctly different activity from that of 20 years ago. The variety of fabrics, patterns, threads, and techniques has exploded. Quilters have a diversity of styles to choose from; there’s literally something for everyone. While many members enjoy making traditional types of quilts, a growing number have become interested in art quilts, made solely for the beauty of the quilt."

One of the activities of Gems of the Prairie Quilters is making quilts for the OSF Saint Francis Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, a project Chase said began about 10 years ago. "One of our member’s daughters, who works in the NICU, suggested to her mother that small quilts would help brighten up the necessarily sterile environment. As Gems was a small group at the time, a few quilts were made and donated to the unit that year. From there, the project has grown to almost 150 quilts so far this year. They’re used as decorations, under the babies, on the isolettes, and for other purposes. These quilts are kept in the NICU. With the frequent washing required, the unit uses a large number of these tiny quilts."

Usually, quilts aren’t sent home with the babies, but Chase said there was one exception earlier this year. "One of the quilts in the latest batch was designed to look like a flag. A baby had just been born whose father was serving in Iraq, and he had been given leave to come home. The nurses put the baby’s footprints and name on the back of the quilt and presented it to the parents."

Another project the Gems took on is making quilts for the young patients of St. Jude Children’s Hospital Midwest Affiliate. "Each child who’s treated at St. Jude selects a quilt from the ones that have been donated. This quilt becomes the property of the child. Many of our members have been involved with the St. Jude program and have expressed to our members the appreciation and gratitude of the families. We donate about 50 quilts per year to this project," Chase said.

To give the public a peak at their efforts, the Gems of the Prairie Quilters are once again hosting Autumn Gems 2003 Quilt Show September 20 and 21 at the Parc building. "More than 300 quilts will be displayed at the main show, plus another 100 to 150 in categories such as service quilts, workshop quilts, and quilts made with block lotto squares, as well as the bed-turning and honored quilter categories," said Chase, who’s co-chair of the publicity committee for the show. "In addition to all of the quilts, several vendors will display the latest in quilting fabrics, patterns, and tools and will conduct a variety of demonstrations throughout the two days."

She said based on past numbers for the show, they expect approximately 1,000 people to attend this year’s edition. "If a quilter is in the area for another event, they’ll include our show in their itinerary, or our show will be the prime reason they’re in Peoria. We’re proud of our growing reputation for having a quality quilt show, thanks to our many talented and hard-working members."

Many more tourism dollars are expected to come to the Peoria area when the National Quilting Association Show takes place June 24 to 26, 2004, at the Peoria Civic Center. "Gems of the Prairie Quilters is the host guild for this event," said Chase, a chair for the special events committee for the national show. "The NQA Show will attract both quilt entries and quilters from across the country. Many nationally and internationally known workshop presenters and lecturers will conduct classes on a variety of subjects. This show typically draws somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 people. While many quilters come to take part in the show’s events, a large number will come to Peoria to ’ooh’and ’aah’ at the many beautiful quilts that will be on display."

In addition to these events, the Gems also host 10 to 12 workshops each year. "Our ’November to Remember’ workshop takes place the first weekend in November at Parc, which is the site of the majority of our other workshops. Special event workshops this year include Vicki Alsene, a quilter and teacher from Ottawa, who does workshops on dyeing fabric. In 2004, two nationally known teachers, Caryl Bryer Fallert and Karen Combs, are scheduled to present workshops to our members."

All of these activities are mandatory to keep up with the increasing interest in the art of quilting. "It’s exploded in the last 15 to 20 years. The advent of the rotary cutter and simplified methods of construction, plus the large variety of books, patterns, and fabrics, has created a wide variety of possibilities for quilting projects," Chase explained. "The Peoria area has four quilt shops, in addition to others that carry materials for quilting as well as other hobbies–plus several more within a reasonable driving distance. And new quilters can find any number of classes to expand their quilting knowledge and ability."

For some quilters, the art has been part of their lives since childhood. But for most, it’s a discovery made in later years. "A good number become interested in quilting as adults," Chase said. "While many people think of quilting in terms of quilting bees and coverings for beds, the quilter of today may think of quilting as more of an art form or a way to express creative abilities. Actually, most quilters do both. While the world of art quilts is new and exciting, nothing beats snuggling up under a cozy quilt on a cold winter night.

"Our members, both young and old, have somewhat different reasons for joining this rapidly growing pastime. New members and guests to quilt meetings are awed by the number of active participants, the variety of activities, and the vast array of talent thatÕs present. Quilting is more than a pastime; for most of us, it’s a passion."

Admission to the Autumn Gems 2003 Quilt Show is $5 for adults and $1 for children six to 12. For more information, visit www.gemsoftheprairie.com. AA!