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Telling stories through quilts

Loraine Berge turns over 283 quilts she made to Pastor Hans Borch of Elmira’s St. James Lutheran Church, which is taking part in a drive to help Syrian refugees. [Will Sloan / The Observer]

Anyone who has received one as a family heirloom knows that every quilt has a story. When the Waterloo Region Quilt & Fibre Art Festival returns for its 19th year, plenty of these stories will have a chance to be told.

Jackie Gross’ grandmother used discarded cigar silks to assemble her quilt over many years.[Will Sloan / The Observer]
Jackie Gross’ grandmother used discarded cigar silks to assemble her quilt over many years. [Will Sloan / The Observer]
Take, for example, the one belonging to New Hamburg resident Jackie Gross. In 1921, Gross’ grandmother Josephine Schmalz started the Commercial Hotel in Mildmay, Ontario, with her husband, and began a hobby that would last for years.

“They sold cigar and cigarette products in the bar, and each silk was wrapped around each cigar,” said Gross. “The idea was for the men to take them home to their wives. They mostly did pillow tops out of these silks. But when the men discarded them, grandma gathered them up.”

Rather than let the cigar silks go to waste, Josephine stitched them into an enormous, multi-coloured quilt. “It would have taken her years to collect the silk,” Gross continued. “She would have had to have gathered them up for years – 10, 15, 20 years – before she had enough to do what she did with it.”

When Josephine died in 1986 at age 96, she passed it on to her daughter, and in 1997, Gross became its owner. When asked to describe what the quilt means to her, Gross is succinct. “It was my grandmother’s handiwork – that’s what it means to me more than anything.

“People have asked me if I would ever sell it, because it’s been appraised at a fairly high value. They said, ‘You can probably sell this thing and go on a nice trip.’ But it’s my grandmother’s handiwork, so there’s no way I would ever sell it.”

The Josephine Schmalz quilt is one of many that will be displayed at the festival, which spans across the region, including St. Jacobs.

“It’s all about being inspired,” said St. Jacobs festival chair Lynn Wolf. “To see new ideas and new designs. Certainly there are classes people can take, and people can get up on the new trend, or a new application they hadn’t thought of before.”

Wolf continued, “We have some quilts in our exhibit that are stellar, that would win awards. And then we also exhibit things that are like mine – first time out of the gate, and just attempting that art form. I think that helps people get inspired: Knowing that everybody had a starting point at some time.”

The Schmalz quilt and many others will be on display at the St. Jacobs Mennonite Church May 27 to 30, along with daily classes and a Trunk Show featuring guest artist Chantal Lunch on Thursday. Artist Martha Wiens will headline A Sampling of Quilts & More at the St. Jacobs Schoolhouse Theatre (11 Albert St. S), and Tracey Lawko will be the featured artist at the Contemporary Fibre Art show (Silo Weavers, 1441 King St. N.). Those looking for supplies can hit up the Merchant Mall at St. James Lutheran Church (1407 King St. N.) May 28-30.

“It’s just seeing beautiful pieces,” said Wolf. “It’s transitioned from bedcovering to something that’s a little more artsy.”

For more information on events and times, go to www.stjacobs.com.

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