This week, an estimated 30,000 quilters descend on Paducah for the American Quilters Society’s Quilt Week. Many of these quilters are women, but a new voice in quilting, steadily grows stronger as decades pass and as gender roles become more fluid.
Judy Schwender, curator of collections for the National Quilt Museum in Paducah stands in front of a display wall full of quilts. She points at George Siciliano’s piece, a log cabin quilt with kaleidoscope colors twisting out from a central square. Each block in the tiny piece measures roughly one square inch and includes 36 to 72 miniscule pieces of fabric. “Now, George is a big guy," said Schwender. "He’s over six feet tall. He’s an ex-marine. He has great big hands, and he is able to sew all these pieces of fabric and make it work.”
Tall George Siciliano and his tiny artwork represent a growing minority in the quilting world—men who quilt and who quilt beautifully. Schwender said their work makes up a small percentage of the National Quilt Museum’s collection. A group of seven men have produced roughly 10% of the museum’s 445 pieces, but the art they have produced is noteworthy. The piece, “Air Show” by Jonathan Shannon, has even been dubbed one of the top 100 quilts of the 20th century. The quilt world, is changing. Slowly.
“Whether there’s a big increase in men that are actually involved or whether there’s just an increase in men that are willing to admit they’re involved, there’s quite a bunch now,” said Shannon.
Flynn is a former civil engineer from Billings, Mt., who has been a quilter for 32 years. Schwender saidhe used to quilt in airports on his way to bridge projects. Now, he owns Flynn Quilt Frame Company, which sells quilting tools he has invented including a special quilt frame for use with home sewing machines.
Flynn said while female quilters have always welcomed him into their guilds and groups, others used find his sewing interests confusing and tried to make excuses for it.
They would even misinterpret advertising photos of him quilting in a Bentwood rocking chair. “People looked at the Bentwood rocker in the wrong way and thought it was a wheelchair and thought that I was a quilter because I was a cripple," said Flynn.
Flynn quilts because he loves to. Flynn said when he went to fabric stores in the 1980s, clerks were even reluctant to talk to him. Now, of course, Flynn gets recognized in many quilt stores.
George Siciliano, the big man with the tiny quilts, said he also caught some flack from his marine buddieswhen he talked about his quilting—until he told them about his numerous quilting awards. The resident of Lebanon, Pa., marched in the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps long before he started quilting in 1997. He said he became fascinated with quilt design after years of accompanying his wife to shows. He also said not only did the quilt world influence his life, but as a man, he began to influence it in return—especially when he joined a guild board.
“I was told that by the women in the guild, that the complexion of the board meetings changed because where they used to talk about lady things, they didn’t do that anymore," Siciliano sad.
He continued, "It was strictly quilting. ‘Let’s get done, have our refreshments and get out of there.’”
Bonnie Browning is the executive show director for the American Quilter’s Society, and she said Siciliano’s story is not unusual. Many men pick up needles and thread after years of attending shows with their wives. And she suggests cash prizes might have had something to do with that.
“When they gave that first $10,000 prize here in Paducah, that really was the first time anybody had put a value of more than $50 or $100 on a quilt, "Browning said. Today the AQS gives away $120,000 at the Paducah show.
Yet, despite this new value placed upon the craft, Judy Schwender, Bonnie Browning and John Flynn doubt that men will comprise more than a small fraction of the quilting population in the future. Browning attributes this to the male tendency to associate quilting with “women’s work”. Flynn, however, believes quilting is too social for most men because quilt guilds typically involve considerable amounts of chatting.
But whatever the reason for it, George Siciliano jokes that he’s ok with the imbalance. “A lot of guys spend their weekends different ways. I spend them, usually, with a bunch of women. There’s nothing wrong with that,” said Siciliano. And lucky for him, it just might stay that way.