For Jo Baner of Bellingham, quilting isn't just a hobby. It's a way of life.
That's clear walking through her basement sewing studio - a trove of colorful fabrics, bobbins, needles and a few "UFO's," as Baner calls unfinished objects.
Sometimes, the professional quilter spends up to 10 hours a day there.
"Quilters parking only, all others will be stitched in the ditch" a sign on the door reads.
On one wall, scraps in every hue of the rainbow mix together in 4-foot-tall plastic containers. That is Baner's stash from which she pulls each time she starts a new project. Every quilter has one.
Baner's face lights up when she talks about quilting.
"To generalize, (quilters) are pretty passionate people," she says. "When you really get into it and join the guilds and go on retreats, it becomes your life."
Baner isn't alone.
From sewing and fiber arts classes to guilds and faith-based groups, it's not hard to find new friends through quilting in Whatcom County.
"We have a very big quilting community here," says Lee Glendening, the owner of Two Thimbles Quilt Shop in downtown Bellingham.
Glendening bases that on her numerous regulars, in addition to such customers as Western Washington University parents and Canadian visitors.
"It's also partly weather-related," Glendening says.
Months of Northwest drizzle often lead people to indoor activities. For a handful of women who attend Faith Lutheran Church in Birchwood neighborhood, quilting season runs during the chillier months, from late September through April.
During that time they meet from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. each Monday at the church, where they work together to sew lap robes and quilts for charities, including the American Red Cross and the YWCA. This year, they gave away 157 quilts.
Whether it's for a good cause or a new baby, quilting has a way of bringing people together. Moonlight Quilters Guild, which meets the second Monday of each month, boasts 90 members.
"We quilters are giving people," says Sharon DeGrave, the guild's co-vice president of programs. "When my mom died, the rest of the group got together and made me a quilt. It's just what you do."
Sitting on a tall stool, Baner works at her longarm, an industrial sewing machine on wheels that can move in all directions. The machine is mounted to a 10-foot-long table. Baner learned to quilt by hand, but when she realized it could be done with a machine, that was it. She was hooked.
"I use the needle like a pencil," she says as she guides the heavy machine over the unfinished quilt. She creates stitch patterns of swirling loops and feathers, all the while binding the multiple layers together.
Most quilters don't own longarms. Owners tend to be diehards, like Baner, who are willing to pay $5,000 to $30,000 to own one. Because they're pricey to buy and to maintain, Baner has turned her longarm into a business. Her clients create their own patchwork or artistic quilt tops, then Baner sews them to the back and middle layers for a fee.
For her, becoming a professional quilter was a no-brainer: "Quilters quilt because they need to quilt, it's addictive."
It may be habit-forming, but it isn't cheap. A baby blanket can cost $50 to $75 for the fabric, batting and thread. For a larger quilt, expect to pay from $250 to $500 for materials.
While the poor economy has led to more quilters dipping into their stash rather than buying new fabric, Glendening said it hasn't stopped quilters from enjoying the products at her shop.
"Quilters need to get their fix," she says. "They'll come in and say, 'I just want to touch the fabric.' We literally hear those words."
JOY OF CREATING
At its core, quilting is a sewing method used to join two or more layers of material to make a thicker padded material. It can be done by hand, by sewing machine or by longarm. From those basics, the quilter's imagination allows for a limitless number of creations.
Baner first learned to make traditional patchwork pieces, but soon realized her real passion was art quilts that depict realistic pictures. She does that with a technique called appliqué, in which she sews an image or design made out of fabric on top of another textile. She also likes to dye and paint on the fabric.
Baner's process is to choose an image or design. Then she picks textiles with the color, pattern and texture to convey the look that she's going for. She cuts the pieces into shapes, arranges them into her desired image, and sews it all into place. The result: a tactile, three-dimensional painting.
In a pictorial art quilt she made of Shuksan Mountain, a puffy cloud made of white batting hangs in a royal blue sky. Her stitches create little swirls, like a fabric recreation of Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night." On the lake below, wavy stitches over gray, sparkly tulle create ripples in the water.
It's her creative outlet; her means of expression. And for that she gladly pays the maintenance fees on her longarm and the often high cost of materials.
Even the tendinitis in her thumbs from long hours of repetitive motion is worth it.
"People usually think about fabric as simple, everyday objects like clothing or a couch," Baner says. "When I realized that fabric could be manipulated to create art ... that was magic."
Two Thimbles Quilt Shop
1805 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham
Fourth Corner Quilts
1844 N. State St., Bellingham
Tangled Threads Quilt Shop
202 Sixth St., Lynden
1722 Front St., Lynden
Gail Harker Center for Creative Arts
12636 Chilberg Road, Mount Vernon
Guilds and groups
Moonlight Quilters Guild
Meets: 6:30 p.m. every second Monday, Trinity Lutheran Church's Grace Center
2408 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham
Meets: Tuesdays, Birchwood Presbyterian Church
400 Meadowbrook Court, Bellingham
Faith Lutheran Quilters
Meets: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays, September through April
2750 McLeod Road Bellingham
Gabrielle Nomura is a Bellingham freelance writer.