UW News

October 30, 2008

A quilting life: Even after many years, staffer finds comfort in quilts

Where others have a dining room, Joan Hanson has a quilting room. Her home has a “lovely buffet counter and a garden window,” she explains, so she took down the chandelier and put up track lighting, installed some shelves on one wall for her boxes of fabric and put up a felt board for a “design wall.” All she had to do was add her sewing machine and she was in business.

You can see one of the products of Hanson’s efforts hanging on the wall of the graduate student teaching clinic in Speech and Hearing Sciences, where she is the manager. It’s a mostly red, white and blue quilt that is covered with signatures, some of which are familiar, like Patty Murray, Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein.

That quilt is called “Women in the Men’s Room” and commemorates 1992, “The Year of the Woman,” when a record number of women were elected to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Hanson was writing a quilting book, The Joy of Quilting, at the time, and she and her coauthor decided to promote the book and simultaneously raise money for a worthy cause. They sent pieces of fabric and a pen to the women senators and representatives, asking them to sign the fabric and return it. Hanson and her coauthor then made three quilts including the signatures — one each for themselves and one that was raffled off and the money given to the Red Cross. The book explains how to make the quilt — with or without signatures.

And that’s just one of the adventures Hanson has had with quilting.

It started as most hobbies do — in an offhand way. Hanson says she has always loved sewing, dating back to her childhood, when she made outfits for her Barbie dolls. She liked sewing so much, in fact, that her first career was as a home economics teacher. So when quilting began enjoying a revival after the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, Hanson signed up for a class. She was immediately enthused and made several quilts. Before long she was teaching classes in quilting. She estimates she’s been at it seriously since 1980.

How many quilts has Hanson made? Hundreds, perhaps. She isn’t sure because she gives many of them away. “Quilts are such a personal thing to give someone or to commemorate a certain occasion,” she says. “I’ve made quilts for people in our department who are ill or going through a hard time. My son just got married and I’m making a wedding quilt that includes signatures from the people who attended the wedding. And of course I’ve made lots of baby quilts.”

Then there are the quilting groups she belongs to that make quilts for a particular purpose — like the group that makes quilts for the neonatal unit at the UW Medical Center, and the group that makes quilts for the dolls that the Salvation Army gives away at Christmas time.

A quilt, Hanson says, begins with a design and some fabric. Designs are available in quilting books, or an experienced quilter can create her own. In the old days, a quilter might begin with a piece of graph paper and some colored pencils, but now there are computer programs to help map out the pattern to be followed.

Then there’s the matter of deciding what fabric to place where in the design. Although she can go out and buy fabric for a particular quilt, Hanson says she usually has some on hand already because “quilters always like to buy fabric.” And this is where her flannel board comes in handy, as she sticks fabric swatches on it to see what they look like together.

You can see why a quilting room might be more important to Hanson than a dining room.

But then, once made, the quilts serve a purpose in her home. She uses some as bedding and hangs others as pieces of art. Decorating for Christmas means breaking out the box of holiday quilts she’s made and hanging them up. She calls it instant decorating.

Holiday quilts were part of the plan when Hanson wrote her first book. She was teaching a class at the time that met once a month. Each month, students would learn how to make a quilt geared to the season — a snowball pattern for January, hearts and cupid’s arrows for February and so on.

“A friend and fellow quilter owned a company that published quilting books and she said, ‘Gee, this could be a book,'” Hanson says. “So my first book was called Calendar Quilts, and each quilt taught a different lesson. I did three or four other books after that.”

She doesn’t write quilting books anymore — too little time, she says — but she certainly finds time for quilting itself. In fact, in the last couple of months she’s gone on two quilting retreats. That’s when she and some quilting friends take their sewing machines and go someplace for the weekend.

“That may not be a lot of people’s idea of a good time, but we just sit around in our sweats and sew, visit and laugh,” Hanson says.

So why, after nearly 30 years, does she still make quilts?

“I’m a very visual person; I really enjoy the use of color and texture,” Hanson says. “And I like the definite progression from a beginning idea to a finished product. But there’s another side too. Quilts are a very comforting, personal thing. With all the high tech things in our lives, they’re something that people relate to on a very different level. I never get tired of making them.”