PHILLIPS — The ladies gathered around the tables, which had been arranged to facilitate individual work space, easy conversation, and assistance if needed. Amidst friendly greetings and catching up on each other’s doings over the past couple weeks, they organized their current project materials and settled in for a day of quilting at Dark Star Fabric Shop on Main Street in Phillips. The weekly meeting of the Mad Hatters Quilters’ had begun.

The Mad Hatters Quilters’, from left to right: Ellen Bibeau, guest Cecile Sprague, Prudy Pike, Deb Black, Janice White, Rachelle Knight and Jeremy, and Anne Baker.

The Mad Hatters have been meeting since last September after Prudy Pike, Susan Randow and Ellen Bibeau decided to recruit like-minded women to join them in the time-honored tradition of a sewing circle. These three had been taking a class together.

The brainstorm brewed as the trio – Prudy, Susan, and Ellen – worked together at a paper piecing class, a new technique for all three. In quilting, paper piecing is a technique that involves sewing pieces of fabric to the back of a paper pattern, which, evidently, is not as easy as one might think.

The ladies tried to explain …

“Paper piecing … there’s a mirror image … paper with pattern on it … sew it backwards and flip it over … so hard to explain … sew through paper and fabric for a stable surface … makes it easier to stitch very fine details …”

“It’s a pain in the butt! Makes you go cross-eyed!!”

Six hours later (“I’m not joking you!” one of the girls exclaimed.), “I’ve got it figured out! Well, no, that’s not right either …”

“We were having so much fun together,” the three agreed, and Prudy had always wanted to start a group. They decided it was just the time to get more folks involved.

“Quilting has been around forever,” Prudy said.

“Always had a sewing circle or something (in the community). Women need other women. We support each other – laugh and help each other and learn something from each other every week. And the beautiful quilts …”

To make it official, Susan contacted the Pine Tree Quilters’ Guild, Inc. (PTQG) for information about establishing a formal organization. According to its website, “PTQG is Maine’s statewide quilting guild with over 2,000 members, including 67 chapters divided into 7 geographic areas. Chapter activities are one of the best ways you can enjoy quilting, share and expand your quilting skills, and make some great new friends.”

The appropriate paperwork was secured and completed. State dues were paid. The Mad Hatters Quilters’ became PTQG’s newest chapter.

Since September 2018, the group has grown from the three founders to include about a dozen members. Prudy is the president; Ellen, secretary; Susan, treasurer. Pam Lambert is the correspondent to PTQG’s Patchwork Press, the guild’s newsletter, which comes out six times a year, about every two months. Prudy often represents the Mad Hatter Quilters’ at state meetings, but others are welcome to attend this “fun day.”

The statement of purpose of Mad Hatters Quilters’ reads: “Our purpose is to encourage and support one another in a teaching and learning environment of all things quilting.”

“And we just have a fantastic time,” Prudy declared on behalf of all present.

Attendance at weekly meetings varies from week to week and, this time of year, depends a lot on the weather, as well. Business meetings, as such, are not held. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each Wednesday, the main orders of business are quilting and conversation, with a break for lunch. Ladies bring their own lunches or trek across the street for a sandwich or salad from the Local Bull.

Members present on the day of this interview each shared a little about themselves as quilters.

Prudy Pike was 24 years old when she took her first class. All the quilting was done by hand. She has been quilting for 47 years now, using a machine only for the past 10. In addition to her smaller models, she has a long arm quilting machine for sewing the three layers – top, batting (or the “filling,” which makes the quilt warm and heavy), and back – together all at once. Though she, like a majority of the other Mad Hatters, “was raised on Singers,” Prudy now has a computerized Brother machine, which, she admits, has not always made her work easier.

Awhile ago, something got switched on the settings and “I can’t even quilt on my quilt because (the instructions) are in Chinese!” she said to the customer service rep with whom she was finally able to connect. He was able to guide her through a solution to the problem.

Prudy does use an industrial Singer for her projects with heavier materials, such as leather, canvas, upholstery fabric, and the like.

“I learned to sew when I was little by copying Grammie Heath and Grammie Bragdon,” Janice White shared of her beginning days of quilting, at least 45 years ago, “And I taught Mom how to quilt.”

Janny has three Brothers and a Singer in her sewing machine repertoire.

A lifelong Phillips resident and a quilter since the 1970s, she has created hundreds of quilts for her family and for charity. Janice’s quilts are especially notable because she lovingly and painstakingly makes every stitch by hand.

One of Dark Star Fabrics’ most popular instructors, Janice recently concluded a class entitled “Learn the Basics of Hand Applique.” Skills taught included how to make and use templates, do turned-edge stitching, applique inside and outside curves and points, and embellish your applique using embroidery floss. Those who completed the beginning level three-session class went home with their very own flower bouquet wall hanging or pillow project top.

Ellen Bibeau said, “My grandmother taught me to sew when I was little … I’ve been quilting forever, all my adult life. Since I don’t always have a lot of money to buy presents, I started making quilts for my daughters, the older girls.”

She shared “an example of what not to do.” After reading in a magazine about Dresden plate quilts, one of the most popular quilt patterns from the 1920s and ’30s, Ellen decided to give it a try.

“I left out things,” she admitted. “I could’ve used some help, but I just winged it … such a disaster … all those little petals …”

In 1981, Ellen took an adult ed class and “learned the fine art of quilting rather than Ellen’s way.” Now she quilts almost every day, making anything from traditional and Civil War quilts to those that are “a little wild.” Though she says she doesn’t really have a favorite style, she does tend towards seasonal/holiday quilts and memorializing special events for her grandchildren.

In addition to being a Mad Hatter, Anne Baker also belongs to the Narrow Gauge Quilters (NGQ) and the Maine Mountain Quilters (MMQ). Both are equally well-known in the area for their community service work. Quilts created by members of NGQ are often presented to local charities and/or local families who may have faced difficult situations such as fire or illness. MMQ routinely makes comfort quilts for fire victims and those who are ill in the community. They also sew “peace quilts,” which are given to the police department.

Anne’s quilting career began 42 years ago this summer when she took a quilting class at UMF. As a home economics teacher at Medomak Valley High School for 26 years, she enrolled in the class to earn recertification credits and “has been hooked ever since.”

Referring to herself as “an import to Franklin Country,” Anne moved to the area in 1996. As she “likes to keep busy,” she joined Mad Hatters last fall. Considering herself a traditional quilter, her favorite is making scrap quilts, but she also “dabbles” with pastel fabrics and Baltimore floral applique, a sewing technique in which fabric patches are layered on a foundation fabric, then stitched in place by hand or machine with the raw edges turned under or covered with decorative stitching. Though she has three old Singers and a Bernina, Anne does her applique by hand.

And, she is “the potholder queen of Maine.” After developing her own original technique, she has made more than 13,000 potholders over the past 24 years.

“This number is for real!” Anne stated emphatically.

Her work features “scrappy holders for everyday cooking,” which she donates to local food pantries. In her 20-plus years of making these “gifts from the heart,” Anne says, “I have Franklin County pretty well covered … and I have yet to meet anyone who makes potholders like me!”

Joyce Allard has been taking classes with Janice and is “catching on quickly.” She just this past year took out a quilt which she had “put away” 42 years ago. Ellen commented on how “(Joyce) treasures every minute of what she’s doing” and Prudy added, “She has such an eye for color.” Ellen and Prudy, who “have been doing it forever,” are entranced with Joyce’s enthusiasm. They compare watching her work to “watching small children at Christmas.”

Deb Black and her daughter, Rachelle Knight, are the owners of Dark Star Fabrics. Rachelle’s 4-month old son, Jeremy, is recognized by the Mad Hatters as the youngest member. It was pointed out that “he’s got lots of grammies here.”

Rachelle, who is really the youngest member, noted that “he’s got to be the most spoiled baby in the whole area. There’s no shortage of folks who want to be loving on him …”

Deb and Rachelle opened Dark Star Fabrics on Oct. 20, 2017, in a classic old home at 30 Main St. in Phillips. Billed as “a special shop where quilters can find fabric for quilts, long-arm quilting services, quilts and quilting supplies, plus meeting space for quilting groups and classes,” one of its unique offerings is the collection of fabrics designed by Aboriginal artists and imported from Australia.

The Mad Hatters Quilters’ are currently working on a group project – a quilt which is destined to be raffled off during Phillips Old Home Days in August.

“It took us all day to pick the colors,” the ladies explained. “It took everybody’s minds, everybody’s ideas, then coming back with fresh eyes.”

When all was said and done, they had chosen a simple black and white theme with patterns of snowy owls and birch trees.

“It’s just simple enough that it will reflect each of us,” they pointed out, noting that “there are a lot of personalities here … and a lot of talent.”

Some of the proceeds from the raffle will be donated to a local need or charity, and some will go to Dark Star in compensation for the use of the workroom, since the owners do not charge a fee.

“Dark Star is so generous,” one of the ladies said. “We really want to call attention to the business in the hopes of drawing more people into the shop.”

With that objective in mind, the group is planning to stage The Mad Hatters Quilters’ Clothesline Quilt Show in the yard and on the porch of Dark Star during Old Home Days. With the Narrow Gauge show in the church at the lower end of Main Street and the Reeds Mills Quilters show at the upper end of town, Mad Hatters in the middle makes Phillips a real destination spot for anyone who loves quilts and fabric in general. A possible catch phrase? How about Be There or Be “Square”?

The Hatters will also have a float in the Annual Old Home Days Parade. They already have ideas of how to interpret this year’s theme: Our Favorite Holidays.

Not to give too much away, but there actually is a National Quilting Day which is observed on the third Saturday in March in recognition of all quilt makers “along with all of their long labor, love and skill that goes into the making of each quilt.”

In conclusion, an open invitation to anyone interested in joining this circle of women. Beginner, longtime quilter, or somewhere in between, new members are always welcome!

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