The sharp silver needle on the Janome sewing machine pierces supple purple fabric with precision. The room is stuffed with an assortment of rainbow colored fabric that is stacked from floor to ceiling on top of each other. Material hangs from racks, is jammed into boxes and wedged in between shelves. Mountains of cotton share space with an entire world of multi-colored threads, yarns, buttons and pattern clippings that are strewn about, tossed to the side during a fit of creative quilting energy.
The machine hums while practiced hands calmly guide colorful cotton squares under the needle to be bound together by a single strand of delicate Italian thread. An exceptionally bright light illuminates the workspace, making the rest of the cluttered room almost disappear into darkness.
For centuries, quilts have carried our memories, told our stories and warmed our babies. When times were tough, quilts were pieced together from scraps of denim or old shirts. In prosperous times, they were made of fine silks to be displayed in art galleries and on living room walls. Quilts are undoubtedly a special part of American culture, but the quilt coming together under this sewing machine is special for another reason; it’s being made by a man.
At first glance, Jeff Rutherford is unassuming. He is of average height, average build and
drives a modest green Subaru. Even his smile is an unassuming smirk that would never give away the fact that at 47-years-old, Rutherford is a modern day Renaissance man. Rutherford is an active father of two. He interviews authors for a podcast that he produces and is a huge music fan. He is an avid CrossFit athlete and he goes dancing every Friday night.
Rutherford is also a member of a clutch of male quilters who have taken up an art form traditionally practiced by women. Men Who Quilt and Quilting Men are Facebook groups with 466 members and 220 members respectively. But before Facebook, Rutherford was a member of QuiltGuy, an all-male quilting Yahoo group. Today the group has over 380 members but it started out with only a handful of members who would share images and sewing advice online. The men gather together twice a year at male quilting retreats to sew and share each other’s company.
“Those two weekends are the highlights of my year,” Rutherford said. “They’re something that I look forward to and I’ve definitely made some really close friendships.”
QuiltGuy started out as a Yahoo chat group where men would log in and talk shop, share ideas and problem solve together.
“Somewhere along the way I found this email group. Someone in the group said, ‘it looks like we’re all in the New England area, let’s get together for a day.’ Two guys who owned a quilt shop in Woodstock, New York said that they had a space above their store so we ended up having three meetings at that store,” Jeff said.
Sewing machines in hand, the first 12 members of QuiltGuy met in Woodstock in the summer of 2008. The social element of the all women’s quilting bee was something many male quilters at the retreat had never experienced. Andre Emmell of Vermont is a senior member of QuiltGuy. He met Rutherford for the first time that warm summer morning and recalled how it felt to finally meet and sew with other male quilters.
“With a bunch of guys, you can relax and just be yourself. If you say something a little off-color, you can relax and laugh with the guys, it’s different than being the only guy in an all women’s guild.”
For Rutherford and Emmell, the retreat was more than a place to sew; it was a place to build new friendships and a community that would last almost as long as the quilts themselves.
Born and raised in conservative Macon, Georgia, Rutherford was the only boy in a sewing class he took in the 6th grade where he learned how to make dolls similar to Cabbage Patch Kids. While most boys his age might have worried about getting teased, Jeff didn’t care.
Rutherford’s maverick mentality grew over the years. He started organizing punk shows in high school and his southern church going neighbors gave him disapproving looks when he shaved his head into a tall blonde Mohawk during his senior year.
Jeff moved to New York City in 1997 after graduating from the University of Georgia.
In 2000, while walking through Wave Hill Park in the Bronx, Rutherford found a gallery displaying the work of local artists. Jeff wandered into the gallery and on display that day were a series of modern quilts made by New Yorkers. Jeff was awestruck; he had found the artistic outlet he had been looking for.
“I've written fiction - short stories and novels - as a creative outlet, but I had long wanted some type of visual art to pursue as well,” Rutherford said. “Those quilts blew me away, but the one overwhelming thought that I remember thinking was I can do that, I'm not sure how, but I know I can do that," he said.
Rutherford began reading about quilting in magazines and books. He frequented the City Quilter, a famous quilting store in Manhattan. He browsed fabric stores, examined quilting styles and flipped through books full of patterns and techniques. He poured over everything quilting but still hadn’t sewn a stitch. That changed when he moved to Conway Massachusetts in 2002.
“Not long after moving, I bought a sewing machine, a cheap Singer at a discount store, and I bought a copy of Quilting for Dummies. I tried to teach myself how to quilt, but it wasn't pretty,” Rutherford laughed.
Picking up the many intricate sewing techniques he needed to start quilting was a challenge and even Quilting for Dummies assumed basic sewing knowledge. Terms like “quarter-inch seam” and “basting” meant nothing to Jeff who, frustrated, stepped away from the craft without making a single quilt. The Singer sat alone in the empty quilting room. A half sewn length of jammed material dangled from the intimidating machine mid-stitch.
But fate intervened. A Notion to Quilt, a new quilting store ten minutes north just
opened shop in Shelburne Falls and was offering classes for beginners. Rutherford
enrolled in class immediately.
Shop owner, Ellen DeGrave, a quilter with 30 years of experience was Jeff’s first quilting teacher.
“He was the only male in my class!” she said. “I’ve never seen another man in a quilting class.”
DeGrave was just the kind of teacher Rutherford had been looking for. Always smiling, she demystified the techniques of the craft. Soon, Rutherford’s cheap Singer was humming with life. He began working on quilts in class, and at home.
“Ellen was the perfect teacher. She just had this great sense of humor and would often just laugh while she was teaching, and it was just the perfect combination in someone to learn from,” he said. “I knew fairly quickly that this was something I would do for the rest of my life.”
DeGrave recalls, “I think women were happy to have him in the class but they seemed amazed that a man would want to spend so much time in a group quilting with them.”
Rutherford’s first quilt took about two months to make.
“It’s funny, we all live in this age of Facebook and Instagram, everything is immediate,” he said. “But quilting is something that takes time and I’m always reminded of that.”
Rutherford’s first quilt hangs in the room where he does all of his sewing. It’s modest when compared to the work he does today, but like most quilts, the one hanging on his wall recalls his story and hints at a fascinating personal history.
“I keep thinking I’m going take it down and put up a newer quilt, but I just haven’t done it yet,” he said. “I’ve thought about just giving some of the quilts away, but it’s like how some artists refuse to sell or give away their work, they just get attached.”
The word quilt is derived from the Latin word culcita meaning “stuffed sack.” At its most basic, a quilt is little more than three layers of cloth sewn together—a top, a filling usually made of wool or cotton and a backing. The earliest American quilts were made by colonists for purely utilitarian reasons. Fabric was a rare commodity and every scrap was used to fashion warm blankets during the cold months. But quilting has come a long way since.
Today’s quilts can be sophisticated pieces of fine art. Some quilts are made for gallery walls while others are made to carry powerful social messages. The AIDS quilt, made to remember the lives of the people lost to the disease is the world’s largest quilt at over 1.2 million square feet. It covered the entire National Mall in Washington D.C. the last time it was displayed in 1996.
On a smaller scale, quilts can be given as gifts to commemorate the birth of a child or a new marriage. The number of hours spent hand stitching or sewing behind a machine leave the quilter with a lot of time to think about the gift, the craft and the meaning behind the labor.
“It’s sort of a meditation. I definitely think about the person while I’m making it,” Rutherford said.
His former teacher echoed the same feelings. DeGrave said that for her, quilting was about the quality of the time spent sewing and the intention behind the work.
DeGrave said, “When I’m making a quilt for someone, the whole time I’m working I’m thinking about them. The person is always with me while I am working. It’s really an act of pure love.”
And it is that sentiment, perhaps, that really challenges the gender expectations inherent to the craft. In its most elemental form, the quilt is designed to keep its user warm. Wrapped around one’s shoulders, the three layers of soft fabric represent a loving embrace. The softness of a quilt is in hard contrast to that of the identity typically assigned to the American male.
It’s easy for Jeff to get lost looking at the rainbow rows of cotton, muslin, corduroy and
silk at his local craft supply store. Shopping for material is usually not a big deal. Occasionally however, he is met by disbelieving store clerks.
Recently, while shopping for baby quilt fabric, Rutherford was met by a cotton haired woman wearing a smock and a nametag that read “Linda.”
“Can I help you with something sir?” she asked.
She interrupted before he could answer, “Are you waiting for your wife?”
“No, I’m just picking up a few things,” Rutherford responded.
Linda’s white Shape-Up sneakers squeaked as she walked double-time to the fabric cutting counter to help a line of women with baskets full of fabric. Jeff spent a few more minutes touching the yellows, rubbing them between his fingers until he felt one that he liked.
At the counter, Linda was busy cutting canvas for a woman who made tote bags. She looked over the edge of her bifocals that rested on the tip of her nose, folded up the canvas and slid it across the broad cutting table.
“Next!” she said.
Smiling, Jeff handed Linda a bolt of dandelion yellow fabric and some plush cotton batting.
“I’ll take two yards of the batting and I’ll buy all of the yellow fabric.”
Linda reached across the table for the batting and began unrolling it. She pushed her glasses up with the back of her hand.
“What’s this for?” she asked. “Is your wife making something?”
“No, I’m making a baby quilt for the owners of my gym.”
To prove it, he pulled out his phone and started showing Linda an extensive archive of all the intricate quilts he’s made over the years.
“Wow, you’re really good at this!” she said.
It’s a Saturday morning and Rutherford is up early. Late summer sunshine is pouring through the window, filling his quilting studio with warmth. Setting his coffee cup next to his sewing machine, Rutherford selects a soundtrack before sitting down to work. Today he’s in the mood for Jay-Z.
The thumping music mimics the action of the sewing machine as Jeff begins sewing together the final pieces of a baby quilt he’s been working on for almost three months. As if by magic, individual strips of dandelion yellow fabric become one with midnight blue and violet cotton squares. Four playlists later and the top is finally ready to be sent out for quilting.
Most home quilters can’t afford the large quilting machine that is used to bind the three layers together and hand quilting can take months. Jeff sends his work out to Emmell because he knows that his work is flawless. Before noon, the three quilt layers are wrapped in watertight packaging and shipped—insured— to be quilted together by Emmell in his Vermont studio.
On a cold gray autumn day, a brisk wind coaxed people across the Pioneer Valley to get out their sweaters and fleeces pullovers. Liz Greene and Perrin Hendrick, owners of Pioneer Valley CrossFit in Northampton, opened the gym early that morning as sleepy eyed athletes strolled in. In tow was Baby Jack, Liz and Perrin’s three-month-old baby boy who sat snuggled inside a blanket that protected his tender skin from the sharp chill in the morning air.
Jack whimpered when Liz took him from the stroller for feeding. Just then, Jeff approached the new family with a gift.
“Hey guys, I’ve got something for you,” Rutherford said smiling.
He reached inside a brown paper bag and pulled out the baby quilt that he’d been working on for months. Carefully, he unfolded the plush blanket and held it open before Liz, Perrin and Baby Jack. The perfect patchwork quilt of purple and dandelion-yellow squares amazed the new parents and even Baby Jack too notice.
“Oh. My. God!” said Liz.
“With love and community,” read the handwritten words inscribed on a label that was hand-stitched on to the back the quilt.
“This is incredible! I think I might wear this all winter,” joked Perrin as Jack looked on, cradled in the arms of his mother who couldn’t stop smiling.
Jeff watched as the baby was wrapped up in his creation. You could see both a sense of joy from gift giving and a humble pride behind Rutherford’s eyes.
Time always has its way with material things. Inevitably, Jack will outgrow the four by four foot quilt and it will be packed away. The years will fray the edges and the colors will begin to fade after washing. But when time has taken all of us and Jack has children of his own, the quilt will survive to tell the story of Jeff, a man who loved to quilt.