June 25, 2018
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Vintage textiles, songs embellish quilter’s work

By Ardeana Hamlin, BDN Staff

Carolee Withee of Whitefield inhabits the world with a quilt design in her mind and a song in her heart. That was clearly evident at the Oct. 12 meeting of the Orono Quilters when she was guest speaker and talked about her quilting. She showed an intriguing stack of wall hangings in sizes small to large.

Withee began her presentation by showing “Quilt Diva,” a charming applique rendition of a woman with hair tied up with a tape measure, and complete with a thread spool necklace, scissors and lengths of fabric spilling from her oversized handbag. Then, much to the delight of quilt group members and guests, Fields revealed that she had written a song called “Quilt Diva” to define what that term might mean. She pushed the switch on a CD player to provide musical accompaniment and sang the song in a pleasant contralto.

Clearly, Withee knew how to weave music into her work. She said she sets the words of her songs to traditional Irish tunes. Judging from the reaction of Withee’s audience to the song, everyone in the room recognized herself as a quilt diva to one degree or another.

Withee uses vintage textiles, such as crocheted doilies, bureau scarves with drawn-thread and cutwork designs, embroidered linen tablecloths and bits of handmade lace in her work. Cutting sections from the vintage items, she assembles them into wall hangings, or, using the whole item, such as a bureau scarf, she adds elements to create a collage effect.

“A recent inheritance offered a new path in my quilting adventures. I inherited some vintage linens with embroidery and handmade laces made by my grandmothers. These heirlooms had been carefully saved and protected for many years. Searching for a method to bring these antique linens out of the drawers and onto my walls, I enrolled in a class offered by nationally known quilter, Cindy Needham, who makes whole cloth wall hangings from old linens,” Withee wrote in a post at handiquilter.com.

“It’s important for the next generation to see these things, instead of keeping them folded away in a drawer,” she said of the vintage pieces she uses in her work. Someone loved those old pieces, she said, embroidering the loop stitches and French knots, crocheting or tatting the lace. “It’s a way to look at and celebrate a woman’s work.”

Many of the vintage items Withee uses in her work are family pieces, others she buys at yard sales, antique shops and thrift shops. If a piece is damaged, she incorporates the undamaged parts, as she did in a piece that featured embroidered baskets filled with flowers in lazy daisy stitch.

Surprisingly, Withee’s pieces are machine- rather than hand-quilted.

“I don’t do hand work,” she said, laughing. “Not if I can help it.” To avoid that task, she recently bought a quilting machine.

Every so often, Withee paused in her description of the pieces she had brought to show to sing another song she had composed, including “UFO” (unfinished object); and “The Bus Driver Song,” a tale in many verses about a bus driver for a quilter’s special outing who ended up getting hooked on quilting and won a top prize at an annual statewide quilt show in Maine.

Before she took up quilting, Withee was a seventh-grade social studies teacher for 23 years at Greeley Junior High School in Cumberland. She also spent several years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kurdistan.

A member of Backroad Quilters in Gardiner, Withee said she is always looking for different ways to use vintage textiles in her work.

She uses a Bernina machine with embroidery attachments and talked about how amazing it is to plug one’s sewing machine into a computer, access an embroidery design website, such as Embroidery Library, emblibrary.com, and download the designs directly — some free, some available for purchase — so that the machine knows exactly what to do — and does it! Machine embroidery is one of the techniques she is experimenting with in her work. She also is trying acrylic paints and colored pencils. She adds interest to her work with vintage buttons, crystal beads and vintage jewelry

At the end of her presentation, Withee gave this advice to her audience, “Put something of yourself into your work.”

For information about Withee’s work, call 582-7129 or email cfwithee@roadrunner.com.

Call Ardeana Hamlin at 990-8153, or email ahamlin@bangordailynews.com.

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