PHOTO: "X-Box" quilt by Amy Spungen.

Journey to the Fine Art of Fiber

Each year at the Chicago Botanic Garden, fall is heralded by more than brilliant leaf color and crisp temperatures. It’s around this time that thousands of visitors flow into the Regenstein Center for the Fine Art of Fiber, visions of gorgeous quilts and exquisite woven and knitted items dancing in their heads.

Liberated Stars by Amy Spungen 2013
This is the quilt I entered in last year’s Fine Art of Fiber show.

For three days in November, Illinois Quilters, Inc., the North Suburban NeedleArts Guild, and the Weavers Guild of the North Shore offer one of the most anticipated needle art shows in the Midwest. The combined show and sale is an outgrowth of similar events dating back to 1981. 

I used to be among those who meandered around the show, dazzled by the patterns and colors and textures, wondering what on earth it took to make one of those spectacular pieces on display.

Eventually, I found out.

Before I began working at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I became a quilter. In the early 1990s, my daughter Hannah (now 24) was toddling around the house, and baby Naomi was more or less velcroed to my body. In the evenings I was going to school, one class at a time, but I needed to do something fun. Something creative. Something inside, given Chicago’s long, long winters and the need to be within hearing distance of my children as I temporarily ignored them.

One day, I drove past a quilt shop and saw a sign for quilting classes in its window. Impulsively I pulled over, went inside, and signed up. You know what’s said about addiction, how people who are susceptible become instant slaves to an expensive habit upon exposure? That would be me. Fabric. Give me more fabric! And make it batik!

PHOTO: Amy Spungen with her quilt, "Fanfare"
Posing with another Fine Art of Fiber quilt. I gave this one to my friend Jeannie in South Carolina.

I started  making quilts, and my first efforts were generally awful. Family members were too polite to protest when I inflicted these early quilts upon them. Little by little, however, I improved. And I loved the process, even if the inevitable mistakes of learning prompted a few curses—O.K., many curses—on some occasions. There is something both challenging and relaxing about quilting: finding a pattern that sparks the imagination; choosing the right colors and fabrics, an art in itself; marking, cutting, and piecing—stitching—together the top; pinning it to the middle batting (think “stuffing”) and the cotton backing; and then sewing, sewing, sewing the “sandwich” into a completed quilt. (You find “sandwich” an odd term? I am now intimately familiar with “feed dogs,” “throat plates,” and “Wonder­-Under” as well.*) 

PHOTO: Hannah and Naomi show off the latest quilting projects.
Hannah and Naomi show off a pair of quilted pieces. It’s been fun to see my children grow up in quilt photos.

I joined Illinois Quilters, Inc., which is when I found out about the Fine Art of Fiber. Members are encouraged to display pieces in the show. It took years, but finally, in 2001, I felt I was ready for showtime. By then I had another child, Oren (below, wrapped in the quilt I displayed in that show). This year Oren left for college, and I have now replaced his ping-pong area in the basement with a new, expanded quilting studio. Won’t he be surprised!

Despite working full time and having what some might consider to be an excessive number of hobbies, I keep quilting. Sometimes I manage only one quilt a year. I am not discouraged at my snail’s pace of production, though: it’s all about enjoying the process. And when I see my quilts displayed alongside the “big boys” at the show, I am thrilled to have made the journey from that first quilting class to the Fine Art of Fiber.

PHOTO: Warm and snuggly in one of mom's quilts.
Oren, warm and snuggly in the first quilt I displayed at the Fine Art of Fiber.

This year’s Fine Art of Fiber is from Friday to Sunday, November 7 to 9, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. There is also a public preview night on Thursday from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Click here for more details. I hope to see you there—perhaps you, too, will find inspiration!


*Feed dogs are metal ridges inside a sewing machine that help grip and move fabric; they are located beneath a hole in the throat plate, which is under the needle mechanism. Wonder-Under is fusible webbing that bonds two pieces of fabric together.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

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Amy Spungen

Amy Spungen is a freelance editor and writer, and a huge fan of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

12 thoughts on “Journey to the Fine Art of Fiber”

  1. I know I will get “raked over the coals” for this, but I really miss the days when more of the quilts in the show were done by hand. I have been quilting since the late 1980s, and I still do my cutting, my piecing, and all of the quilting by hand. It takes a while to do even a small quilt this way, and a quilt for a full-size bed can easily take 250 or more hours. Although this way of quilting does not allow quilts as intricate as those done by newer methods such a paper piecing, I totally enjoy the art of doing a quilt entirely by hand. I have been very disappointed to see that each year only one or two quilts in the show have been done the old-fashioned way.

    1. Sharon, I couldn’t agree with you more that it would be wonderful to have more hand-quilted pieces in the Fine Art of Fiber. The amount of dedication and time and effort it takes to create a quilt entirely by hand is immense. I started out as a hand-quilter but shifted to machine quilting, lured not only by the speed with which I could finish projects but by its own creative options, especially freehand (meandering) quilting. But I treasure hand-made quilts. I hope you consider joining IQI…we need you. You’ll meet other hand-quilters, though there aren’t as many as the machine quilters. I would love to see something you have made!

  2. Great article – I get to learn a little bit more about you and my personal favorite is that cute photo of Oren

  3. Just curious–didn’t all this take a highly supportive husband? Didn’t see anything about him mentioned . . .

    1. Many thanks to my patient husband, who has endured a sometimes messy work space, kept me company on long drives to distant quilt stores, and “donated” ties for a tie quilt.

      1. My husband was also very supportive, and many of our vacations included stops at quilt shops. When he died, I draped one of my quilts on his casket. If I ever get ambitious, I would love to do a small original pattern in his honor.

        1. What a lovely way to honor your husband, Sharon. If you decide to proceed with an original pattern and get hung up on it, someone at IQI would be happy to help (like me, though there are way more skilled members)!

  4. Yes, “ping” pong.

    Anywho, very nice article mom. Your quilts have been an endless source of joy for your family and friends throughout the years. And in case you were looking for new project/20th birthday present ideas, a nice big Tulane quilt would look great in my room, as well as any apartment or house I might call home in the future (as much as I know you don’t want to believe that will ever happen!)

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