A life in stitches

Most every family has a piece of history unknowingly thrown over their living-room couch.

It may be boxed up and protected in a closet or delicately hung on a wall, but ownership of the family quilt is a rite of passage for most folks in the South.

For Helen Belcher, who has been putting needle to thread in Huntsville for two decades, quilting is a way of life and a way for her to connect with her family’s heritage.

Belcher’s colorful handiwork is currently on display in a retrospective exhibition entitled “Stories and Stitches” at the Katy & E. Don Walker Sr. Education Center in Huntsville. The exhibit will remain open for public viewing until Oct. 11.

“Quilts are made all over the world, but what we do in piecing and quilting is so uniquely American,” Belcher said as she weaved her way Wednesday through the dozens of quilts on display. “Our grandmothers did it, especially here in the South. When things were not as plentiful, they used every piece they could.”

The resourcefulness and creativity Belcher learned from her grandmother and her sisters is evident in the patchwork tapestries she has spent countless hours piecing together. The rich colors and intricate patterns change as the viewer approaches to see the line work and embroidery with each scrap or fragmented piece adding to the whole.

“I know my grandmother used feed sacks and flower sacks to make her quilts and included scraps from her girls’ clothes, too,” Belcher added. “You used up every single scrap of fabric you had and you did something with it.”

Belcher joined the Tall Pines Quilt Guild in 1995 and served as the group’s president three separate times. As with any artist’s practice, the benefit of having a like-minded community group helped her form a style and practice that now shows through in her work.

“Quilters are the best people in the world,” Belcher said with a smile. “We learn from each other and we trade ideas at every meeting. If you come in with a piece and you’re having trouble fitting something in, all you have to do is bring it in and you’ll have 10 new opinions.”

With hundreds of hours of labor going into some of the larger quilts, Belcher’s artistic medium is by no means an immediate process. After spending up to a year on a quilt, putting that final seam in and seeing the finished product is easily worth all the effort.

“After you’ve got stacks of stuff all around you and you sew the binding and put that last stitch in, you look at it and go, ‘I don’t have to look at this anymore. It’s done!'” Belcher said with a laugh. “After a while, you take it out and lay it on a bed or take it to show-and-tell and then you get really happy about it.

“When someone gives you a quilt, even if it’s not elegantly done, it is a treasure because it takes so long.”

“Stories in Stitches” will be on display through Oct. 11 with a reception taking place in the Exhibit Gallery on Sept. 28 from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

For more information, visit the Sam Houston Memorial Museum website at www.samhoustonmemorialmuseum.com or call (936) 294-1832.