You won’t see many quilts adorning the walls or the backs of couches in the house of the president of the Prairie Quilt Guild in Wichita.
That’s because the president, John Madia, gives away all of his quilts. When it came time for him to come up with some to display at the guild’s quilt show next week, he had to go to his children and grandchildren and ask for them back.
“If we tried to keep all the quilts we make, we would rapidly run out of room,” Madia says of his and his wife’s hobby. “Since we started it so late in life, we wanted to make sure we gave one to all three of our daughters and all nine of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
The fruits of Wichita quilters’ work will be on display at the Common Threads Quilt Show 2014 from Thursday through June 28 at Century II Exhibition Hall. The show is held every other year and is expected to draw more than 500 quilts and more than 3,000 people. More than 40 vendors from across the country will have fabrics, patterns and gadgets for sale. A mini-quilt auction will raise money for teaching schoolchildren and others about quilting.
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The show is the place where the quilt guild shows the public through its exhibits what it’s up to all the time – making quilts for people in hospitals and nursing homes and for members of the military returning from conflicts, creating artwork that will go into competition, and teaching others, including survivors of domestic violence, about the rich history of quilting and how to continue it.
The guild, one of the largest in the country, has about 700 members, and its monthly meetings draw hundreds. Not all of them are quilters. And not all of them – though nearly all of them – are women.
One male member, in particular, has reinvigorated the group, especially since becoming the first male president of the guild last fall.
“He has just jumped in with both feet,” Shellee Morrison, a member of the guild, said of Madia. “He brings a lot of different humor. He has you dress for your favorite team for a meeting. He always starts the meeting with a joke – lots of things that liven things up.”
Madia agrees that more people are coming to meetings since he became president.
“Give me a stage and I like to talk,” Madia said, or in the case of the guild’s newsletter, a forum where he likes to write. He’s a natural story-teller who creates must-reads – about getting caught up in “Downton Abbey” mania, even though he hasn’t seen one show; about a special quilter he met during a cruise; about a young man who brought his girlfriend – the daughter of a protective father – to Madia’s house because Madia was a quilter.
“Quilting is a relaxing endeavor,” Madia says. “As a veteran I find it very relaxing. And I’m an engineer. It satisfies my engineering instincts.”
Madia can trace his interest in quilts to when he was 17 years old and his mother asked him to help her make a quilt at their country home in West Virginia.
“I was the errand boy,” fetching supplies for his mother, Madia said.
“I watched all these beautiful colors come together in this wonderful quilt. I was amazed at the way she was bringing the pieces together. I tucked that in the memory bank.”
He went on to graduate from West Point, had a career in the Air Force, and then came to Wichita to work at Hawker Beechcraft. He retired about seven years ago. It was only then that he picked up the thread of the memory of his mother’s quilt.
“One of my girlfriends asked me, ‘What are you going to do after you retire?’ I said, ‘I’m going to take Italian lessons and I’m going to learn how to quilt.’ It was a joke.”
Madia’s “girlfriend” – a term that the 72-year-old, happily married teaser uses to refer to all his female friends – was a quilter, and she wouldn’t let it go.
“She said, ‘I’ll teach you how to quilt. Come over Thursday at 9 and I’ll teach you how to quilt.’ Well, this woman has seven other women there. I was one embarrassed man.” Especially when the talk turned to dieting.
Having taken Italian lessons at Wichita State – once again the odd man out, among 20-year-olds – Madia was on his way to quilting in retirement. A couple of months after he started quilting lessons, one of the ladies invited Madia to a Prairie Quilt Guild meeting to see what Wichita quilters were doing.
“They have a show-and-share where folks who have made a quilt come and show it to the audience, and I was fascinated by the various art forms,” Madia said of that first meeting. “It captivated me to watch the show-and-share. So eventually I joined.”
Madia’s wife, Susan, was a sewer but didn’t quilt until her husband got involved in it. Then they started quilting together – a great activity for them to share, she says.
Madia was nominated for the presidency of the group last year, and has a one-year term. Guild membership has declined from its all-time high of 855 members in 2004, but Madia said it is growing again.
Participation at the monthly meetings is strong. Afternoon sessions on the second Tuesday of the month fill up the Downtown Senior Center with 200 to 230 people. An evening session draws as many as 150.
“I think people like the stories that I tell them,” Madia says. He’s invited non-members to meetings. “And always I’ve really gone out of my way to make people feel they’re part of a family. … Another thing I’m proud of, I think we’ve got four new men since I took over. I think we’re up to nine men.”
At the last meeting, Madia said, a woman came up to him and said, “John, I want you to know I think you’re doing a fabulous job. I want you to know I’ve been a member of the guild for five years.” Madia asked her if she was showing a quilt at the meeting and she said, “I don’t know how to quilt.”
“She goes to see the show-and-share and for the camaraderie,” Madia explained. “I told her, ‘I’ve got all these people who’d be glad to give you a lesson. Heck, I’ll be happy to give you a lesson.’ She said, ‘For $25 a year I get to come here once a month, and it’s like an art show, it’s the unveiling of original art. It’s good entertainment. And I get to hear a world-class speaker.’ ” About 80 percent of the guild’s speakers come from out of town, Madia said.
“We do have some excellent speakers and world-class quilters in town. I consider it one of the jewels of Wichita, frankly.”
At the meetings “you will see some just fantastic artwork. The second thing is a tremendous connection to the state of Kansas in quilting. It’s just embedded in the culture in Kansas,” with members talking about the quilts their great-grandmother made.
The quilt show will feature quilts made by “slugs like me who are beginning quilters,” Madia said. One of the quilts he will show is of his own design, featuring origami cranes that reflect the love for Japanese art forms that he gained when he spent four years in Japan.
“It’s not very well done,” he protests, but other members insisted that he show it.
“It’s your friendship quilt,” his wife reminds him.
“My girlfriends helped me,” he says.
In addition to the quilts by amateurs, Madia says, the show will feature those by “members who want their quilt to be judged, to see how they stack up against professionals. So then there are the judged exhibits.” And there will be a traveling exhibit by “ultraprofessionals.”
The quilts that Madia is working on now actually will be on display in his house – a red and white quilt and a “Downton Abbey” quilt are requests from his wife and will take seasonal turns on a guest bed.