Second in a two-part series on ways quilting has been changing in the 21st century
Quilting hobbyists who frequent Jukebox Quilts have choices beyond our grandmothers’ dreams. They can purchase a small machine that cuts perfect shapes from fabric six layers at a time. They have access to a computer-guided machine that can appliqué and embroider complex designs. Other machines, also computer-guided, can complete the quilting process by stitching elaborate patterns through fabric and batting.
Freed from the mechanics of quilting, they have more time to experiment with color and design. I admired the creativity, artistry, and technical know-how that I witnessed in my recent visits to Jukebox Quilts, where eye-catching quilts hang on the walls and over railings.
Kelly Gallagher-Abbott, owner of Jukebox Quilts, designed the monochromatic quilt, above right, using a computer program similar to Adobe Illustrator. The computer then guided the quilting machine as it stitched the design. The silk and cotton blend makes the quilt shimmer when you’re viewing it in person.
Taking advantage of all the mechanization could be quite an investment, but Jukebox Quilts makes it easy to try the technology by renting time on equipment right on site. Located in a historic building at 406 North College Avenue in Fort Collins, the shop is a mix of colorful fabrics, heavy wooden beams and stairs, and cutting edge technology. At the top of the stairs is a jukebox that Kelly acquired for fun. Beyond it is a scene unlike any I had ever encountered before my first visit to the store.
Getting a Grip on Technology
The long pieces of equipment, each with a line of lights above, are Statler Stitchers made by Gammill. Two parallel bars hold two sides of a quilt in secure rolls. A longarm quilting machine works its way down the length of the quilt, stitching the pattern that the quilt’s creator has programmed into the Dell computer mounted at one end of the Statler Stitcher. The bars may be 10, 12, or 14 feet long – more than enough to hold a king-size quilt, which can be finished in a matter of hours.
Customers come to this upper level of the shop with their quilts ready for the last stage of construction. Kelly or one of her assistants works side by side with them to help them mount their quilts and enter their design into the computer.
The Statler Stitcher has been around for a while, but the computer guidance via Gammill’s proprietary software is new to this century. Kelly is one of several skilled quilt makers who have tested the software for Gammill during the last nine years. The programming is so sophisticated that the machine knows when a thread breaks and stops automatically.
Although a computer can guide a longarm machine, each machine has handles too. In the picture above, the communication between quilting machine and computer is reversed. As the customer moves the machine along the edges of her design, the machine is telling the computer where the stitching will need to go in that section. Later, the computer will guide the machine during quilting according to the information it received.
Embracing Change with Passion
Kelly has made a business of quilting for more than 20 years. Long before Jukebox Quilts arrived in Fort Collins, Kelly was making quilt patterns and writing quilting books and selling both under the Jukebox Quilts name in Southern California.
Her renown in creating quilts led to her participating in the 1995 movie “How to Make an American Quilt,” starring Winona Ryder and Anne Bancroft. Her hands were among those doing the quilting in footage of hands only. Kelly and her co-workers prepared quilts in five stages of completion to give the illusion of the passage of time in the film’s story line.
In 2000, Kelly started to use a longarm machine to finish her quilts. At that time Gammills were still manually guided. Six years later, she taught herself how to use the computer-guided system from Gammill and before long became one of the company’s software testers. Eventually she put together videos and wrote more books to pass along what she had taught herself.
Today Jukebox Quilts is a Gammill dealer. Kelly’s husband Jim Abbott, who used to travel all over the world in corporate finance, now works with Kelly and travels around five states making deliveries.
Gammill quilting systems aren’t the only machines on which people can rent time at Jukebox Quilts. In a corner of the lower level sits a relatively small machine by Bravo that embroiders and appliqués. Like the machines from Gammill, it takes its orders from a computer which interprets a digital design for 16 needles. Those needles can stitch 16 colors simultaneously. Pre-programmed designs are an option, but customers can use their own design if they wish.
Kelly seems to have boundless enthusiasm for what technology can contribute to the quilting experience. She looks forward to the time when laser fabric cutters, not just die cutters, will help her cut perfect custom shapes. “I can’t wait to get over here every day,” she told me. “The software keeps getting more sophisticated and giving the machines more ability.”
Jukebox Quilts keeps customers up-to-date on what’s new and what they can learn next via its Facebook page and newsletter. Customers far from Fort Collins can find abundant resources and information on its website, JukeboxQuilts.com.