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Irma Gail Hatcher, quilter
If one thing connects all the craftspeople I talked to for this story, it’s time — specifically, their willingness to expend vast amounts of their lives in the pursuit of craft, art and perfection.
Of all those I talked to, none measures time quite like Conway quilter Irma Gail Hatcher. Named an Arkansas Living Treasure in 2003, the last 20-odd years of Hatcher’s life have been measured at the speed of a needle and thread: stitch by stitch, block by block. Depending on the intricacy of her design, that can be very slow indeed. Her most ambitious quilt to date took her two-and-a-half years of six-hour days to complete, and projects that take six months to a full year are common.
“I think that’s the surprise of every new quilter, that it takes so long,” she said. “It’s just pretty hard to make a quilt in less than a month.”
Still, quilting is better than her first attempts at fabric art, made in the early 1980s. Back then, she tried her hand at Hardanger embroidery, an incredibly intricate form of stitching. Six months of almost constant effort left her with a piece of luminous lace that just might cover a high school textbook. Soon after, she decided to try quilting instead — “At least a quilt is bigger,” she said. After taking a class in Michigan, where she and her husband lived then, Hatcher set out to make two quilts to give as gifts.
“I started in October to make two quilts by Christmas,” she said, chuckling, “which was a little ambitious.”
Though those first quilts and the reaction they drew (a gasp over the too-big size of her stitches from her mother, who came from a family of quilters) caused her to swear off the hobby forever, a move to Arkansas, a newly empty nest and a trip to a quilt show soon got Hatcher’s needle pointed in the right direction. Her first big recognition came seven years later, when her quilt won best of show at a state quilter’s guild show. The next year, one of Hatcher’s creations — all sewn on the diagonal — won best of show at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, one of the largest gatherings of quilters in the world. More awards and recognition followed. Possibly her crowning achievement, though, is her two-and-a-half-years-in-the-making take on the traditional “Baltimore Album” quilt she named “Conway Album (I’m Not From Baltimore),” which she finished in 1992. At several shows in the mid-1990s, the quilt racked up a quilter’s Grand Slam: the Founder’s Award at the 1992 International Quilter’s Association show, an award for excellence and workmanship at the 1994 American Quilter’s Society show, and designation as a Masterpiece Quilt at the 1995 National Quilter’s Association show. It must have stuck in fans’ minds, as well, because four years later, the quilt was selected as one of the 100 Best American Quilts of the 20th Century by the American Quilter’s Society, earning Hatcher $12,000 and the quilt a permanent spot in their museum in Paducah, Ky.
“It nearly killed me to part with it,” she said.
Though Hatcher often gets requests to buy her quilts, she diligently squirrels them back to give to her family after she’s gone. Given how much time she puts into her quilts, she figures it wouldn’t be worth it to sell them, anyway. A bit of number crunching reveals wages that would make a Pacific Rim sweatshop worker cry.
“The one that was two-and-a-half years in the making?” she said. “Twelve thousand dollars for two-and-a-half years? That’s about seven-and-a-half cents an hour.”
At age 68, Hatcher is as excited about quilting as ever. Flipping through one of the innumerable quilting books beside her living room chair (she’s written six herself) and volumes on everything from Egyptian art to vintage textiles, she points out what she’d do to improve a pattern: a thicker border here, more color there.
For now, however, with a one-woman show just completed at the AQS Museum in Paducah, she’s planning her next prize-winner: a quilt she projects will take up to a year and a half of constant work to complete. Like the rest of her quilts, she says, it will be the very best she can do with the skill she has at the moment.
“When you do that, every quilt you make is the best you can make,” she said. “That’s pretty good. I enjoy knowing that I never have to say I’m sorry because this doesn’t hang straight or this doesn’t do this. I really work hard to make them the way they should be.”