Patchwork art

A quilting group in the Galilee is practicing a craft that is becoming surprisingly popular here.

Quilting group 521 (photo credit: DIANA BLETTER)
Quilting group 521
(photo credit: DIANA BLETTER)
About six months before the recent 90th birthday of Kibbutz Kabri resident Lea HaLevi, the members of her quilting group decided to surprise her with a patchwork quilt. But how could they make it without her knowing about it? HaLevi still came to meetings, week after week, no matter what the weather.
The other women who belong to the group decided to tell her they needed her help to make a patchwork quilt with hearts for a charity project. She got to work right away; in fact, she was the first person to finish her patchwork square.
On HaLevi’s birthday, the group members baked her favorite cakes and then presented the patchwork quilt they had all made, embroidered with the words, “With all our heart.”
This story, says Maureen O’Sheehan Nachmani, the group’s founder, is typical of the closeness among the 25 members of the country’s longest-running weekly quilting circle. Ranging in age from 40 to 90, the women give one another not only creative encouragement, but emotional support. As HaLevi’s friend Yael Baruch, 73, says, nothing short of an emergency stops them from attending the weekly meeting.
“I’ve been going with Lea to the group for the past 12 years,” says Baruch. “We get together in happiness and in sadness. The women in this group are like family.”
The Irish-born Nachmani began the group in 1997 with two Americans, Debby Sternberg and Barbara Bamberger. The three friends met in Kibbutz Adamit on the northern border in the 1970s and immediately hit it off, despite their diverse backgrounds.
Nachmani hails from Munster County, Southern Ireland. She can trace her ancestors all the way back to men known as heralds, or horn-blowers who announced the king of Munster’s arrival in Southern Ireland. Her family symbol contains the Latin words Semper Paratus, or “always prepared” – although Nachmani admits that she’s never prepared.
“I take it on the spot,” she says.
Bamberger is from San Francisco and arrived in Adamit in 1975. Sternberg, meanwhile, who came from North Carolina, says her ancestors arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, before the Civil War, and admits sheepishly that her family fought on the side of the Confederacy.
“What can you do?” Sternberg confesses in a twangy Southern accent. “That’s history.”
The three became close when Nachmani invited them to join her quilting circle in 1997.
“I thought I’d be able to drop out of the group once Maureen had a few more bodies,” Sternberg says. “I am dyslexic and terrible with my hands, and I wasn’t any good at sewing.”
She couldn’t choose her own fabric colors, and she couldn’t use a pair of scissors. But once she found a substitute for scissors (a tool that works like a pizza cutter) and was able to cut material with ease, she was hooked.
“There’s something wonderful about pulling a needle through soft fabric,” she says.
The friends eventually drifted away from Adamit, but remained close. Bamberger settled in Nahariya; Sternberg and Nachmani moved to Moshav Bustan Hagalil.
Nachmani and her husband bought a small chicken farm, but stopped raising chickens after a while; she has since turned the chicken coop into a gallery that exhibits quilts from her circle, as well as by artists from around the country.
MOST GIRLS coming of age in the 1800s in the United States knew how to quilt. The word quilt comes from the Latin culcita, meaning a padded and tied mattress. Quilting usually means a sandwich of three layers of fabric: a back layer, then the batting – the thick material in the middle – and finally the top layer, which is the decorative layer. And while quilts were sewn for a specific function, they began to acquire an aesthetic style.
According to Bamberger, the Japanese made quilted shields for battle. But it was in the 19th century that quilting took off as an art form, and making patchwork quilts – sewing patches together and then turning them into a coverlet or blanket – became popular. To this day, the Amish have quilting bees where women get together and work on one patchwork quilt at a time. They are known for their simple quilts, using muted colors and doing most of the quilting by hand. The Seminole Native Americans, meanwhile, used a distinctive design for their clothes that was then adapted for quilts.
For many years, Bamberger says, quilting was one of the few crafts open to women.
“It was one of women’s only acceptable creative outlets,” she explains.
Women today have recaptured and revived this traditional art form with a modern twist, adding their own color schemes, themes and visions to express their creativity.
Nachmani runs the quilting group each week, along with the O’Sheehan Quilt Gallery. Sternberg, with the help of Bamberger, runs the Quilt Center Shop adjacent to the gallery.
The two don’t mind indulging their customers. In other fabric stores, Sternberg says, it’s hard for quilting customers because they want to buy only a small patch of turquoise fabric here, another patch of indigo fabric there. She says it’s important for her to spend time with customers and help them with their designs – and this from a woman who, when she started, couldn’t even pick colors herself.
Bamberger, who teaches beginning quilting as well as fabric dyeing, says there is something meditative about quilting.
“There’s a certain space you go into when you’re working, when you’re concentrating, that is very rewarding,” she says.
She recalls that her mother taught her how to sew clothes when she was 10. Later, Bamberger experimented.
The first quilt she made, in fact, was designed with the fabric remnants from the clothes she and her mother had made over the years. The quilt began to fall apart soon after it was finished, but, she says, “it was a great learning experience.”
She has taken the quilting process and added her own spin, making traditional patchwork quilts to themes, such as a spring pattern with flowers blooming across the fabric. She sews by hand or machine or both, depending on the project, and shares her love for the art through teaching.
“I hope to inspire my students as much as they inspire me,” she says.
FOR STERNBERG, making a quilt is a lot like making soup: “You throw different things in a pot even if they don’t necessarily seem like they’ll go well together, and then it does.”
Nachmani says she didn’t know anything about quilts growing up in Ireland. Only years later did she discover that her maternal grandmother was a quilt-maker.
“My mother hated quilting and sewing,” Nachmani says. “She never mentioned the word ‘quilt’ when I was growing up.”
Then Nachmani moved to Israel.
“I have the typical story,” she explains. “I volunteered on a kibbutz, fell in love, married, converted and stayed.” It was only afterward that she picked up a needle and fabric and started working.
The three women are also members of the Israel Quilt Association, which runs a network of quilting groups across the country via its website, The association recently joined the European Quilting Association. Nachmani says she was at a quilt convention in Holland, where there were 70 women from neighboring Germany and, “much to my surprise, 78 women from Israel.”
“Quilting is very big in Israel,” Bamberger says. “It’s very competitive. People enter their quilts in competitions.”
Nachmani and Bamberger will have quilts displayed in an exhibition in Birmingham, England, in the spring. The exhibition is in honor of the Kibbutz Movement’s centennial, and will feature kibbutz-themed quilts – “not that anyone in Birmingham even knows what a kibbutz is,” Nachmani quips.
The three women, who quilt together each Wednesday and meet for coffee a few mornings a week, have that easy way that old friends do.
During a recent visit to Nachmani’s gallery, Sternberg points to one of Nachmani’s quilts, which has an African design, and says, “Those are big stitches.”
“They’re not that big,” says Nachmani.
“How did you mark it?” asks Bamberger.
“Painstakingly,” Nachmani says, and they all share a knowing smile.