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The fabric of her life


Gyleen X. Fitzgerald scans the fabric pieces scattered around her studio. She selects some material, walks to the window and opens the blinds. She sits in a chair and threads a tiny quilting needle, working it with her nimble fingers through the blocks of fabric.

"I hand-sew about five hours a day," the Churchville resident says as she turns her chair and props her feet on the windowsill. "I'm one of the few people that can't wait to turn 55. Eight more years for me, and I retire. Then my quilting business will be my full-time job."

Fitzgerald, a chemical engineer at Aberdeen Proving Ground, already has received national acclaim for her quilting.

Her quilts have been featured in national publications, she is in demand to teach at quilting guilds around the country, and she's won several competitions. She is entering a piece in the National Quilting Association show in Columbus, Ohio, this month.

Jean Ann Wright, senior editor of Quilt magazine, has seen thousands of quilts over the years and puts Fitzgerald's work near the top.

"Gyleen has a color sense that's unmatched," Wright says. "When we choose any quilt to feature in our magazines, we look at color - the quilt has to be what we call 'eye candy.' And, we look at the design. Her pieces are outstanding in both regards."

Wright says Fitzgerald's work is easily distinguishable, often showing the influence of her childhood in Japan, the result of being raised in a military family.

"Japanese art is usually simplistic in design," Wright says. "Her work is simple, like the Japanese artists, and it's clever."

Quilting wasn't part of Fitzgerald's original plan.

"I was originally going to be a fashion designer, but there's no money in that," the Philadelphia native says. "So I went to Drexel University and got a degree in chemical engineering."

The two pursuits are not as disparate as they may seem, Fitzgerald says. Some of the skills she learned doing chemical biodefense work at APG have crossed over into her quilting.

She has made fabric hoods and was part of the team that made the protective masks worn by Apache helicopter pilots during the Persian Gulf War. Her chemistry background also came in handy when she began to hand-dye many of the fabrics she uses.

Fitzgerald started quilting in 1981, after attending a class at a Ben Franklin store in Aberdeen. Quilting transformed from a hobby to a passion when she joined the Flying Geese Quilt Guild in Harford County in 1995.

The guild has more than 200 members ages 20 to 80, from beginners to experts. Fitzgerald says she learned a lot from watching other quilters at the guild.

"I sat next to two or three talented women and watched what they did and my skill just evolved over the years," she says. "I quilt every chance I get. I sew at the airport, on the airplane, in my hotel and traveling in the car."

Unlike many quilters, Fitzgerald says her approach to quilt design has a random nature to it.

"I design on the fly," she says. "It is very rare that I will do a full-color sketch of my quilts. I'm an engineer and once I see it in my head, I run through it and it becomes a virtual quilt and I never produce it. Quilting is like a puzzle for me. Once the pieces are together, I'm done with it."

As her quilting skills have grown, so has the number of requests Fitzgerald receives to teach workshops. Fitzgerald has taught for guilds in several states, including Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. She teaches a six-hour workshop about 20 times a year.

"As the instructor, I would go to workshops and listen to the participants and realized that they were scared," Fitzgerald says. "It's hard to do a quilt if you look at it as a whole. If you look at it in small steps, it's simple. I'm working on 20 different projects right now. I work until I get stuck and go onto something else."

She's participating in fewer competitions to allow more time to teach, but she's proud of her wins, including a Best in Show and other awards in several county and state competitions.

In 1998, as she got more involved with quilting, she opened Colourful Stitches, a home-based business through which she offers workshops and lectures, and sells hand-dyed products including silk scarves and notecards.

Fitzgerald is also writing books, and quilts figure prominently in those works, too. A children's book that will be published in August has quilting as a theme, and quilts provide the art for a book of haiku poetry that she wrote with her husband.

But it is making quilts that has become a central part of Fitzgerald's life. She knows where she was and what she was doing when she created each of her quilts. As an example, she pulls one out that she calls "Double T," which she stitched Sept. 11, 2001.

"I was at Fort Belvoir [in Virginia] doing job training, and I was scared," she says. "I quilt when I get nervous, and I was anxious that day. I finished the quilt in one day. Quilting plays a part in all aspects of what I do. It records time for me."

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