Inside the house that Barbara Pietila built between Spring and Caroline streets in East Baltimore is love and warmth.

Memories of her Uncle John, cousins and granny fill the walls covered with colorful pieces of the past, and it's all held together with the fabric of a quilt.

Pietila is the president of the African-American Quilters of Baltimore, which has about 45 members between ages 30 and 70 and meets the first Saturday of the month from September through June at Waverly Library.

The group, which has met since 1990, offers demonstrations of techniques and show-and-tells.

During the summer months when the club meetings go on hiatus, members spend time with their families, but Pietila quilts whenever she feels like it.

She is one of many African-American women who are using quilting to stitch a link to their past.

"All quilts tell a story," she says.

Pietila, who has been quilting for 30 years, does all her work by hand and focuses on pictorial quilts. Projects may take her as few as six weeks to complete but never longer than a year.

She has never repeated a quilt and has created more than 100 designs. Her work has been featured in exhibits and newspapers across the country. Some of her quilts have sold upward of $500.

Earlier this year, she was working on a genealogy quilting project to accompany a written log of her family history.

Not all quilters adhere to Pietila's style. The craft is as vast as the types of fabrics that are used.

Some quilters use high-tech computers, which start at a base price of $2,000, to craft their designs; others may use sewing machines to weave their craft.

Some, like Pietila, prefer the old-school technique of using hand, needles, hoops and fabric to make their creations.

Quilting can be a serious investment. Fabric prices run the gamut and accessories add to the costs. Quilting clubs have grown into an artistic outlet for women of all ages and lifestyles.

Carol Williams, 53, of Fort Washington founded the Uhuru Quilters Guild in 1994 to mainly bolster the accomplishments of African-American quilters.

"I wanted a support group to help me grow as a quilter and to help others do the same," Williams says. "That is the strength of Uhuru: The support from other quilters to take on that next challenge" -- which might be in the form of the next pattern or stitch.

Uhuru, which means freedom in Swahili, meets at the Community Center in College Park and consists of a diverse group of about 60 members.

The group's motto, "Each One Teach One," has rung true for Sara Vogt-Knox of Laurel. One of three non-African-American members of the guild, she joined Uhuru after seeing one of its shows.

Like Pietila's group, Uhuru has quilting bees -- small groups of women who get together between meetings to help each other quilt or work on charity projects. Uhuru's members gather for meetings year-round.

"In Uhuru, there's a sense of freedom. There's a love of color, and patterns are used with abandon -- and it works. I've done things that I have never had the courage to do," Vogt-Knox, 60, says.

Vogt-Knox, who is a fabric collector and dental hygienist, says she has learned much about African-American history just by being in her quilting sorority.

"It's not just quilts in my quilting club," she says, "I learned so much just listening to some of the women talking about their grandmothers, some of [whom] were slaves."

Those stories are the thread that keeps the quilts together, says fellow Uhuru member Charlene Marshall of Washington.

"African-American quilts have always been in our culture. It was not considered an art form. It was a necessity. The slaves made quilts to keep their family warm. Now our quilts are not only beautiful and colorful, but are used to express our heritage to the world."

Washington resident Sandra Ealy, 53, says she learned about quilting by watching her grandmother. Ealy, a medical secretary, is passing that legacy to her granddaughter.

"I have taken my granddaughter with me to quilt festivals, and I feel she has been bitten by the quilt bug," Ealy says. "She is only 8, and she seems to like to sit with me and quilt."

And so, the tradition continues.


Quilt tip

The most important project for any quilter is preservation.

Barbara Pietila recommends wrapping precious quilts in acid-free paper. For those who can't find it, try tissue paper, an oversized pillowcase or a sheet. She advises not trying to remove stains because it may cause permanent damage to the fabric.

"Don't try to fix it. Don't throw it away. Take care of it," Pietila says. "It's family history."


Uhuru Quilters Guild meetings are held 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. the third Saturday of each month at the College Park Community Center, 5051 Pierce Ave. Dues are $24 a year. Visit online at

African-American Quilters of Baltimore meets the first Saturday of the month (September through June) from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Waverly Library, 400 E. 33rd and Barkley streets. Annual dues are $30. Information: 410-396-6053 or 410-358-3206.

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