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Bobby Gray cuts the fabric for her students using a rotary cutter. Suzy Metcalf watches as Reneah Arndt works at the end of the table. Photo by Margaret Ontl
Bobby Gray cuts the fabric for her students using a rotary cutter. Suzy Metcalf watches as Reneah Arndt works at the end of the table. Photo by Margaret Ontl

Students learn more than quilting at this school

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arts and entertainment River Falls, 54022

River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

Artists work in many mediums. For Bobby Gray, who is a watercolor artist, painting with fabric is how she describes her quilts. There is no question Gray is an expert in quilting, and for the last six years she has taught children much more than how to sew.

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Her present students include Suzy Metcalf, 11, Molly Metcalf, 8, and Reneah Arndt, 10, all of whom are home schooled which allows them to attend quilting class once a week in the afternoon beginning in October.

Gray teaches the basics: how to use a sewing machine; stitch a straight line; and wind a bobbin; but it is the life lessons -- vocabulary, history and pride in workmanship -- that make her little quilting school so very special. Set up in the basement of her home, there are six work stations, a mid-arm quilting machine, cutting station, fabric collection, a white board, bulletin boards and, for inspiration, several completed quilt tops hang waiting for the next step.

"Since I am a watercolor artist, I have a good eye and sense of design," said Gray who has been quilting in depth for the last 10 years. "I like to pour my heart into my quilt. I don't need to follow a pattern." One of her quilts won in last fall's Hudson Heritage Quilters show and is on its way to Madison for another competition. It is that passion and inspiration she hopes to pass on to her students.

"They learn so many more things than quilting," said Gray. "They learn about design, how to audition fabrics, thread count and which kinds of fabric to put into a quilt. Then they also learn how to communicate what they learn."

The students' individualism shows immediately when you look at their quilt; from fabric selection to design, each is different. Gray has her students compete at the Washington County Fair.

"They are given a choice. They do it right the first time, do it incorrect, they can correct it or leave it, the choice is theirs," said Gray. "Whatever they choose, they will learn from the judges' comments.

The students have recently studied the Underground Railroad and how log cabin quilts were used to communicate during the Civil War.

Lessons about the history of quilting are recorded and refined by the students in their notebooks. Suzy Metcalf answered this question: "Why is quilting useful to Amish?"

"I think quilting is useful to Amish because most Amish families do not have a heated house in the winter. The quilts can be used for warmth. The Amish make quilts by hand sewing or using treadle machines. Mostly, women do the sewing, while the men are doing the other chores. The Amish either walk to get fabric or they ride in a horse-drawn wagon. Hopefully, I will not be Amish because I am not very patient. It would probably take a long time to sew a quilt if you were Amish."

Molly Metcalf answered the following question: "Why is it useful to slaves who are running away?"

"Quilts sometimes can be signs of safe houses. Why? Because if there is a log cabin pattern on the quilt it means it is a safe house. The block is the middle has to be black. Why? Because if it is purple, (or any other color than black), slaves will not go there."

Reneah Arndt answered this question: "Why is quilting a good source of learning?"

"Quilting is a good source of learning because it is good to know in the future.

I am learning to paper piece, to appliqué and (do) regular piecing and I can teach my little friends to quilt. Quilting is also a good source of learning to be prepared for situations like becoming homeless."

As the students, grin and giggle there is no question along with learning many life lessons, they have fun in the process.

"I love it," said Reneah Arndt, about quilting school. "It is hard work but in the end you have a beautiful quilt."

Gray, hopes each of them will take real life skills from her class that will give them self-confidence and the knowledge that they are each uniquely different.

"I love it and I think is suits my personality," said Molly Metcalf, the youngest of the trio. "I get to pick out the fabric, I love to draw so I like it a lot."

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