It's impossible to have a conversation with husband-and-wife duo Shanker and Mala Ramakrishnan without picking up a thing or two about quilting, simply defined as the process of sewing two or more layers of fabric to make quilts as a craft or leisure activity. The couple lovingly showcase various tapestries in their Dubai shop, Classic Quilts, pointing out what makes them unique: the use of needlework that appears different on the front and back, for instance, or the way patches of fabric are stitched to create a new pattern altogether. Some of these exquisite-looking designs have been years in the making, they explain fondly.
Most people would call quilting a hobby – and a niche one at that – but for the Ramakrishnans and several others in the UAE, it's a passion. "Quilting came to me as a retirement plan of sorts," says Mala. "I started getting interested in it in my late 40s, and Shankar then gave me a quilting machine. It was a starting point. When the machine no longer sufficed, we got into a more commercial set-up and that led to the quilt store."
The duo launched Classic Quilts, which sells everything from fabrics and threads to books and kits, in Jumeirah Plaza in 2006, back when "quilting was still largely unheard of in this part of the world".
Still, some local quilting guilds existed and as the couple got intertwined with them, they saw an opportunity to put the Emirates on the map with the launch of a one-of-a-kind event.
“The biggest hub for quilting is in Houston, Texas, which has a market and festival every October. We visited it when we opened the shop and that’s when it dawned on us that we could create a similar show in Dubai. I came back and discussed it with the quilting guilds here, but it wasn’t easy. We had weekly meetings for roughly 10 months before we were able to organise the first International Quilt Show Dubai [in 2008],” says Shanker, who doubles as the event’s director.
The first IQSD focused on three aspects: a quilt competition that invited people from around the world to send in their best designs; workshops to educate people about the different aspects of the art form; and a charity quilt because "this art form is all about giving". As part of the last show category, members of the quilters' guilds in the UAE prepare an intricate sheet for a raffle draw, with all proceeds going to charity.
The Ramakrishnans recollect calling up people and convincing them to send over quilts to be a part of the competition that first year, finally accruing about 40 to 50 pieces. It's a far cry from the event today that has people – and quilts – pouring in from all parts of the world, from Oman and Saudi Arabia to Australia and the US, with hardly any advertisement. Held once every two years, the next International Quilt Show Dubai takes place later this week, from Thursday to Saturday, February 27 to 29.
"This year, we want to take the event to a new level," says Shanker. Accordingly, a number of features have been introduced. For a start, some of the quilts on display will also be on sale, thus connecting makers to potential buyers. Vendors will also take up exhibition stands to promote their crafts. Another highlight is the demonstration of tent hangings, a craft that can be traced back to the 13th century, by Egypt's Tentmakers of Cairo.
While the event initially had four competition categories, these have now grown to eight: traditional, contemporary, art (generic), art (portrait), beginners, young quilters, miniature quilts and the IQSD challenge, this year based on the theme United We Stand.
Stitching the UAE community together
Much like their creations, the UAE’s budding quilting community is a vibrant one. Bronwyn Pontes, president of Quilters Circle, says its 50-plus members span all ages and walks of life.
“It’s a community that’s all about sharing knowledge, learning from each other and fostering a creative environment. The best part is that quilters in the UAE come from across the world. Each country has its own quilting tradition, and members are able to bring that to the team – so you see techniques and fabrics from all over. The more ideas you get, the more that helps you develop your own personality,” she says. “It’s just such a lovely environment.”
While it’s still a niche hobby, Pontes adds that quilting is not going out of style any time soon. In fact, shops such as Classic Quilts and events such as the International Quilt Show Dubai, have bolstered the local community in what she calls a symbiotic relationship. “There’s a lot of training, tools, fabrics and equipment that go into quilting and, in the UAE, it can be difficult to find all those items to improve your craft,” she says. “Sometimes you do find what you need, but it’s imported and that makes it more expensive. But when you head to Classic Quilts or IQSD, you’re not only able to get supplies at more reasonable rates, but you also learn everything you need to know. You actually leave having improved your skill set.”
Finding fresh talent
One of the biggest stereotypes quilters have to deal with is that it is an activity relegated to an older age group. It’s the reason this year’s IQSD has made it a point to reach out to the younger generation, even including a young quilters competition category.
“Gems Metropole School has got an incredible arts department, which includes textile arts,” says Pontes. “They were creating beautiful work, but it was just going into folders. I went in and gave them demonstrations on what quilting can do, and the reaction was fantastic. They were so excited, asking if they can do assignments together and how they can create certain patterns. It’s so nice to see that age group interested in something other than their phones and PlayStations.”
Though Pontes is working with students from grade nine, she reiterates that "even younger people can take part. Instead of using a needle and thread, they can glue the layers of fabric together. It's all about stimulating their creative side."
One of the workshop leaders conducting a session at IQSD this year is Jane Howarth, an award-winning quilt artist from California. She says there has been a growing interest in quilting among young people worldwide. “I’ve seen more youngsters attending my classes of late, and I’ve noticed that sewing, knitting and crochet are also becoming popular. I think this has something to do with the ease with which images are shared through social media platforms like Pinterest and Instagram.”
Howarth specialises in custom-memory quilts and practises a technique of fabric collage in her quilting, which involves cutting fabrics – from T-shirts, neckties and other types of clothing – then layering and gluing them together. She is inspired by nature, as well as famed for creating portraits, such as a rendition of Afghan Girl, based on the photograph by Steve McCurry.
When IQSD announced that Howarth would lead a workshop, it sold out within the week – further proof of the hobby’s growing fan base. “It seems to me that textile arts are becoming more popular. After all, what quilt artists do with fabric is no different from what artists do with paint,” she adds.
When thread meets technology
As more people paint (or perhaps embroider in this case) a picture of quilting as an art form, it would appear that it is one that is constantly evolving. Amanda Murphy, another teacher conducting a workshop at this year's IQSD and author of bestselling books such as Free-Motion Quilting Idea Book, says in the past few years, modern and traditional styles, technology and art have converged. "People are feeling free to put their own spin on various techniques and traditions to create something that is uniquely their own. Technology is spurring the art form, and it in turn is advancing technology – it really is a great time to be a quilter."
Whether it's recreating a famous photograph in quilt form, or using social media to promote the art, there are numerous ways in which technology is encouraging people to go back to basics. And, Murphy says this is all the more important in our fast-paced lives. "We live in a world that really prizes left-brained analytical thinking, but I think it is beneficial for everyone to use the other side of their brain as well – which governs visual thinking, abstract problem solving and spatial relations. Quilting does that. Plus, in an increasingly automated world, what could be more therapeutic than needle and thread?"