Barn raisings are few and far between in the Berkshires, but the 21st century equivalent of quilting bees is well and lively. When the country was younger and farms were far apart, the two activities went hand in hand. As soon as the barn sections were ready and it was time to raise them into place, the neighbors gathered. The men took care of the new barn, the women cooked up a storm and sat around quilting frames to chat and create new blankets.
Those old quilts, especially the ones in good condition, are collectors' items now. And many of the new quilts are pricey treasures, as well. Anyone who has stopped to look at quilts hanging on the porch of an Amish house in Pennsylvania has experienced a special kind of sticker shock.
But around here, the least expensive, totally hand-stitched quilt you can buy costs $1. It's queen-size, spectacular, pieced and quilted by experts and one of a kind. That may sound too good to be true, but it is true. The only problem is that your buck will be competing with more than 10,000 others -- the odds may be worse than the chance of finding Publishers Clearing House on your doorstep.
The raffle ticket sale -- for that's what it is -- is under way at Hancock Shaker Village now, and the latest quilt turned out by the group at the Village features a handsome collection of appliquéd apples in muted reds and greens that echo a traditional Tree of Life Shaker design. The drawing takes place at 4 p.m. on Sept. 29.
It takes between 600 and 700 hours to create one of these quilts. The various volunteers take home a package of fabric and directions, and the 16 patterned blocks are begun. Then the sections are joined, and the business of making a zillion tiny stitches by hand begins.
At one time, the volunteers met in homes to do the quilting. These days they are set up in the Trustees House at the village, and having a look at what they are doing (the 2014 quilt) is part of the price of admission.
Volunteers come from all over the county to create this annual raffle quilt, and several of them have been punching their fingers with tiny needles for nearly 30 years.
It's not acupuncture, it's quilting. When the quilt is stretched out on the frame, one hand is under it, the other above holding the needle. The needle is thrust through the fabric until it hits that much-pricked finger, then comes up and repeats the process. Some of the quilters do five stitches or more before they draw up the thread and start again. In an hour, they've attacked that finger many times -- so they may switch fingers or put on a protective cover. It's obviously preferable that the prick be mild enough to not draw blood.
The stitches are tiny -- no more than an eighth of an inch -- and it's hard to imagine how many a quilt has, with all those apples outlined and a double row of stitches created like a winding river around the border.
They've had some surprises over the years. One winner wanted to know if they'd make her quilt in a different color. Another year, the village was so excited about the design that the group had to make two so one could stay at Hancock.
Just like their forebearers, they chatter as they stitch, the subjects ranging from one woman's chickens to plans for kayaking in Maine. They talk of other quilt groups they belong to -- Yankee Pride, which meets at the Froio Senior Center in Pittsfield and Berkshire Quilters Guild.
And as they chat, they say they solve their problems and the world's. Perhaps Congress could use a couple of quilting frames where they could gather ‘round companionably.