The Woman Who Revolutionized Quiltmaking in America

There are many great quilters and teachers of quiltmaking. There are thousands of books and blogs and television shows and websites and even youtube videos. They are doing good things. They are creative, educational, entertaining, and helpful. Many quilters have made many beautiful quilts.

But there is one woman who truly revolutionized quiltmaking. After WWII, quilting was a dying craft. There was a revival of interest in the mid-1970s, but it was tedious work and already fading out when Eleanor Burns self-published her first book, “Log Cabin Quilt in a Day.” She suggested tearing the fabric into strips instead of cutting with scissors, and she explained how to sew rapidly, using an assembly-line technique in which the pieces were sewn one after another without stopping to break the thread between them.

Shortly after that book was published, the Olfa Company introduced the rotary cutter. That tool would change quiltmaking even more than the invention of the sewing machine, and Eleanor Burns was one of the first to appreciate its potential. With the rotary cutter, a ruler and a safety mat, the quilter could cut quickly and accurately, through multiple layers of fabric. She no longer had to cut paper templates and draw around each piece with a pencil before cutting it out with scissors.

Ms. Burns rewrote the Log Cabin book and added other basic patterns to the Quilt in a Day line. Even as the patterns became more complex, she broke them down into simple units. Instead of starting with little pieces and sewing them together one at a time, making the item bigger and bigger, she showed how to cut strips, sew the strips into panels, cut across those panels and sew those new units together to create blocks. Her instructions and illustrations were so simple and clear that even a novice quiltmaker could make a quilt. Over the years, she started creating new patterns of her own, as well as writing themed pattern books and ideas for faster applique.

Not all quilts can be made in one day, of course. Larger bed quilts usually take longer. The “quilt in a day” claim was specific to a quilt that was layered right-sides-together with the backing and batting, stitched around the edges and turned through an opening. It was then tied with yarn or floss instead of being quilted. Most people who use Ms. Burns’s techniques now create the quilt top in a day (or two) and then quilt it themselves or send it out to be professionally machine quilted. However it is finished, it is a fraction of the time it would have taken before the rotary cutter and innovative ideas of Eleanor Burns.

The Quilt in a Day television show first appeared on PBS in 1990 and has continued since then, broadcast worldwide. Ms. Burns has published 104 books, designed fabric and created her own specialty rulers and other tools. She has received numerous awards from the quilting community and also for her business achievements, especially as an advocate for women in business. Eleanor Burns revolutionized quiltmaking and was a significant factor in the development of the multi-million dollar quiltmaking industry we have today.

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