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Quilter known for hands innovates on computer

By Jill Wilson

Award-winning quilter to lecture at festival

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- To her grandchildren, Anita Shackelford is just Grandma -- a great cook who spends time with them when she isn't running that business she has. One grandchild opened his eyes a little wider when he realized a customer wanted Grandma's autograph in a book she wrote.

He had reason to take notice: Shackelford is an award-winning quilter and author with an international reputation and more than 45 years of quilting experience. She also has made the transition from being a renowned hand-quilter and hand-quilting pattern designer to a pattern designer for digitized longarm sewing machines.

You might say there are a lot of stitches from there to here.

Shackelford headlines the 2013 West Virginia Quilt Festival, June 20-22 at the Summersville Arena and Conference Center. She will teach classes to registered quilters, but she also will be delivering a lecture and trunk show that is free and open to the public at 7 p.m. June 20.

Her quilts have been exhibited in shows across the United States and in Australia and Japan, and have appeared in more publications and books than many libraries have on the subject. Books and quilting tools are marketed under her business name, Thimble Works.

"I didn't see it coming at all," Shackelford said of her career and business in quilt making. "But on the other hand, when the door opened, I was ready for it because I had done the work to improve my skills. I told my children and now tell my grandchildren, you have to be ready."

Shackelford grew up with quilts and has some of her grandmother's creations. It was her Aunt Gini, however, who taught her to quilt. Gini was also a quilt collector, although in the 1950s and 1960s the term "collector" wasn't really a common term for quilt lovers.

"I was attracted to her quilts," Shackelford said. "She would get them out for me and we would talk about different patterns. It was my senior year in college that I said I wanted to make one."

Gini took Shackelford shopping to choose the fabrics. The pattern she used was a template of Shackelford's grandmother. Shackelford calls that shopping trip "one of the greatest gifts in life." The result was a hand-stitched quilt that she acknowledges probably would not win any awards for exacting workmanship. But it remains cherished because of its history and what it represents.

It was just the beginning.

Shackelford spent nearly two decades making quilts for family members and giving some of them away. Then, in 1984, she entered two of her quilts in the National Quilting Association show. One won second place.

"I could barely breathe. I had no idea that would happen," Shackelford said. "My reaction was not that I was 'hot stuff,' but that I needed to work harder. I wanted to be able to do those 'very best' quilts. I wanted to be that good."

She is that good. Shackelford since has won dozens of awards for her needle workmanship, including 12 Best of Show honors, and twice won a major hand-quilting award.

The importance of attending quilt shows, she said, is learning where the bar of quality is. Shows also are a source of inspiration. Entering a quilt in a show is highly educational because judges provide feedback on your creation, she said.

The American Quilters Society asked her to write a book about the techniques she was using, techniques that she had developed by studying "Baltimore Album" quilts. They involved appliqué -- stitching pieces onto a quilt top to form flowers and leaves and other designs -- with dimension.

These techniques became the subject of "Three Dimensional Appliqué & Embroidery Embellishment: Techniques for Today's Album Quilt," the first of eight books by Shackelford.

She has appeared on just about every quilt show on television as well. Quilts by her and antique quilts from her collection have graced several galleries and museums.

Then she received a request from a person who wanted to digitize her feather patterns on a computerized longarm machine called a Statler Stitcher. When she met Paul Statler to talk about the process, she was mesmerized and amazed.

"Since I was a hand-quilter, I don't know what the attraction was. It was kind of crazy," she laughs. "I bought a Statler Stitcher and then I had to figure out how to make it work. ... I guess I was ready for a new challenge and that was a really big one. It has opened up a whole new way of working for me. It has brought me a new audience. It's the fastest-growing market in quilting."

Today, Shackelford teaches the computerized longarm stitching technique and markets her computerized designs. She also has started a hobby, a kind of quilt rescue project, in which she picks up unfinished quilt tops or misfit quilt tops and finishes them. Using her new computerized design skills, she re-conforms the quilt tops to what she envisions they were intended to be.

The enjoyment, however, is just as intense.

"The first message I have is for quilters to enjoy what they do. Don't worry about trying to follow too many rules. There is personal input in a quilt. Love it. Make it your own," Shackelford said. "The second message I have is for you to use the techniques that appeal to you. Today, we have so many options. Make the quilt any way you want it to be. If you are entering a quilt in a show to be judged, there are some rules; that's the nature of it. But enjoy the journey."

Jill Wilson, of Ripley, is a former Associated Press reporter and a quilter.


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