Let’s start this next instalment of Women In Sewing History by introducing Eleanor Burns, the expert quilter. Now, Burns doesn’t date quite as far back as the last two women we’ve focused on – Ellen Curtis Demorest and Mary Brooks Picken. In fact, she was born in 1945 and is still going strong with her quilting to this very day!
Pennsylvanian born and bred, Eleanor Burns began sewing at a young age on a small crank-handle toy sewing machine provided to her by her family. Like most children, she was inventive when it came to sourcing her materials and practiced day in and day out on chicken feed sacks supplied by her Aunt Edna. By the age of thirteen, she was considered competent enough to use her mother’s brand new Elna sewing machine, which allowed her to hone her skill.
Despite being dyslexic, she pursued a further education, working hard for a Bachelor of Science degree from Edinboro State College and continuing to graduate level studies at Penn State University. While many would find dyslexia a hindrance in regards to academia, Burns used it to her advantage, using her ability to explain difficult things in a simple way to her advantage as a special needs teacher in the Pittsburgh school system. As we can see, Eleanor was competent on a sewing machine and had an impressive ability to teach. But how did she come to be such a prominent figure in sewing and textiles? Well, she first came to public attention when she published her debut book Quilt In A Day in 1978.
The book’s all-inclusive approach to quilting invited sewers of all capabilities to try their hand at the age-old tradition of sewing with Burns’ distinct style leading the way. In short, this started a quilting revolution. Part of the mass appeal of the book was the way that it condensed quilt making, reducing the task from a project which could span months to a one-day task. Standard protocol in the field made the activity drawn out and more of a hobby than a practical skill. However, Burns’ newly introduced techniques such as the “rip and strip” technique (which replaced standard cutting with scissors and templates), rotary speed patchworking, and the concept of assembly line sewing that she attached to piecework meant that readers could, quite literally, make a quilt in a day. While this work has now reached 40 years of age, it is still in print and helping novice quilt makers to hone their quilting skills!
If you’re interested in Burns’ work but are not an avid reader, not to worry. The “Quilt In A Day” premise was also taken to television as a series, making the work even more accessible. All episodes are available to stream online through Youtube, PBS, QNN TV, and TheQuiltingSchool.com.
Eleanor Burns achieved what many cannot do or actively avoid doing: she opened up a relatively complex practice to as wide an audience as possible. Accessibility is key when it comes to spreading opportunity for novices in any field!
We love to hear about women who inspire you, so tell us about someone you know who sews!