How would you imagine a quilt maker to be? Would you, like me, picture a grandmother – sitting near a window sill with a bag full of threads, sewing while sipping afternoon tea? But let me confess – my clichéd fairytale notion of a quilter was abruptly dispelled when I met Mala Ramakrishnan, 60, owner of Classic Quilts, in Dubai; she tells me of never making quilts at home and using an array of modern machines to sew them together. ‘I get very distracted at home and I am more at peace making them in my store,’ she says, sitting in her landmark shop in Jumeirah Plaza, surrounded by a range of sleek-looking long-arm quilting machines.

Spread under one such mammoth machine is her latest creation – a bright batik patchwork quilt that she has been creating for the past three months. A fan of traditional patchwork patterns, Mala has been quilting for almost two decades. Today Classic Quilts, the store she established in 2005, with the support of her husband Shanker, is a haven for the modern quilt maker. Filled with a range of quilting accessories, their niche store these days is abuzz with excitement as Mala and Shanker are gearing up for the 7th edition of the International Quilt Show, Dubai (IQSD).

[‘I quit my job to go back to school in my 40s’]

Held every two years, IQSD attracts crafters, designers and industry experts from all over the region and beyond, rivalling similar events in Japan, UK and the US. True to its hobbyist nature, the event is free to attend and will be on until tomorrow at Roda Al Murooj Hotel, Downtown Dubai.

The enterprising duo began the event in 2008 with a vision of putting the UAE on the international quilting map. ‘Back in 2006 when I attended the Annual Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas, I came back impressed with the wide range of activities, workshops and quilts on display. That’s when Shanker and I were inspired to host a similar event in Dubai,’ recalls Mala.

So they roped in members of the Dubai Quilters Guild, and selected dates in February or March so that their event would not clash with other such shows across the world. Since then the biennial event features a quilt competition, an incredible line-up of workshops and a charity quilt show. ‘Quilters also get the chance to test out some of the world’s best equipment including Bernina, Brother and Handi Quilter Longarm quilting and sewing machines. From this year onwards vendors interested in promoting their own crafts are also invited to take an exhibition stand,’ says event director Shanker.

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Over the years one of the most-awaited highlights of IQSD has been the hotly contested competition for the best quilt. This year the competition features eight entrance categories. The best prize is a Bernina 770 QE Tula machine. Attendees can also look forward to workshops conducted by some of the world’s leading experts in quilting. Teachers include Nancy Prince, an award-winning quilt artist from Florida, US, who specialises in thread painting; California-based Jan Krentz, a widely recognised quilt instructor; Jane Howarth, well-known for her nature-inspired raw edge collage applique quilts, and Amanda Murphy, author of The Free-Motion Quilting Idea Book.

Every year the charity quilt is chosen based on a vote cast by the members of Quilter’s Circle in Dubai. The selected pattern this year is Beads, a design created by Donna Jordan of Jordan Fabrics. Proceeds raised by the charity drive will be donated to Dubai Cares. Also expected is a special demonstration by the world-famous tentmakers of Cairo, showcasing their unique tent hangings tracing back to the 13th century.

Mala never makes quilts at home and uses an array of modern machines to sew her creations
Stefan Lindeque

Ahead of the show Mala is busy sewing final stitches to two quilts that she hopes to enter into the competition. ‘Winning is not important but participating is,’ she affirms. In the era of smartphones where everyone is on a race to showcase only excellence, Mala says, quilting offers several life lessons to its enthusiasts. ‘In the fast-paced world today quilting brings the much-needed balance, you learn to slow down and concentrate. Quilting is also very forgiving; you learn to not get bogged down by perfection, for you set your own definition of perfection. It also teaches one to let go as you will see most quilters give away their quilts, and it’s most often made for a specific person or for a reason.’ Her patchwork quilts typically follow a sandwich style with a bottom fabric, a middle layer and a decorative top, all stitched together.

Mala’s journey as a quilt maker began in 1999 when she found herself with free time as Shanker followed a hectic travel schedule at work. ‘One of the first quilts I made was a traditional log cabin design that has a light half and dark half,’ recalls Mala, who used to quilt along with members of the Abu Dhabi Quilting Guild those days. With time as her love for the craft grew so did her commitment, which led her to participate in quilt exhibitions and even attend advanced-level coaching in long arm quilting from well-known US-based quilter Linda Taylor.

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Seeing Mala’s growing enthusiasm for the craft, the family decided to invest in a Gammill Quilting Machine worth 15,000 dollars, imported from the US in 2004. She decided to commercialise her craft by opening Classic Quilts in a small 440-sq-ft shop in Bank Street in Bur Dubai in 2005. The following year she met directors of Bernina quilting machines, a popular machine brand for quilting, in Switzerland. This led to Classic Quilts acquiring sole distributorship of Bernina sewing machines for the UAE, Oman and Kuwait. The store moved to its current location in 2009.

A large part of Mala’s professional quilting work involves making memory quilts. Parts of cloth, photos and other fabric memories of sentimental value to a loved one are stitched together to create a personalised quilt. ‘They are a labour of love for me with immense significance for the person it’s being created for. Parents gift it to their children as graduation presents, sometimes they are made for a departed soul and other times to honour family heirlooms,’ says Mala. She shows us one that she recently created as a gift from an Emirati mother to her son, with parts of his baby T-shirts, bibs and caps. At the store one can also get bags and cushions made, enrol in classes, get machines repaired and avail of several other quilting services.

Mala and husband Shanker established their store in 2005
Stefan Lindeque

A one-stop shop for quilting enthusiasts, a small area outside the store is today the meeting place for members of the Ranches Ladies Quilter’s Circle. Some of them are participants in the forthcoming quilt show and are engrossed sewing their quilts on individual machines. Tina Mercado, a Dubai resident, is new to quilting and has entered the quilt competition for the first time in the art category. ‘This is just the third quilt I have made and is called water lilies. I have used a whole bunch of techniques to put it together including confetti quilting, embroidery and real art work on fabric.’ Tina spent over two hours every day for a month to complete it with the help of a Bernina machine at home. ‘I still say to myself “Oh my gosh, did I make this?” I hope to win although I know competition is crazy,’ she says.

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Seated next to her is Monika Josza, who has been part of the Quilter’s Circle since 2006 and is also a participant in the art and contemporary quilt category in the show this year. ‘I use a lot of hand-dyed fabric specially cherrywood from the US. The quilt patterns are usually planned on a design wall, and then I cut the fabric and stitch them together on a long arm machine,’ she says. Through the show Monika hopes people will see the fun quilt makers have stitching spectacular patterns. ‘Quilting is very relaxing; it is like yoga for my mind. I completely switch off when I am quilting, I don’t worry. I only sew.’

International Quilt Show

The 7th edition of the International Quilt Show is free to attend and is on until February 29 at Roda Al Murooj Hotel, Downtown Dubai.