Winger, Minn., quilter thinks outside the blocksQuilter Gale Melby likes to follow his creative side in the creation of his block quilts.
Retired highway department worker Gale Melby is passionate about making beautiful quilts and he has nothing against tradition. But he doesn’t like hearing “you can’t do that” about the techniques, colors and patterns he uses when he’s quilting.
“If you want to have a hobby or do anything, why do you want to build fences around what you are doing?” Melby said. “My wish is, whatever you do, don’t put any fences around it. Just do it.”
Melby, who retired in 2001 from the Minnesota State Highway Department, has since made about 150 quilts — he stopped counting at 100 — and he figures that so far he has used 46 miles of thread.
Some quilts he sells, some he donates to clubs or organizations that are looking for something nice to raffle. Some are for family and friends.
Melby was just 57 when he retired. He liked to fish, and work around his hobby farm outside Winger, Minn. He and wife, Deanna, had four sons and now 12 grandchildren, all of whom lived nearby. Still, it soon became evident to Deanna that Melby needed another hobby, and she told him so in no uncertain terms, Melby said.
“She said my first name, and when your wife says your first name, you stand at attention,” he said.
She suggested he try quilting. Melby said he had always been pretty creative, even as a child, so he figured: “Why not?”
Traditionally, quilting is considered a woman’s hobby, but Melby said he never felt funny about becoming a quilter. He had watched his mother quilting when he was a boy and remembered helping her tie quilts from time to time. His wife is a quilter, too, so he had that to help him get started. Plus, he learned what he could about patterns and designs from quilting books and magazines.
He likes to use the Bargello block, where vertical color changes shift along in columns to give quilts horizontal curves and waves. It takes planning and accuracy in piecing and it helps to have a mathematical mind to follow the instructions, according to Popular Patchwork magazine.
Today, Melby’s hobby has taken over half the basement of their home, where he stores his fabrics, lays out his designs on the laminate floor to make sure they are just right, and then sews them on his Janome sewing machine. The placement of batting and the actual quilting is done elsewhere.
The amount of time he spends on one quilt depends on the pattern and design, but most of his quilts are big, with more than 1,000 blocks. Even when he has started out to make a small quilt, Melby said, it tends to turn out big. When it comes to baby quilts for their grandchildren, it’s Deanna who makes them.
In one of his latest quilts, Melby used blocks that started at one inch wide and grew by quarter-inch increments, making the pattern appear to swoop and curve with bold cotton fabric in oranges, purples, pinks, yellows, greens and browns, in prints, patterns and solids.
Melby often works with a pattern that is six blocks wide and six blocks tall. He creates his own patterns, including one he calls the five-color Irish chain. One of his quilts with that pattern had 1,306 pieces.
He uses 100 percent cotton fabric that costs him $6 to $12 a yard. When people tell him, “I know where you can get some cheap fabric,” he tells them: “I don’t want cheap fabric. I want good fabric.”
Not that he will shun a bargain. One of his recent quilts has multiple shades of pink that was 50 percent off at Wal-Mart.
Melby looks for fabric wherever he goes. By now, he’s familiar with many local shops, including Quilter’s Eden in East Grand Forks and Jo-Ann Fabrics in Grand Forks. Even a recent fishing trip in northwest Minnesota with one of his sons included a stop at a fabric store.
Melby said he doesn’t pin anything when sewing, rather he has a way of holding the fabric that keeps the seams straight and square.
Melby has shared his knowledge and techniques by teaching classes in East Grand Forks and elsewhere and he makes quilts for fundraising raffles and other good causes. For information about classes or quilt donations, call (218) 938-4370. Melby also will be having a quilt show at 3 p.m. May 4 at the Depot Cafe in Winger.
It’s clear that his wife’s suggestion 10 years ago helped Melby find a creative outlet just right for him.
“If it wasn’t for this, I don’t know what I’d be doing,” Melby said. “It’s something that gets me going.”
If you go
• What: A Gale Melby quilt show.
• When 3 p.m. May 4.
• Where: Depot Cafe, Winger, Minn.
Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to email@example.com.