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Maine quilter wins big at international show, takes home $20K

The quilt, called "Sweet Madame Blue," took Gorham resident Margaret Solomon Gunn more than two years to complete.

GORHAM, Maine — Margaret Solomon Gunn is what you would refer to as a master quilter.

The Gorham resident has been competing with handmade works of art and wowing judges around the country since 2011.

She said it started as a hobby in college, and she picked it back up when her children were young. Gunn would work on various projects while her kids napped. In 2007, she said she saw an ad for Project Linus, an organization that donates blankets to children who are seriously ill, traumatized, or otherwise in need. By the end of the year, she had quilted and donated at least 40 blankets to the cause.

"The whole process of getting back into sewing and getting to do something when the kids were sleeping," Gunn said. "It was kind of fun, and it sort of rejuvenated that love of handling the textiles and creating."

Shortly after that, someone suggested Gunn enter her quilts into a nearby quilt show. She said she didn't really know what she was in for, but she was up for the challenge. 

The quilt Gunn submitted ended up winning the Rookie of the Year award, given to a contestant who had been quilting for less than a year. 

She calls this her "accidental surprise" moment.

"I thought, 'Well, this is pretty neat,' but the bigger picture of getting to go to the show and to see all the beautiful quilts hanging, I was motivated," Gunn said. "I was like, 'Wow, that was an accident. I'm going to make one for real this time.'"

Since then, Gunn has stitched 25 competition quilts. She's won 82 top awards and has taken home 33 Best of Show awards. Gunn has even won a Masterpiece Quilt Award, making her one of only 37 people to ever win it. 

But the "granddaddy" of the awards, as she called it, was awarded to her earlier this year at an American Quilters Association show in Paducah, Kentucky. Her "Sweet Madame Blue" quilt was up against designs from quilters around the world. It took the prize of Best in Show and a whopping $20,000.

"When I sit down and I start a quilt, I'm not making it for anyone but me," Gunn said. "I'm fulfilling my design aesthetic; I'm doing things I want; I don't care what the judges are going to think. I'm going to put together the best piece that I know how to make and hopefully they like it."

The judges in Paducah didn't just like her quilt, they loved it. Gunn got the idea for its design after purchasing lace doilies from an Etsy seller in Turkey. She said she used them as her inspiration, along with Turkish artwork. There was just one problem.

"I needed to make this blue, and blue is not a color I work with," Gunn said. "I don't decorate with blue. I don't do anything blue. ... So, I went, 'OK, challenge on.'"

Gunn started the quilt in December of 2019. It wouldn't be complete and ready for competition until January of 2022. Not only did she hand stitch every single flower, but she dyed all of her silk fabric different shades of blue to really nail her vision.

"Paducah is a tough show," Gunn said. "There's nearly 400 of the best quilts internationally entered."

"Sweet Madame Blue" is now on display in a museum in Kentucky.

To learn more, watch the full segment above.

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