by Suzanne Labry
The bodice of fiber artist Marty Ornish’s first salvaged quilt creation, Abstract of Recollections, prominently features an album block painstakingly retrieved from a badly damaged 1930s friendship quilt.
Abstract of Recollections (front and close up). Photos by Stephen OrnishThe block-maker’s name is sweetly embroidered across the center strip.
The dress’s antebellum-style skirt and
two bustles are pieced together from the salvageable portions of six other “cutter quilts,” embellished with vintage lace and heavy crocheted items from Ornish’s dear friend (who feared these family heirlooms might be discarded should her friend die from life-threatening breast cancer).
The dress is finished with a ruffle made from more salvaged cutter quilts. The dress is a remarkable fusion of skill and sentiment, with friendships—current and past—providing the emotional underpinnings of the piece.
San Diego, California-based Ornish has been sewing for most of her life. She comes from a multigenerational family of women—her mother and her grandmother—who made their living doing piecework for a pajama factory.
While Ornish grew up mostly in Northern Virginia, she spent many weekends during her childhood visiting her grandmother in the Pennsylvania Dutch town of Glen Rock. Her grandmother and mother taught her to sew, first making doll clothes by hand and subsequently on a sewing machine.
Years later, Ornish worked for the Cover Loft company in Annapolis, Maryland making custom covers for sailboats. “My grandmother had a sixth-grade education, my mother had a twelfth-grade education, and I have a master’s degree and a law degree, but at one time in our lives we each worked in sweatshops making minimum wage,” Ornish laughs. After Ornish had her two sons, she sewed many of her sons’ costumes.
All Tied Up (back). Photos by Stephen OrnishAfter taking an adult education free-motion quilting class 10 years ago, she began making art quilts. Ornish has been making wearable
art garments from upcycled and repurposed materials, often incorporating vintage textiles, for eight years. In disbelief that her first “quilt dress” (Ornish’s term for her creations), which won Best of Show and Viewer’s Choice at Pacific International Quilt Festival, was a fluke, she
pushed herself to construct a few more
wearable art pieces out of ruined cutter quilts.
A Canyon Quilt Guild member gifted Ornish small pieces of a cutter quilt beyond conserving or restoring, but that were still recognizable as a Double Wedding Ring quilt. She was inspired to salvage it by creating a piece that would preserve its essence and honor the anonymous woman who made it. She created a stunning wearable art gown titled All Tied Up.
“I painstakingly reconstructed small bits of the Wedding Ring quilt to make enough material to create the bodice,” Ornish offers. “The skirts were constructed from the interlining of men's ties, and provide the peek-a-boo texture seen when the garment is worn. The final layers of the skirt were constructed from hundreds of strips made from several other irreparably damaged antique quilts, permitting the ruined vintage fabric to have a second life, and giving the skirt a 'Roaring Twenties' look."
That second quilt dress marked what became a fascinating series of works that give new life to quilts whose likely next stop would have been the garbage. Ornish built on this genre of salvaging ruined quilts and created a collection of wearable art titled “Tattered Splendor,” which was showcased as a special exhibit at the 2016 International Quilt Show in Houston.
Ornish emphasizes that she does not use any quilt that has the potential to be restored; rather, she only reincarnates quilts that are beyond repair.
“It's actually difficult to find enough really ruined quilts. People don't think they can be sold, so toss them away or keep them in closets,” she says. “I look online, on Craigslist, and eBay, but it's hard to tell from photos if the quilts are beyond restoration. If a seller has a quilt already cut into pieces, then I know I can reuse it. I also look at thrift stores, yard and estate sales, and my quilt guild knows I'm looking for ruined quilts. Some old quilts are too thick, or the fabric is too shattered even for me!”
Abstract of Recollections (front and close up). Photos by Stephen Ornish
Ornish rarely uses a pattern, and once she has salvaged what she can from a ruined quilt, she lets the resulting quilt parts guide her design choices.
“The fabric leads me to the dress,” she explains. “I start with an idea, and when I gather enough quilt parts, I start draping them on a dress form to see if they will work with my idea. Prior to making a quilt dress, I ask myself what new concept I can try, so I don’t repeat myself, but ultimately, it is the available quilt parts that determine what I can do. It’s a completely organic process, and I’m always surprised at the end. ”
Some of the quilt dresses make bold statements, such as Cage de Crinoline—the dress
she encaged in wine barrel rings. Her current piece in progress will feature steel potato plow blades to illustrate the difficulties faced by pioneer women, as well as their strength and power.
Marty Ornish in her “Tattered Spendor” exhibit at the 2016 International Quilt Festival Houston. Photo by Alex Labry.She often incorporates items given to her by those close to her, such as the lace and crocheted pieces in Abstract of Recollections, which she sees as an alternative wedding dress, “These are emotional works for me. My friends and loved ones are in these dresses. I see my quilt dresses as giving new life to other quilters’ work.”
Transforming quilts that are damaged beyond repair into wearable works of art has allowed her to combine her love of quilts with her interest in garment making and preservation of intact textiles and repurposing of quilts ruined beyond salvaging. In the process, Marty Ornish has given the rest of us an unusual new means by which to appreciate the artistry of quilters whose work was literally loved to death.
You can learn more about Ornish at www.Marty-O.com