Olivia Loomis Merion’s South by Southwest-selected short documentary Quilt Fever is a Christopher Guest film come to life. Like Best In Show, the film includes absurd yet lovable characters who are deeply committed to a somewhat obscure hobby and travel to a hyper-specific locale—this time Paducah, Kentucky—to gather with their people and compete in their craft. But of course, like rearing and training dogs, quilting has deep roots. Now millennials are thrifting for old quilts to make trendy jackets out of and bored quarantiners are taking up the pastime as a long-lasting alternative to sourdough-mania.
Quilt Fever is such a delight because it takes the work and community of quilting seriously even as the filmmakers are clearly amused by the fanfare and personalities surrounding it. Many sequences in the 15-minute film will have you in stitches while others will make you weep. All of it will make you wistful for a time when large gatherings between strangers were encouraged while simultaneously more appreciative of the societal slowdown that has made many more people’s lives resemble those of retired school teachers and caretakers.
The doc predictably features a cabal of older white ladies, yet there are also a few older Black women who make their sojourn to Kentucky to either compete or admire the handiwork. This September, a retrospective of the brilliant radical quilter, the late Rosie Lee Tompkins, a Black woman from the Bay Area, will take place at Berkeley Art Museum and close on Dec. 20, reminding the world of how craftsmanship can have its edge and wonder. While the quilts featured in Quilt Fever are fairly conventional compared to Thompkins’ greatly imaginative work, they each hold a level of personal significance that imparts a rare kind of beauty. Instead of simply being pretty things, these quilts are vested with the dreams and legacies of several generations. Their makers, even as they may have left behind careers, spouses, siblings, and friends, continue on in their work, stitching together the scraps that will outlive them.
My favorite real-life characters in Quilt Fever are Linda and Alan, the hosts and producers of The Quilt Channel, which is exactly what it sounds like. During the weeklong competition, Linda and Alan are in the thick of their busiest season, hunting down the small-time famous ladies who are at the top of the field for in-depth interviews. They take a non-egotistical pride in their work that speaks so directly to pleasure that it feels unbelievably quaint. Quilt Fever is a reminder of so much of what our society typically fails to be, except in streaks. Luckily, lockdown has meant that our likelihood to delight in these unusual pure moments, whether filmed or felt directly, has increased. Hopefully the energy rubs off and carries on.