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Gay Bitter: A Real Jersey Quilt Girl

I chatted with my dear friend, Gay Bitter over coffee at the Houston International Quilt Festival and it’s my honor to introduce her to Quiltfolk readers. She is a contemporary quilter, but I also describe her as a sophisticated lady with a hippie girl side.

She has lived exclusively on the East Coast. She grew up in Connecticut, then she and her husband, Ken raised their two children in New Jersey. After a couple of years in northern Virginia, they moved back to New Jersey and have been in Princeton for eight years, enjoying proximity to their married children and grandson.

Noticing her interest in junior high school home economics and sewing classes, her dad bought her a white Singer Featherweight sewing machine, which she used on and off through high school. Quilting came in 2002, when she met a friend for lunch. The friend, a quilter, asked if they could pop into a local quilt shop for a minute. Gay was in awe of all the colors and patterns and said, “Whatever this is, I need it in my life!” Now she needed her sewing machine which she left at her parents’ home during college. Gay recalls her dad saying, ‘no you can’t have it. I use it’ to repair pant seams and the lawn mower bag! She offered to buy him his own machine and that convinced him to let her take back her Featherweight. Gay remembers starting her quilting journey with scissors, plastic templates, and a ruler to add a quarter inch seam allowance.

She was a very traditional quilter until she discovered quilt challenges at her northern Virginia guild.

Gay working on She Made a Fatal Cut but Bravely Persevered (2023), made from an Anna Maria Horner kit “Brave Quilt".

She just attended a Susan Carlson lecture, discovering fabric collage and glue, so she utilized that technique in her first challenge, creating a butterfly from a D.C. Botanical Garden photo. “Challenges force me to look at fiber art in a different way and explore additional facets of the quilting world,” from alternative materials to different pictorial or piecing methods, to meet the challenge theme. Now she’s incorporated beads, lace, silk, trims, mylar, paint, pencils, stamping, and yarn into her various fiber art pieces.

On the wall: Paksi's Pachiderm (2015). On the bed: Rainbow Grunge (2014).
Gay in her studio working on a Kawandi quilt in progress.
Forty Fabulous Years (2021), pieced by Gay and quilted by Carolyn Russo, was a block of the month sponsored by Pennington Quilt Works.

At the same time, several guild members had their quilts accepted into the Inspired by the Beetles exhibit and book sponsored by Donna Marcinkowski DeSoto, which encouraged Gay to enter two local invitational challenges. Power Suit required her to use men’s wool suiting and dress shirt fabrics and she created Mr. Big Rules the Big City. After the second invitational challenge, Art and Old Lace, “I was hooked,” Gay recalls. She participated in the next two Donna DeSoto challenges with each piece accepted into the respective exhibits and books. She created the Western Spotted Skunk for Inspired by the National Parks, and the publisher featured her quilt on the book’s back cover. 

Inside Gay’s studio as she hangs Improvisational letters on her works-in-progress wall. 

For Inspired by Endangered Species, Gay selected the South Island Wren, and that little bird has its own special story. After mailing off her completed quilt, Gay attended what was to be a very zen watercolor and yoga retreat to disengage during a stressful time in her work life. Chatting with fellow retreat participants about her fiber artwork, Gay explained that she incorporated real feathers, collected on hikes over the years, into her South Island Wren quilt. A participant informed her that it’s illegal to own feathers unless you are a Native American. Distressed, Gay ran back to her room to research this, and sure enough it is in violation of the 1973 Endangered Species Act – the very thing that the challenge was honoring. The publisher was photographing the quilts, when Gay called the author, “I was in a tizzy, but Donna calmed me down and offered to return the quilt to me if I could quickly make a revision.” Gay ripped the feathers off black velvet and painted feathers in its place, getting the quilt to the publisher in time.

Gay's quilt South Island Wren shown in the book Inspired by Endangered Species by Donna Marcinkowski DeSoto, published by Schiffer. The exhibit of these quilts debuted at International Quilt Festival Houston in 2019, and is still traveling around the country.

During the pandemic, Gay took advantage of virtual classes, further expanding her repertoire of skills. She joined the Central New Jersey Modern Quilt Guild and heard Sherri Lynn Wood speak. “It blew my mind! I woke up in the middle of the night with three ideas and I had never done a modern quilt before,” Gay said. Now her work is primarily in an improvisational modern style, although she still does pictorial quilts for specific challenges. She likes to try new techniques, so working in a series is not her thing, “after two or three similar pieces, I’m ready to move on. Challenges are helpful in that regard,” she explained.

Outside her home, Gay holds her quilt There’s a Pandemic and the West is Burning (2020). The summer of 2020 saw the ongoing spread of COVID-19 as well as wildfires that engulfed the western United States. Gay made this piece in response to the rage and grief she felt over all the human deaths and ecological destruction. The black and gray quilting represent burned trees going up in flames, while the turquoise strip of water was the calm she hoped was on the horizon. 

Her fiber art has received recognition from various forums including: QuiltCon 2021, 41st and 42nd Faber Birren Color Award Exhibit, 2022 New Jersey Arts Annual Reemergence, Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA) PA Show – Textiles Unleashed 2023, Sacred Threads Exhibit 2022, Art Quilts XXVII Re-Vitalized (Vision Gallery), The Great Wisconsin Quilt Show 2021 Exhibit, and the Vermont Quilt Festival 2020.

But quilting isn’t her only talent. She has been knitting longer than quilting. “It’s relaxing to follow a pattern and it’s a nice compliment to quilting where I’m trying to stretch artistically,” Gay said. Additionally, she is a painter, pianist, avid reader, gardener, and personal advocate for native plants and ecology issues. She also raised monarch butterflies during COVID and is an active volunteer in the Princeton community.

Gay credits quilt guilds as an integral part of her quilting journey. In Virginia she experienced retreats for the first time. “It was awe inspiring – picture a ballroom filled with quilters and design walls covering every vertical space available. So much fabulous inspiration,” Gay recalls, “as well as the behind-the-scenes fun with margarita parties and temporary tattoos!” This Jersey girl is not only talented but a lot of fun too.

Gay’s quilt M. Forsberg + J.O. Lewis in the Formal Garden (2020) was inspired by the amazing fabrics of Monika Forsberg (for Anna Maria Horner) and Jennifer Orkin Lewis (for Dear Stella), who she featured in this X-Plus quilt.

About the Author

Diane L. Murtha is an award-winning quilter, fiber artist, author, international lecturer, and instructor. Quilting for over 30 years, she gravitated to art quilts and discovered she loves challenges. Her quilts and articles are included in books, 30+ magazines, multiple juried exhibits, and international shows. Diane published her first book, Artful Insights in Fiber: Quilted Bits of Wit & Wisdom in March 2023. She currently resides in Iowa. Learn more on her website and follow on Instagram.

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