Sean Gutekunst is rambunctious on the playground, like many 6-year-olds. He enjoys attending band practice with his father, playing piano, and being in the Cub Scouts, but he has an unusual hobby - quilting.
Sean learned through his grandmother, Linda Dougherty, an experienced quilter who has made this American tradition a tradition for her family.
"I started in the 1970s, there was a resurgence of quilting during the bicentennial," says Dougherty. "Since then, quilting has always been a way of exposing my children and grandchildren to sewing."
Sean's mother, Colleen, said all of her children began to quilt around the age of 5, sitting by their grandmother at the sewing machine.
Still, his mother and grandmother hadn't anticipated that the little boy would quilt. "Since he's the only boy, she thought he wouldn't be interested," Colleen Gutekunst said.
"He brought it up," recalled Dougherty, operations director at the Bucks County Visitor's Center, where her grandson's first work is on display. "He said, 'Grandma, when am I going to make my quilt?' I was surprised at myself that I hadn't thought of it."
Sean's quilt, entitled "Firefighter," is part of the fifth annual Bucks County Quilt Showcase, which runs through Sept. 27 at the visitors center. The lap-sized quilt, which took him a year to complete, is a brightly colored display of trucks, dogs, and firefighters. "Firefighter" hangs in the visitor's center alongside 38 other local works that billow from the building's rafters, dividing the room in a patchwork of colorful partitions.
Dougherty acknowledges that the traditional image of a quilter is not male. But, she says, "When you look into the design world, and you look at the top-end designers, it's not all women. There are men there. So I don't think it's unusual for a boy to have an interest in the fiber arts at all."
Kathleen Jones, owner of the Quilting Circle store in Bensalem, agrees.
"It crosses all demographics," said Jones, a co-organizer of the showcase. "There is no stereotypical definition of a quilter anymore."
After teaching three daughters and two grandchildren to sew, Dougherty says, she sees no disparity in the male and female ability to quilt. What she does observe, however, is a difference in what attracts young boys and girls to quilting in the first place.
"The difference, having three girls and then teaching him," says Dougherty, "is that when he started sewing he had a real technical side and a real interest in the gears and mechanisms of the sewing machine."
Dougherty and Jones said Sean's interest demonstrated how the modernization of sewing technology in the last decade has heightened its appeal, enticing a broadening and increasingly nontraditional demographic of new quilters.
"I think that we're breaking that mold that quilting is only for women," says Dougherty. "It's a creative art, which means men and women, girls and boys."
Sean says quilting is not a pastime that many of his Cub Scout friends share, although he does think they would enjoy it.
"I think Cub Scouts would like to make a quilt," he says, "because it's fun!"
Jones' grandson, Alden Trotman, 10, is another new member of the Bucks County quilting community. Like Sean, Alden was exposed early to quilting, through his grandmother's store. But it was the opportunity to use Jones' high-tech sewing machine, he says, that truly sparked his interest and made him want to quilt.
"I got interested in quilting from the technology," Alden said. "From one touch of the button, the sewing machine can do all the designs you want it to do. Each time I do it, I learn something new to doing it."
To explain the challenges of quilting, he uses the analogy of a high-stakes version of Legos. "You can join the pieces together to make something new," he says. "With Legos you can take the pieces apart, but with quilting you can't. It's harder."
This type of problem-solving, says Jones, is a valuable byproduct of teaching kids to quilt.
"It definitely helps them with the math skills," she says. "It definitely helps with their creative processes, and it even helps with self-esteem, being able to take a project through to the end, to completion. There is a pride of authorship."
"Kids sit in front of a computer screen so much," Jones continues. "This is an opportunity to learn social skills and work together."
With the digitization of modern sewing machines, young quilters have essentially just moved from sitting in front of one type of computer screen to sitting in front of another.
Advances in sewing technology, say the two women, have not only made quilting more accessible, they have also opened the door for innovation within the craft. The technology era, according to Dougherty, has not rendered quilting more standardized and mechanistic, but rather more individualized and artistic.
"The tools that quilters use today - there are no limits. There's always a new gadget to try out," she says. "The machine is just another tool for us to use and actually opens up the opportunity to be more creative, to paint with thread."
Sean's quilt is destined to adorn his already firefighter-themed bedroom, but several other quilts in the showcase will benefit charitable causes. Five "Quilts of Valor" will be donated to returning veterans, and a sixth, the "Celebration Quilt" by Chris Laul and Linda Armbruster, will be raffled on Oct. 1 to raise proceeds for the Bucks County Veterans Association.
Beyond any gadgets or new technology, it is the influence of other quilters, says Jones, and the inspiration that one takes from viewing others' works that is most instrumental in moving the craft forward. That is part of what makes exhibitions like the current showcase so important.
"Someone comes in and looks at the work the others have done and that inspires them," says Jones. "They take that out and use it to bring their own work to a new level. That interaction, those inspirations are part of the creative process."
And while the process of quilting will inevitably continue to progress, its practice is still at its core a way of remembering the past. Jones points out that the creative recycling of old family mementos is one of the reasons that quilting remains such a lasting tradition. Such was the case in Sean's experience, as he chose to include several of his great-grandfather's Army uniform patches in the quilt's design. "Some of my grandpa's patches from Cub Scouts are on there, too," he says.
"That's what is neat about quilts," says Jones. "There's a lot of symbolism because you pull it from your heart."
Bucks County Quilt Showcase
The Bucks County Quilt Showcase continues until Sept. 27 at the Bucks County Visitors Center in Bensalem, 3207 Street Rd.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Information: 800-836-2825 or www.visitbuckscounty.com.