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January 05. 2013 8:51PM

A passion for quilting forms the fabric of their friendship


Susan Burke holds up a quilt modeled from Civil War-era patterns. (SIMÓN RÍOS/Sunday News Correspondent)

NASHUA - The five ladies met because of quilts, travel because of quilts, see each other weekly because of quilts and are best of friends because of their passion for quilts.

There's Denise from Dracut, Mass., Marie from Merrimack, Deedee from Hudson and Betsy from Brookline, all of whom met through instructor Susan Burke of Suzie B. Cuddle Quilts.

"Susan's fantastic," said Denise Cleghorn, who, like the other women who meet each Thursday, started taking lessons from Burke about 14 years ago. "We get along so well, and Susan is a wonderful teacher. She's so patient. No matter what level we're at, she's at the ready to encourage us and help us get around something that seems insurmountable."

Cleghorn said the five came together because of their common interest in the craft, but it has become more about their camaraderie than anything.

Burke, a Gate City native who taught home economics for 19 years at Nashua High School, started her business in 2000 from her home on South Main Street. She teaches classes throughout the week, in addition to giving private lessons to those in need of extra attention.

Burke used to teach out of the Covered Bridge, a bygone craft center in Nashua. When the place shut its doors, Burke said she felt responsible for her students and their unfinished projects. So she took them under her roof.

"That kind of rolled," said a smiling Burke, sitting in her basement studio surrounded by Singer machines. "It just kept on going. That's how it happened."

She left Nashua High in 1997 after a long career that also included teaching art, sewing and weaving. She recalls the 20 looms the high school once housed, manufactured by New Hampshire-based Harrisville Designs. Weaving is making a comeback, she said, but it's far more equipment-intensive than quilting.

Though teaching at the high school had it's ups, she's happier with students eager to quilt.

"I like the companionship and the connection," she said. "I just like teaching people who want to learn. When you're in high school you don't want to learn - you don't care. I have this gift and I want to share it with other people."

Though it skipped a generation - her mother was not a quilter - Burke has had quilting in her blood since she was a little girl, growing up in the same house she lives and teaches in today. She made her first quiet when she was 8-years-old, taught by a grandmother Burke said was a whiz.

Burke said it takes about six weeks to produce a relatively complicated quilt, including a two-hour class each week and work from home.

"It's an attained skill," she said, holding up a Civil War-style quilt made recently by one of her students. "There's some easy blocks, like this one here, and then you get to this one and it's more complex. They all learn something."

"They also learn the history behind it. I always like to give 'em a little meat and potatoes," she said with a wink.

Quilting at Suzie B excludes the actual quilting, the process of sewing the top layer to the batting (bottom layer), which can be done by hand or on a more sophisticated sewing machine. At Suzie B's, the tops are sent out and quilted by an outside company for $70 or $80, she said.

"In primitive times, when I first started to quilt, they did it all by hand," she said.

Burke is proud of the students who excel, though it doesn't always appear that some people will take off. "You've got the people who will only go as far as the pattern, and then they'll make another quilt that looks very similar. And then you get the ones that just fly off."

Cleghorn is one of the students who has gotten better with time. She's made about 40 quilts over the years, none of which she's ever sold, all of which she's given away. The last quilt she gifted was to a close friend of her husband. The one before that was to a friend recovering from breast cancer surgery.

The five women have become so close that each year they travel to Amish country in Pennsylvania for quilting excursions.

In Lancaster, (Pa.), which they call "Amishland," they rent a house and set up sewing machines they trucked all the way from New England in Cleghorn's brother's minivan, which he lends the ladies each year.

They also purchase fabrics with gusto because of the high quality and low prices.

Burke's prices are highly affordable, at $15 for a two-hour group session or $25 for a one-on-one.

In all her years teaching, Burke hasn't had a single male aspire to the state of being a quilter. She said her door is open to anyone, however.

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Simon Rios may be reached at srios@newstote.com.


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