When General Motors (GM) and Suzuki collaborated to produce an alternative clean energy vehicle that debuted before world leaders at the 2008 G8 Summit in Japan, little did they realize that an alternative-fabric quilt would be a byproduct of the venture. The specially modified Suzuki SX4 features a GM-designed hydrogen fuel-cell engine that converts hydrogen gas and oxygen from the air into electricity to power the car.
Kristian Whitehouse of Denver, Colorado, one of the GM engineers on the multi-national team that traveled extensively between the United States, Germany and Japan, had a second mission–find fabric for his mother, longarm quilter ZJ Humbach of Nederland, Colorado. This simple request proved more challenging than engineering the car.
“My search for fabric took me as far south as Kyoto and as far north as Tokyo,” Whitehouse said. “I couldn’t find a Japanese fabric shop.”
On his last trip to Japan, Whitehouse took a day trip to the town of Fuji, located at the base of Mount Fuji where he stumbled upon a kimono-maker’s shop.
“I found lots of fabric, but nothing I could afford,” he said. “The lowest priced piece was on sale for $198 and pieces ran as high as $10,000. As I was leaving, I noticed a box of what I thought were napkins. Using my limited Japanese, I learned they were primarily cotton and silk and, more importantly, affordable. The owners helped me select an assortment for a souvenir quilt.”
Before leaving the Suzuki headquarters in Hamamatsu, Japan, Whitehouse rode “shotgun” during a test drive at the Sagara Proving Grounds.
“Seeing the project start with a pile of parts on the shelf in my lab, then taking the finished car into a high-banked corner at over 100 miles per hour with no intention of braking is something I’ll never forget,” he said. He later invited his mother to the GM facilities in Rochester, New York, for family day so she could drive GM’s version of the vehicle, a modified Chevy Equinox. During her visit, Whitehouse gave her the Japanese fabrics.
“The car and the fabrics are amazing,” Humbach said. “The fabric feels so different from our quilting cottons, and the designs are incredible. While I was thrilled to receive them, I immediately realized the challenge I would be facing. The colors weren’t compatible, and I couldn’t bear to lose the unique motifs by cutting them. I let them sit while I pondered their fate.”
When Whitehouse relocated to Denver a year later, Humbach finally began work on the quilt. Whitehouse remembered that beginning:
“We didn’t have a concept in mind. I just started putting the squares on Mom’s design wall one evening. The next thing you know, we’re pulling fabrics from her stash to tie it all together. I suddenly realized this quilt would look great on my living-room wall, so I rotated the blocks horizontally. I took off with a swatch of the sash fabric to find coordinating paint and left the quilting up to Mom.”
It was only after the quilt was under way that Whitehouse and Humbach learned about the fabric squares. Humbach explained:
“We learned that what we thought were either napkins or handkerchiefs are actually furoshiki, an eco-friendly cloth that the Japanese use to wrap everything from gifts to groceries. I wanted their beauty to shine through, right down to the labels that were either stamped or woven into the fabric or sewn on as a tag. In my mind, the quilting played a secondary, supporting role.”
The quilt features 27 different threads and took 57 hours to machine quilt. Each block is quilted differently. Most feature Japanese-themed motifs such as koi, gingko and cranes. Some are quilted freehand to showcase the individual furoshiki’s design. Bamboo motifs in the sashes and dragon motifs in the border tie the memory quilt together.
“The Suzuki Project–both the car and the quilt–reinforces the importance of fresh ideas,” Humbach said. “Whether it’s fuel or fabric, the potential of alternative resources is limited only by our imagination.”
About the author: ZJ Humbach is a professional longarm quilter who owns and operates Dream Stitcher Quilt Studio in Nederland, Colorado. Email her at ZJ@dreamstitcher.com.