Every two years, the Greater Ann Arbor Quilt Guild turns the lobby of the WCC Morris Lawrence Building into an intricate grid, with hundreds of quilts ranged on precisely aligned racks. Most of the quilt patterns are linear too. But nothing is hard-edged here: it’s a soft geometry, a kaleidoscope of colorful fabrics.

The Guild says its member showcase draws several thousand people. Most are women; at the 2014 event, I was a rare unaccompanied male. That’s fine by me. Years ago, I clumsily stitched together a few quilts, so I’m humbled to see the sewing skills on display here–and awed by the range of visions that can be expressed using traditional patterns and materials.

Quilters have always found beauty within economic and social constraints. My wife treasures a quilt hand-stitched out of sewing scraps by a friend who made the Great Migration from an Alabama farm to industrial Detroit. And even when women were excluded from the fine arts, quilts were a means of self-expression. Though men may have still set limits–some churches even restricted color palettes–quilts’ virtuous associations with thrift and family protected the deeply creative act of assembling an image from a smattering of shapes and colors.

“Is that a Ferris wheel?” one woman asks another, admiring a pattern of overlapping squares of red, tan, and cream, fanned in a circle like a hand of cards. Reading the label, I realize I’ve misheard: “Farris Wheel in Red” was made for a Quilt Guild class “taught by Cathy Farris, who designed the pattern.”

“Look at the color on that!” another woman says as she and two friends admire the wheel, which seems to spin as we look at it. “Your eye is supposed to move and stop, move and stop.”

Visitors who want to feel the fabrics wear a single white glove, and I see several women using theirs to appraise techniques. I don’t have that touch, but even my eye can appreciate “Emily and Eli’s Storm at Sea,” an array of blue, purple, and pink diamonds and squares on a white background. As I gaze, the background flickers into the foreground as a web of interlocked circles. The program tells me that the quilter made it for her daughter and son-in-law to celebrate their wedding–and finished it three years after the nuptials. No one puts in so much time based on an economic calculation. Quilting is an art of patience and an act of love.

Along with creativity, the other great theme is family. Here’s a quilt celebrating a couple’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. There’s a pair of sailboat quilts made a generation apart for a son and grandson, the son’s faded from many washings. Across the hall, four storybook-style bears represent the quilter’s four grandkids. And an entire corridor is lined with dozens of quilts made by Guild members to donate to families at the SafeHouse domestic violence shelter.

“Celebrating the Quilt” returns to WCC on July 30 and 31.