Instrumental Quilt Making: a musical interpretation of fabric and thread

18 Oct 2010


We’re all familiar with mixed-media art quilting, but rarely does one see this medium interpreted in wood. Nonetheless, mandolin maker Rolfe Gerhardt was inspired by his wife’s quilting (her piece "Fall Splendor" is shown here), and decided to create a mandolin with the theme of fabric, needle, and thread. Here, he describes how this unique instrument-textile hybrid came to be:

“I had started working with quilted maple wood a few years ago, after some 35 years of building mandolins. Up until then, my mandolins used what we call ‘fiddleback’ or ‘tiger-striped’ maple.  Quilted maple has a burl figure in the wood that looks like it was quilted. Since my mandolin design was well-developed—I had built over 400 mandolins—I was also beginning to create ‘art’ mandolins with unique colors and complex inlays following themes. One was called ‘Daisies,’ and was finished in green with detailed daisy inlays that took two full weeks to create. 

“My wife, Susan, is an art quilter, very active in area quilt groups and good enough to win occasional ribbons in the state quilt show. So, naturally, quilting and quilted maple eventually came together in my mind for an art mandolin. I decided that the primary inlay would be on the finger rest which would have a hand with a thimble and needle ‘quilting’ the edge of a quilted maple burl. The hand was a pinkish mother-of-pearl, and the needle a shaped piece of pewter. The tailpiece would have a spool of thread inlay; this turned out to be the most challenging work since each strand of thread had to be separate to look right. A fine plastic line served as thread. 

“The biggest problem in constructing this mandolin was figuring out how to indicate position markers on the fingerboard for the player. I spent months trying to create little quilt blocks of tiny pieces of colored wood, and it just didn’t work. Then it came to me to use the thread running through the needle on the finger rest and run it up the fingerboard with loops where the position markers should be. Success! The finished mandolin was everything I hoped it would be, and I photographed it on Susan’s quilting table for a proper setting.”

To see the mandolin “Quilting,” and other art mandolins by Rolfe, visit his website

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mkdsk8 wrote
on 15 Nov 2010 9:22 AM

These are amazing mandolins! And Susan's quilting is really phenomenal as well... Thank you for putting this article on the blog!