During the early years of the American colonies, they were commonplace bed coverings in a cold world before central heating. A cloth sandwich with warm batting in-between, a quilt was a utilitarian object made by women too busy spinning, weaving, dying and stitching their own fabrics -#8212; along with all the other household chores -#8212; to put any serious artistry into their work.

But when commercial fabric became available, women who were largely shut out of painting and sculpting began pouring their creativity into quilts. The process, advocates say, has now advanced to such a degree that many quilters deserve to be recognized as fine artists whose medium just happens to be fabric.

But it's been a slow and sometimes frustrating process for quilting artists to overcome old prejudices and gain what they see as their rightful place in respected art galleries, exhibits and collections.

"I call my art 'textile,' " said Carol Larson of Petaluma, one of a small but growing group of quilters whose work is starting to break through the barrier. Larson purposely leaves the traditional edge binding off her quilts to create the subtle perception that her striking abstracts, with their free-form stitchery, are something for the wall and not the bed.

"Even though I honor my quilting heritage, I really disassociate from it when I want to show my work," she said. "Once people see it they say, 'Yes, you're right. It's fine art.' But if you just say you're a quilter, they won't let you through the door."

Quilting as both a craft and a fine art has been spreading across the globe, a movement that began in the 1970s with the back-to-the-land and home arts revivals and the nation's bicentennial, which brought stunning historical quilts into public view, said Judy Mathieson.

A Sebastopol quilting artist with an international reputation, Mathieson has taught quilting all over the United States, Canada and overseas. Her 1985 "Nautical Stars," a luminescent piece inspired by a popular quilting image of a radiating star called a mariner's compass, is a supernova in the world of quilting. It was named one of the Top 100 Quilts of the 20th Century at the International Quilt Festival in Houston in 1999 and has been reproduced, not always legally, over and over, and shared virally on the Internet.

"Any craft you bring to the art level is not respected at first," said Mathieson, who shifted to art quilting after retiring from teaching and writing books about quiltmaking for some 30 years. She now uses collage techniques to create intricately nuanced landscapes and portraits with both pre-printed fabrics and textiles that have been hand-dyed or which she paints herself. It can take sometimes a year of off-and-on work to complete a single quilt. And while some art quilts now command thousands of dollars, that barely pays for the untold hours that go into what amounts to a labor of deep love.

Art quilters draw from many of the same principles as painters, using original designs and themes rather than the block designs, patterns, style and fabrics used by skilled craft quilters.

Quilt artists create both abstract and realistic designs and use a wide range of materials and techniques, including paint, hand-dyed cloth, Japanese tie-dye, bleach, silk screening, stamping and collage, said Santa Rosa quilt artist Linda Morand. She and Mathieson are members of The Pointless Sisters, a subgroup of the Santa Rosa Quilt Guild that focuses on art, contemporary and non-traditional quilts.

She said many art quilters have fine art backgrounds "and consciously apply principles of design and color theory."

Northern California is a hotbed of art quilting, said Martha Sielman, executive director of the Studio Art Quilt Association, an international organization with 3,300 members in 31 countries dedicated, among other things, to promoting quilting as a fine art.

Sonoma County is home to several quilting guilds and a number of respected quilting artists like Barbara Confer of Petaluma, who does portraits, landscapes and nature scenes, and who recently had a piece selected for an exhibit at the National Quilting Museum in Kentucky.

Petaluma fabric artist Carol Larson's abstracts have been purchased by major corporations and Kaiser Permanente, with one major piece hanging in Kaiser's Santa Rosa hospital.

Larson has been drawn to fabric art all her life. A seamstress since childhood, she was a serious hobbyist weaver for many years while raising a daughter and managing a medical office. When she retired in 1998, she started taking quilting classes. Since then she's made more than 200 art quilts, experimenting with screen prints, dyes and vintage fabrics in both abstracts and pictorials. She also hand-paints on fabrics, working with subjects and imagery that, like any modern art piece, provoke thought and reaction.

Her "Tall Girl" series explored a lifetime of silent emotions she was forced to suppress after her father made her undergo height reduction surgery at 17. Six inches were removed from her legs, leading to a lifetime of discomfort and pain, hurt and anger.

"I started printing the story on cloth because I wasn't supposed to talk about it," said Larsen, 66, who is now 6 feet tall. "My father forbade me from talking about it, so I carried that story in my body for 40 years."

Larsen is drawn to the color ranges and textures of quilting arts.

"To me it's the tactile quality and the color. I am seduced by color. I always say if fertilizer came in fuchsia, I would buy it," she says with a laugh. "People ask why I still put batting in my work because that makes it, quote, 'a quilt,' and I'm more in the fine art world. But I do it because I love the depth that it gives. It gives the work texture and makes it interesting."

(You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.)