Threads of charity stitched in quilts

Auction: In Carroll County, longtime quilters donate their skills to help disaster victims.

May 03, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

THEIR LATEST ENDEAVOR — For more than 50 years, women like Velma Bowman and Essie Grossnickle have gathered weekly at a small church in Union Bridge. Over hundreds of yards of fabric, they have shared their lives and their skills and nearly always donated the results of their efforts to charity.

Their latest endeavor - a large navy and white coverlet with 16 diamond-shapes stitched into each square - goes on the auction block tomorrow. The ladies expect spirited bidding. At the Mid-Atlantic Disaster Response Auction in Westminster last year, one quilt sold for $3,100 and the total sold topped $30,000, money that went to worldwide disaster relief.

"This gives us something to do and it is our way of helping the church," said 87-year-old Grossnickle, the chattiest quilter of those who meet Wednesdays at the Union Bridge Church of the Brethren. "We have been able to help a lot of projects and our church. We sent quilts to Appalachia and to local families. This is why we are here - to help somebody."

As it has been for more than two decades, the annual Mid-Atlantic Disaster Response Auction at the Carroll County Agricultural Center will benefit from the quilters' generosity. The daylong event, sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Churches of the Brethren, draws about 1,000 people.

"Any amount is worthwhile and there is no competition about whose quilt brings in the most," said Dorcas Lehigh, co-chairwoman of the quilt auction. "We are selling these for disaster relief."

In its 22-year history, the auction has raised nearly $800,000, enabling it to send money, supplies and volunteers to allay crises in the United States and around the world. In 2001, money went to aid victims of a earthquake in India and the terrorism attack in New York.

Stanley J. Noffsinger, director of the New Windsor-based Emergency Response/Service Ministries, said proceeds from auctions have enabled the organization to send medical supplies, housing, blankets, school kits and food to Afghanistan, Angola, Honduras, Nicaragua and Pakistan.

"All I can say is that this is a real labor of love, a way of giving to people in need," Noffsinger said. "We have fantastic contributions to offer people who come to the auction. We are profoundly grateful for all this hard work."

Quilting groups at small country churches such as Union Bridge work months on a work of art that is given away.

"I don't need anymore, so others might as well have them," Grossnickle said.

At their age, the Union Bridge quilters said they have no need for more artifacts. Grossnickle has quilts her mother made. Bowman, 87, has many quilt heirlooms and has made more for two generations of her family. But they have not abandoned the art.

Sunlight floods the quilt room at the small church on the town's Main Street, where the women deftly ply needles through layers of cloth.

Bowman pushes the needle with her thimble. She makes four tiny stitches before pulling the thread all the way through the layers. The yellowing, stained quilt was worth preserving for a church family.

"This is not perfect, but it will look OK," Bowman said.

This group has met weekly for so many years that their talk centers on great-grandchildren. The time it takes to sew a queen-size quilt varies "depending on who plays hooky, how much we talk and how much we quilt," Grossnickle said.

While they sew, they are often awash in fond memories of mothers and grandmothers, who taught them the skill.

"Wasn't it fun when mother had a quilt up and the children would get under it and play like we were in a tent?" Grossnickle said.

Bowman said, "Every young girl made a quilt for her hope chest, usually with help from her mother. I had four when I married."

These women also are passing the art and their enthusiasm to another generation: the Nimble Thimbles who meet Monday evenings in the same quilt room.

"It is definitely not a dying art around here; we have plenty here who want to learn," said Helen Fritz, 77, a lifelong quilter with agile fingers who can thread a needle in seconds, without squinting.

The young quilters, as they are often called, are mostly in their 50s. They spent 300 hours and 500 yards of thread on their donation to the auction: a king-size, star-spin pattern of navy, burgundy and cream.

"We all have jobs and families," said Connie Bowman.

Bowman, who is not related to Velma, works for the emergency response ministries in New Windsor. "But, quilting time is therapy session. We talk current events, what is bothering us, how our lives are going and it all stays in that room."

Lehigh said, "Many a night, I am too tired to quilt and I have a terrible headache. But I always feel better when I leave. There is a joy in the handwork you have accomplished."

The older women have no demands on their time. They gather for the socializing as much as for the sewing. They usually linger through lunch and often stay for a Bible study session with their pastor.

"We can sit around and talk a good, long while," Fritz said. "We have no deadlines."

Before radio and television, quilting and socializing were synonymous. Now considered American folk art, quilting dates to ancient times and probably arrived in Europe from Asia through Marco Polo. Quilts came to America with the early settlers and helped them survive the harsh winters. Before central heating warmed houses, layers of quilts warmed sleepers in their beds.

Women often gathered around a quilt rack to stitch the pieces together in intricate patterns that have names such as double wedding ring, shoofly and windmill. Patchworks became family treasures. That the art form endures today is often because of church circles such as Union Bridge's.

To quilters, the more stitches, the more valuable the piece. Although they never openly criticize another's work, they have seen quilts at other shows that do not meet their standards.

"I have seen some that the stitches are so big your toenails would get caught in them," Fritz said.

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