Quilting a layer of comfort for injured soldiers

Harford County group sews their appreciation one square at a time

August 28, 2010|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

Every other week, quilters gather in a sun-drenched community room that overlooks their Harford County homes. They will spend a few hours sewing and socializing, ever aware that they are stitching with a purpose.

Like the quilting bees of old that provided families with warmth and comfort, the group, which meets at the Residents' Club at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace, puts together coverlets that will ultimately let a wounded veteran sense the care and gratitude of a stranger.

The quilters, mostly women but also a few men, are part of the "Quilts for the Injured Soldiers Project." As they finish each coverlet, six in all so far this year, they ship it to Andrews Air Force Base, outside Washington, the landing spot for many members of the military returning from the war zone.

The project started with the Quilters Guild of Southern Maryland about seven years ago. Word of mouth and Internet connections helped spread the idea, and now volunteers across the U.S. and Canada and as far away as Australia have put together more than 10,000 quilts for the military. Nearly 3,000 quilting groups are participating in the effort. Last month, 124 quilts arrived at Andrews.

"Never underestimate the power of word of mouth, especially when it comes to a group sitting around and quilting," said Elise Baylis, unofficial leader of the Bulle Rock group. "Quilting bees years ago were great sources of gossip. Quilters usually worked by hand on frames, and their mouths moved as fast as their hands."

Some quilters go to the Tuesday afternoon gatherings with colorful patches already sewn and ready to align with others. Most prefer the camaraderie that comes with sewing together. Once they settle on a pattern and colors, they will stitch patches and line them in rows that will be sown into a quilt top. There is still some hand stitching, but more often sewing machines are running. They chat about their families or about community events and often share memories.

"I was raised watching everybody in the family sew," said Cindy Lowder. "I took a break from sewing for years, but now that I am back, so are the memories and the fun."

In the past year, the Harford County group has shipped unique quilts, most with red, white and blue themes, to Andrews. They auctioned another one off last month to raise funds for materials. Its sailboat motif was popular with residents of the community, which sits along the Susquehanna River.

They did take a break from their mission earlier this year to quilt for one of their own. They put together a memorial patchwork for Paulette Gray, who works in sales at Bulle Rock. Her son, Joe Gray, an Iraq veteran, died a year ago in a training accident at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The design features red, white and blue stars throughout a pattern known as windowpane.

"I keep it at home with all Joe's things," Gray said. "They even stitched a pocket in the back so we can hang it. Just holding it is a comfort."

The quilters typically make a 40-by-60-inch cover, large enough to top a twin-size bed but not too heavy or too cumbersome to carry. Each quilt is mailed with a letter from those who sewed it and distributed by Andrews personnel and Red Cross volunteers.

"These men and women are genuinely touched we are doing this," said Pat Baker, founder of the Southern Maryland guild and keeper of the statistics that detail how many quilts are donated each month.

"We do receive thank-you's from some of the injured or their families, but none of this is for a thank-you note," Baker said.

Baylis treasures a note from a 19-year-old soldier who was recuperating from a head injury. He told her he felt alone and discouraged until the gift showed him that someone cared, she said.

Most Bulle Rock quilters are experienced and willing to teach newcomers. Baylis does not insist that quilters follow her lead, since, she said, "Every quilter has a personal way of doing this."

"Anyone can contribute, even if it's pinning and pressing," Baylis said. "Sometimes, people are intimidated, but I try to dissuade them."

Bernice Lehr, one of the newer quilters, said she has learned the basics, but does not mind leaving the more complex aspects to others. She also tends a portable ironing board and presses the stitched pieces.

"If you can do a basic straight stitch, you can quilt," Lehr said. "I learned to sew many years ago, but this is something new and fun. I really like doing it for the soldiers."

Kathy Harper, Bulle Rock's lifestyle director and a lifelong quilter, often joins the group. She calls herself a real fabric collector and has donated some of materials to the group.

"People that love quilting, love fabric," she said. "I will buy fabric I love and build a quilt design around that."

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