Quilting and Healing


Like most quilters, I started quilting as a fun, creative, escapist, hobby.
  And, like most quilters, it wasn't long before I realize that it can be much more.

   I am a volunteer with an organization called United We Quilt.  We  are creating  memorial quilts at the request of bereaved 9/11 families .We have already matched more than 450  families who lost a loved one on 9/11 with quilters across America.  But since the one-year anniversary of the attack,  the number of grieving families who have requested  personal memory quilts---most made from their loved ones' clothing--- has grown rapidly.   We currently don't have enough quilters to meet all the requests.

   This project is spiritually rewarding, but emotionally and technically challenging. Each quilt requires a close collaboration between a quiltmaker and a family. Most families give the quilters clothing from the victim, to include in the quilt. Depending on the family's wishes, the quilt may  also include photographs  transferred to fabric. All UWQ quilts are gifts to the families at no cost, with the expenses paid by the volunteer quilters, or, in a few special cases, by UWQ.

   Quilts are made only at the request of  bereaved families. These quilts are not intended for public display. They are for the personal use of the husbands, wives, parents, siblings, children, and  friends left behind.  

   Quilters and families alike have expressed profound gratitude for the healing that this  project has brought them. For families, it helps them deal with their loved ones' clothing---to have it transformed into a beautiful source of comfort that they can keep forever. For quilters, it brings  the knowledge that we HAVE done something to help ease the pain of people who lost so much, so terribly. 

   If you are interested in learning more about UWQ, or or may be interested in signing up,  please email the project coordinator, Jane Jackson, at JaneAtMil@aol.com.  The organizations' website is http://hometown.aol.com/janeatmil/.     You can email me (Ajwcjp@aol.com) with any questions about the volunteer experience.



Quilting , Grieving and Healing

 In the spring of 2001,  I completed the most difficult quilt I ever had to make. Technically, it wasn't too much of a challenge. Mostly squares and rectangles.   Very little seam matching required.
   What made it difficult was that it was  made from the clothing of a extraordinary, precocious, delicious, spitfire of a little 4-year-old girl named Rebecca, who had died of cancer a few months before..
   As a friend of her mother---and myself the mother of two young children--- I was profoundly shaken by her long illness and her cruel death. I could not imagine a way that I could even begin to help her  parents to heal---let alone to ease my own pain and confusion.
  Shortly after her death, I sat with them in Rebecca's room. They were trying to figure out what to do with her stuff.   Her mother couldn't imagine giving it away---each piece was loaded with memories. 
    Wiith some hesitation, I told them I could  make a  quilt from her clothing. I was afraid they'd think it was morbid---and that maybe it was. I was afraid they'd be offended. Most of all, I was afraid they'd say "Yes."
    They did.
     Months later, I again sat with my friend as she unpacked her drawers into bags for me,  telling me stories over each piece. We both cried. I took the bags home and  put them  in my closet. 
     I procrastinated for a long time. When I opened that closet, I would look away from the bag. 
    I'd never been much of a praying person, but I realized I had to do something dramatic if I was to keep my promise. I lit a candle, put it in a beautiful stained glass cup adorned with glass jewels, and sang a bunch of prayers. Then I held a rotary cutter over one of her tee shirts.
   I couldn't do it. The rotary cutter seemed too harsh. I put away the rotary cutter. I picked up my scissors, and started cutting off sleeves and collars.
      Eventually, I was able to cut and sew without praying in advance. After a while, I could even use the rotary cutter. 
     During the project, I continued to pray and sing.. Like a complete nutcase, I also started talking to Rebecca, to my own departed ancestors, and  laughing over the clothing and its telltale stains (lots of food, paint and nailpolish). When necessary, I listened to  old movies and HGTV craft shows  to distract myself..  I asked her mother lots of questions about Rebecca and read through a memorial book of letters about Rebecca written by many different people.  The more I knew about her, the easier it was to create a focus for the quilt. My focus---a complete surprise to me--- became: Pretty. This must not be sad. This must be pretty. Rebecca loved pretty. 
     Then there were the more obvious miracles.
     For example, the day I realized I needed butterfly fabric.
   Rebecca adored butterflies. And it had was a metaphor that one of Rebecca's friends talked about a great deal, for the transition she  experienced---in the body as a chrysallis, to the spirit, as a butterfly. I thought it was a wonderful image, though I wasn't sure I believed it. But I knew butterflies would be important to the quilt. And I didn't have much butterfly fabric---only a quarter yard of a not-too-wonderful tan. Rebecca loved bright colors. She particularly loved shiny beads and jewels.
    So one day,  when I was realizing I was at a technical stage (approaching the borders) where I really could use a coupla yards of  really wonderful butterfly fabric right NOW, I hopped in the car to pick up my son  from school, muttering to myself,  "Gotta find butterfly fabric, gotta find butterfly fabric."  I promised myself I'd drive the circuit of  my three local high-quality quilt fabric stores that weekend.
    Eventually, I mentally changed the subject. I was a little early for pickup, so I stopped in at   a secondhand store  near my son's school. Occasionally, I score great old aprons, neckties,  and tableclothes  there---usually not in good shape, but still lovable to a vintage fabric junkie like myself. I wandered over to the linens department and started leafing through the hangers. Past the usual pilly sheets, worn towels, and unravelling crocheted  afghans .
    Suddenly, on a hanger in front of me, I saw the most gorgeous, 2-yard piece of jewel-toned, gold-detailed butterfly fabric (a brand-new uncut quilter's cotton fabric from a fine manufacturer) that you have ever seen in your life.
    I started to shake. I looked skyward, but all I saw there was fluorescent lighting.
  Strange coinicidences? Evidence of an afterlife? Or just a helluva bargain at a buck a yard?  Don't ask me!

What I do know---and what ultimately  became most important to me was that this quilt became a small but tangible way to help Rebecca's parents. It all allowed them to keep the memories associated with each piece of clothing, but also allowed them to move on a little bit . For me, it did even more.  I finally felt I had DONE something. I had helped. I had fought back against an unjust universe.  Just a little.

And it had allowed me to share Rebecca's spirit---a spirit of joy, of play, and of course, the spirit of  pretty.


(Above) Rebecca's quilt-- overview.


(Above) Rebecca's quilt-- detail.

(Above) Garden panel from Rebecca's Quilt. This panel appears in the lower right hand corner of the quilt. It's a picture of a garden that I created from commercial fabrics, and some of Rebecca's clothing. It relates to the dreams Rebecca experienced the week before she died. Rebecca's mom's description of one of those dreams appears below these images.


(Above) Rebecca's quilt-- detail. The big white square is an apron she painted in preschool Around it are  pieces of many different pants, tee shirts, pajamas, nighties, etc. Fusible interfacing makes them workable. (See Quilts from Clothing page). The rainbow border is a commercial fabric.

Excerpt from Rebecca's mother's journal:

 "A few days before she died, Rebecca woke up suddenly from sleep in the hospital. She was already on oxygen, but excitedly and breathlessly told me about her dream. She said she was in a special place with raspberry and blackberry bushes, a tree with jewels on it, and a waterfall going into a pond with red rubies and red pearls. There was a garden with green onions, radishes, chile peppers, and pork. (Yes, pork---'From a pig, mommy!') There was a rainbow you could see every day, and there was always a perfect sunset. Best of all, there was a place you could camp out. Her dream was very vivid, and she told me over and over how it all looked. Then she went back to sleep."

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JewishQuilter.com - All images and text copyright (c) Cathy Perlmutter, ajwcjp@aol.com 1996-2003