Quilts of Valor

September 1, 2013 | By More

In the back room of a small fabric shop on Harding Street in Morrilton, seven women gather to discuss the progress of their quilts and their plans for the upcoming Veterans Day celebration. Fresh baked sugar cookies are passed around as women discuss color combinations and new patterns. Making their homes throughout Conway County, these women are members of the local branch of the national Quilts of Valor organization; a grassroots collective of quilters seeking to honor all combat veterans with a handmade, personalized quilt. 

Group leader and state coordinator Susie Kendrick pulls back the corner of a recently completed, vibrantly patterned, red, white and blue quilt to reveal the hand-embroidered label on the underside. “John A. Sanders,” it reads, “U.S. Army 1973-1993, Panama.” Underneath the name of the solider is the name of the local group, “CC Piecemakers, 2013.” Each quilt receives this personalized stamp and comes wrapped in a fabric bag for safekeeping. In the past year the Conway County Piecemakers have made and donated over seventy quilts to local men and women who have served in conflicts ranging from WWII to Afghanistan.

Susie Kendrick had never quilted when she first heard about Quilts of Valor on television. But she knew she wanted to start a local chapter. So she sent off for the information and took it down to Catherine Pruitt, owner of Catherine’s Discount Fabrics, a local gathering place for textile artists.

“I presented it to Catherine and her husband George. They jumped right on it,” Kendrick said. “He [George] is a Vietnam veteran,” she added.

Together they ran a few spots in the local newspaper and Catherine spread the word in her shop, attracting experienced quilters and beginners alike. The group grew steadily as women came together to share their textile skills and serve their communities.

Carolyn Chapman joined the group early on and has been quilting for decades. Like many of the participants, she found out about the group through her involvement with Catherine’s store.

“I show up anywhere there’s fabric,” she laughs. Clearly the comedian of the group, she keeps everyone laughing as she shares her love for this kind of work. “When the bug bites you’ve got it bad,” she says.

Venice Champine came to the group as an experienced dressmaker and seamstress, but was new to quilting. Like many of the group members, her husband is a veteran and military service is something she understands in a deeply personal way. She first heard about the group when she and her husband went to the local VFW shortly after moving to town. There she met Cathy, owner of the shop. “Come, we’re having a meeting on Tuesday,” Cathy told her. “So I did.”

Judy King’s son is an Iraq War veteran. She’d barely even touched her sewing machine before joining the group. But on a rainy day she worked alongside one of the group’s most prolific quilters to learn the basics of sewing. “Mary says get your sewing machine and we’re going to learn how to sew, “ explained King. “Started about 8:30 on a Saturday morning and by 9 p.m., I had my first quilt,” she says. “Now I’m on my ninth one.”

The national Quilts of Valor group began in 2003 with Blue Star mother Catherine Roberts of Delaware who wanted to ensure returning soldiers, like her own son, felt appreciated and welcomed back. Like many members of the group, military service hit close to home and she wanted to find a direct way to aid in healing. Seeking to build bridges, she began to connect quilt toppers (women who piece the quilts) with longarmers (women who machine quilt the fabrics). Together they work toward their goal of covering all returning service men and women with a symbol of appreciation.

There’s also a spiritual component to the work. As they stitch the quilts the quilters pray and concentrate on healing thoughts for all veterans, especially the name to be embroidered on the quilt. Today there are local chapters of the Quilts of Valor organization across the United States, including sixteen in Arkansas alone.

At the local level each group raises their own money for the materials by hosting fundraising events and gathering community-wide donations. In most cases the group meetings are for event planning and idea sharing. The quilting is done at home, a time of introspection and prayer.

To gather additional names of veterans the group take suggestions from friends and family members, work closely with the VFW, and set up suggestion boxes at public events; like last year’s Veteran’s Day ceremony. So this past 4th of July they hosted an event at the city park and presented seventy local veterans with their quilts, including two women who had served during WWII. The entire community was invited to attend.

“We were hoping for a turnout of about two hundred, says Judy King, “but wound up with over 400.”

Congressman Tim Griffin spoke at the event and a group of local cloggers provided the entertainment. The quilters even awarded Griffin himself with quilt, something his staffers managed to keep a secret, much to his surprise. There were few dry eyes in the place, Cathy says, and the service men and women had the opportunity to meet the quilt makers and both the crafters and the veteran were able to put a face and a story to the unique piece of art.

In sharp contrast to the medals soldiers are awarded for their service, the quilts are warm and meant to be used. Sewn with fabrics made of 100% cotton, they’re soft to the touch, intricately made, and inviting. The quilters take great pride in choosing high quality fabrics and experimenting with various quilting designs, many of which are variations of quilt patterns from generations ago. Often referred to as “lap-sized” quilts, the national organization requests all of the quilts be a minimum of 55 X 65 inches and contain various combinations of red, white and blue. Beyond that, the artistry is totally up to the quilter themselves and each textile artists adds their personal touch.

In a small town like Morrilton the quilt makers usually know the local veterans and often choose to make quilts for people who are especially close. Such was the case with Lisa Reynolds who made her father’s quilt, a unique design she created incorporating patterns and images from her father’s patriotic ties. Even when the quilt makers don’t know the person, they find ways to make it personal. Judy King recently began a quilt for a veteran who worked with a canine partner to sniff out bombs. So she found a pattern that would speak to the human/animal bond. She called people in the veteran’s family to get the dog’s name, which will be embroidered on the quilt alongside the veteran’s. The quilt will be one of many presented this November in a community-wide Veterans Day Ceremony to be held at the high school.

When asked what draws them to this kind of service, all of the women discuss their sons, husbands, uncles or dear friends who have served in the armed forces. The service members, they say, are so appreciative of their work. Shop owner Catherine Pruitt notes that many of the service members have a hard time articulating the depth of their feelings. “You don’t know what it means to me to receive this,” they’ll say. “ Yes I do,” she tells them, because I know what it means to us to give it to you. There’s just a special feeling.”

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