Entering the room, two sounds compete for your attention: the steady hum of sewing machines and a Destiny’s Child song amplified by unseen speakers. It’s Friday at Crescent Halls, a housing facility operated by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and that means that a group of local quilters is hard at work in the recreation room. In one way or another, each woman in the room has ties to Crescent Halls, though they’re not all residents there.
Ruth Williams recalls how she joined the quilting group: “I came down here one day to visit my cousin and one of the ladies asked, ‘Why don’t you come sew?’” Similarly, when I first met many of these women four years ago, I was greeted by the same welcoming attitude.
I’ve always sewn, but never quilted. That didn’t matter; I was encouraged to come by on Fridays to learn the craft. I regret to say that I haven’t taken them up on the offer (yet), but the fact remains that I greatly admire each of these talented women.
Over the years, the group has fluctuated in size, and even had three men participate for a while. Recently though, membership has held steady with seven members who meet each week to share ideas, skills and fellowship. This month they will exhibit their work at CitySpace.
The origins of this quilting group can be traced back more than 10 years to an idea from one of the current members, Teresa Stinnie. “Holly [Edwards] said ‘What can we do to get people involved?’ and I said ‘Holly, let’s try quilting,” Stinnie remembered. “Nobody ever did quilting here.”
From the start, they had no trouble creating interest in the group because many of the quilters, then and now, had mothers or grandmothers who quilted or sewed. “Sewing is in our blood,” said Williams. “It’s in my family. My mom used to make quilts by hand.” However, this generational knowledge wasn’t always passed down, and new group members often needed to learn the basics.
As a result, Helen Stevens has taught many of them the craft of quilting. Whether it’s made of diamonds, hexagons, squares or octagons, the heart of a quilt lies in the pattern. Once that’s decided, the colors and patterns of material can be selected. Patches of fabric are cut and assembled into blocks, which are then stitched together to form the overall pattern. When the group started, they opted for hand-stitching but have switched to sewing machines. Member Cynthia Walker takes care of the maintenance for the group’s machines—skills she learned while working in a sewing factory in Danville years ago.
To put the final touches on, the outer edge is finished with a fabric binding and the quilt is given a name. Some of the quilts in the upcoming exhibit have names like “Butter Créme Twist,” “Swimming Upstream” and “It Takes A Village.” Others are more literally descriptive, such as “Orange Boxes,” “Pink Blossoms” or “Christmas Holly.” Discussing one of her quilts, Williams said she named it “Urban Block” because it “almost looks like project housing.”
In addition to mentoring new quilters, Stevens still finds time for her own work and estimates that she’s made more than 200 quilts since she began quilting. But she rarely keeps her own handiwork. “I don’t have any at home of my own. Not a one. I make them and give them away because I feel that somebody needs them more than I do.” Often she donates her quilts to local dialysis centers or gives them to family and friends. Other group members follow suit, including Francine Payne, who donates many of her quilts to organizations serving vulnerable communities around the world as well as to her church. “My quilts have gone to South Africa, the West Indies and Syria. This year I’m going to do some throws for my church and they’re going to be donated to some of the homebound people in the community.”
Though some of the quilters are retired, a number spend the rest of the week working. However, all of them hold their weekly quilting time as sacred. “The only time I sew is on Fridays,” Williams said. “You work 10-hour days and when you get home it’s 7 or 8 at night and you just don’t feel like pulling the sewing machine out that late.” Stinnie can relate. “It’s an outlet, so I come here and nothing else matters until I leave back out that door,” she said. For Walker, quilting is a way to enjoy the community she has with the other women in the group. “I love to see their quilts because everyone has their own style and their own colors and it’s just fun.”
An opening reception for the fourth annual Crescent Halls quilt exhibit, sponsored by Piedmont Council for the Arts, will be held at CitySpace on December 5 at 5:30pm. The quilts in the exhibit will be available for purchase and on display through January 16.
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