The joy of finishing Ritas quilt

Women sewing Rita's quilt

By Lauren Turner

It starts with one stitch, by one woman. A pattern she’s ordered from the back of a magazine, created for the 1976 US bicentennial celebration. A quilt featuring a hexagon for every state in the US, with its state outline, state flower, and state bird part of the design, along with 50 stars.

She will set it down again. But the next person to pick up Rita Smith’s meticulously prepared project, bundled together in a Tupperware box, will be a stranger, some decades later. Shannon Downey will find it at an estate sale in a home in Mount Prospect, Illinois, after Rita’s death at the age of 99.

Tapestry completed by Rita Smith - centrepiece of the new quilt

“There was a vintage embroidery hoop - they don’t make them like that any more. Then I noticed there was a picture inside it - the outline of New Jersey. I went through the [container], and realised ‘this is a project’”. 

Rita had prepared the hexagons by cutting up pieces of bedsheet and transferring designs on them, ready to be embroidered, but had only stitched two of the states. She had started on a third.

A school nurse, Rita may have started on the quilt 20 or even 30 years ago, believes Bill, one of her sons.

He told Shannon that the project was then probably abandoned several years ago when his father became seriously ill and she began caring for him.

Shannon, who uses craft to promote social and political activism, always tries to complete unfinished projects she comes across which have been started by someone who has died. “I feel like I’m doing something to make sure their soul is resting,” she says.

Shannon Downey

Shannon Downey

But on this occasion the project was far too big for her to manage alone.  

She asked for help on Instagram. What happened next took her by surprise. Within 24 hours more than 1,000 volunteers came forward, far more than she needed. She chose 100 embroiderers living all over the US to sew the hexagons - some wanted to represent their own state, others just wanted to be part of the enormous endeavour. Some 30 women, mostly local to Chicago, then gathered for the sewing together of the hexagons to make the quilt.

 

A cotton reel

It is a freezing cold Saturday in December, but the atmosphere at the sewing bee, held at Wishcraft Workshop in Chicago - some 20 miles (32km) from the area Rita lived in - is bustling and warm, a cacophony of voices. Friends who have only met online, in the context of this project, are meeting in real life for the first time. There is the sharing of stories and frequent laughter.

Women laugh as they sew
Special Rita's quilt biscuits
Women laugh as they sew

Emily Marlowe is showing off a cat tattoo she has had done that morning, to join the sewing scissors tattoo she already has on her forearm. Another has brought her grandmother’s thimble to wear while she works.

Hannah Allen is telling others how she used plants from her family’s farm in Kentucky to create the dyes for her work. She made the decision to move back to the state the week she received her hexagon, buying a house that had been lived in by a 91-year-old. “Two old ladies were looking out for me that week,” she says. That morning, she has embroidered stars on her white shirt.

Some of the women are wearing embroidered name badges, making the task of getting to know their sewing neighbours easier. Sarah Tafelsky has baked platefuls of biscuits, each meticulously decorated with designs celebrating Rita’s quilt.

Tiffany Quade, who embroidered a hexagon to represent her native state of Minnesota, says many people have felt energised by the project.

Tiffany Quade

Tiffany Quade

“This was a call to action. Aristotle said the whole is greater than the sum of its parts - and that’s how this feels. This is so much bigger than these fabric pieces.” 

The women may have been connected by social media, but Tiffany, who has also brought the youngest person in the room with her - her daughter Aeowyn, aged 12 - says the sewing bee is a welcome break from the digital onslaught of modern life.

“There’s so much isolation right now. You have children playing video games. We’re so separated from each other. So this is the epitome of coming together. Especially because this quilt is of the states. We have so many different opinions and belief systems. But none of that matters in this room.”

The embroiderers have, however, added their own little tweaks. 

Tiffany has taken the artistic liberty of adding wild rice to her hexagon to represent native communities in Minnesota.

Photo of Rita Smith

Photo of Rita Smith

In fact one of the stitchers who isn’t at the sewing bee, but contributed another of the hexagons, said she had contemplated including the land boundaries of the native communities living in the area at the time it became one of the US states. 

Shannon says she applauds the use of the quilt for that conversation, but also feels when completing projects that she’s acting as the “hands” of the project originator who may not have wanted to change the pattern. 

“I do want this to be a conversation we’re having though, and I’m glad that’s started online,” she says.

Romanian Laura Najemy, who wasn't at the sewing bee but took part in the project, told us by phone that it gave her a connection to her own grandmother, Minodora Boriga, 85.

She is an “amazing textile artist,” Laura said, “but at the age where she can’t do it any more”.

“The idea of helping someone of her generation was so moving,” she added. “My grandmother taught me everything - how to sew, knit, and crochet. And she also taught me about those moments when you do a textile project and your stresses vanish. It’s just you and the work you’re doing. It’s very powerful. It’s a way of practising mindfulness and meditation - and I wish more people knew about it. They would be so much more balanced. You sit down with your thread and you don’t even realise you’re resting.”

But when Laura showed Minodora her hexagon over Skype - the state of Delaware, her adopted home for the last six years - her grandmother had some reservations. 

Laura Najemy's finished Delaware hexagon

Laura Najemy's finished Delaware hexagon

“She commented that the beak [of the bird] didn’t look right,” said Laura, an artist and lawyer. “So I redid it.

“By elevating women’s textiles as art, you elevate my grandmother’s work. She has created things that would take your breath away.”

Shannon says it is important that the project be seen in this way. She says that handicraft has been historically viewed as “right down the bottom of the hierarchy of art”.

“Rita represents so many people and so much more than this one quilt. It’s become synonymous with a larger piece of women’s art and legacy.”

Shannon herself uses embroidery to create provocative art work, stitching slogans on fabric and posting photos of the pieces on social media because she finds it more effective than words and images alone. 

“It stops people in their tracks because it's so unexpected,” she says. 

Although Rita’s quilt is more traditional in design, finishing it has nevertheless fulfilled Shannon’s other aim in her work of building community.

“For each person, the meaning has been so different.” Some have reconnected with family, some have sewn for the first time, she says. “It's so layered. Everyone has their own connection to it.”

Shannon gives fellow quilters a pep talk
Stitching up close
Quilting up close

The women may have been connected by social media, but Tiffany, who has also brought the youngest person in the room with her - her daughter Aeowyn, aged 12 - says the sewing bee is a welcome break from the digital onslaught of modern life.

“There’s so much isolation right now. You have children playing video games. We’re so separated from each other. So this is the epitome of coming together. Especially because this quilt is of the states. We have so many different opinions and belief systems. But none of that matters in this room.”

The embroiderers have, however, added their own little tweaks.

Tiffany has taken the artistic liberty of adding wild rice to her hexagon to represent native communities in Minnesota.

Photo of Rita Smith

Photo of Rita Smith

In fact one of the stitchers who isn’t at the sewing bee, but contributed another of the hexagons, said she had contemplated including the land boundaries of the native communities living in the area at the time it became one of the US states. 

Shannon says she applauds the use of the quilt for that conversation, but also feels when completing projects that she’s acting as the “hands” of the project originator who may not have wanted to change the pattern. 

“I do want this to be a conversation we’re having though, and I’m glad that’s started online,” she says.

Romanian Laura Najemy, who wasn't at the sewing bee but took part in the the project, told us by phone that it gave her a connection to her own grandmother, Minodora Boriga, 85.

She is an “amazing textile artist,” Laura said, “but at the age where she can’t do it any more”.

“The idea of helping someone of her generation was so moving,” she added. “My grandmother taught me everything – how to sew, knit, and crochet. And she also taught me about those moments when you do a textile project and your stresses vanish. It’s just you and the work you’re doing. It’s very powerful. It’s a way of practising mindfulness and meditation – and I wish more people knew about it. They would be so much more balanced. You sit down with your thread and you don’t even realise you’re resting.”

But when Laura showed Minodora her hexagon over Skype - the state of Delaware, her adopted home for the last six years - her grandmother had some reservations. 

Delaware hexagon

Laura Najemy's finished Delaware hexagon

“She commented that the beak [of the bird] didn’t look right,” said Laura, an artist and lawyer. So I redid it.

“By elevating women’s textiles as art, you elevate my grandmother’s work. She has created things that would take your breath away.”

Shannon says it is important that the project be seen in this way. She says that handicraft has been historically viewed as “right down the bottom of the hierarchy of art”.

“Rita represents so many people and so much more than this one quilt. It’s become synonymous with a larger piece of women’s art and legacy.”

Shannon herself uses embroidery to create provocative art work, stitching slogans on fabric and posting photos of the pieces on social media because she finds it more effective than words and images alone. 

“It stops people in their tracks because it's so unexpected,” she says. 

Although Rita’s quilt is more traditional in design, finishing it has nevertheless fulfilled Shannon’s other aim in her work of building community.

“For each person, the meaning has been so different.” Some have reconnected with family, some have sewn for the first time, she says. “It's so layered. Everyone has their own connection to it.”

Jewellery designer Vanessa Walilko, who is also helping out with the sewing bee, sees the importance of finishing a piece of work. 

“My boyfriend Ed Siemienkowicz passed away a couple of years ago. He was a comic book artist and a tonne of his friends – more than 100 - got together to finish his book. They were just moved by it. Someone carrying a project to the finish line is important.

Vanessa Walilko

Vanessa Walilko

“He had finished the script and illustrated the first page… Everybody knew it was his life’s work. All of his friends, who loved him so much. The day after he passed, they said ‘We’re finishing the book.’

“So, when I heard about Rita’s quilt, it resonated. I couldn’t do anything for Ed’s book – but my grandmother had taught me to hand sew when I was six. This felt important.”

Jewellery designer Vanessa Walilko, who is also helping out with the sewing bee, sees the importance of finishing a piece of work. 

“My boyfriend Ed Siemienkowicz passed away a couple of years ago. He was a comic book artist and a tonne of his friends – more than 100 - got together to finish his book. They were just moved by it. Someone carrying a project to the finish line is important.

Vanessa Walilko

Vanessa Walilko

“He had finished the script and illustrated the first page… Everybody knew it was his life’s work. All of his friends, who loved him so much. The day after he passed, they said ‘We’re finishing the book.’

“So, when I heard about Rita’s quilt, it resonated. I couldn’t do anything for Ed’s book – but my grandmother had taught me to hand sew when I was six. This felt important.”

Hexagon design with scissors, tape measure and thimbles

But for others the quilt has more than a personal resonance - the coming together is a radical act.

“There’s definitely a political aspect to this,” says Mary Scott-Boria, who was a member of the Black Panther Party in the 1970s before becoming involved in the women’s movement in the 70s and 80s. “Just the art of community, creating community, creating an opportunity for people who don’t know each other to come together and share a common goal,” she says. “There’s something powerful in being able to create.”

Mary Scott-Boria

Mary Scott-Boria

Mary, looking across the tables at which women have their heads huddled close together as they work, feels that Rita would have approved. 

“She has to have done this as a group as well - it’s what women did at that time. Women getting together could do amazing, worldly things - finding each other and finding their voice. I like to think she’d have seen this as passing this on to a younger generation. I’m sure she’s smiling, wherever she is.”

But for others the quilt has more than a personal resonance - the coming together is a radical act.

“There’s definitely a political aspect to this,” says Mary Scott-Boria, who was a member of the Black Panther Party in the 1970s before becoming involved in the women’s movement in the 70s and 80s. “Just the art of community, creating community, creating an opportunity for people who don’t know each other to come together and share a common goal,” she says. “There’s something powerful in being able to create.”

Mary Scott-Boria

Mary Scott-Boria

Mary, looking across the tables at which women have their heads huddled close together as they work, feels that Rita would have approved. 

“She has to have done this as a group as well - it’s what women did at that time. Women getting together could do amazing, worldly things - finding each other and finding their voice. I like to think she’d have seen this as passing this on to a younger generation. I’m sure she’s smiling, wherever she is.”

At the time Rita would have bought the quilt’s pattern, there was something of a quilting revival in the US, according to Lauren Whitley, senior curator of textile and fashion arts at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

The practice took a back seat in the 40s and 50s, but became fashionable again in the 60s and 70s, she says, when there was a re-claiming of craft - hitherto dismissed as “women's work” - from a feminist perspective. It was also a way of kicking against the commercialisation of modern society.

The centre of the new quilt - Rita's original tapestry - laid face down

The centre of the new quilt - Rita's original tapestry - laid face down

“This pattern Rita used could have been bought around the time of the bicentennial in 1976, when there were so many patriotic American quilts and a whole revival going on,” she says.  

“It’s also very folky and there’s a certain nostalgia to it. People were celebrating America at the time.”

Lauren, who is currently working on an exhibition that tells the history of the US through quilts, to be shown at the museum next year, says they provoke strong feelings about the notion of home in the country. 

Alaska hexagon

Alaska hexagon

“There’s a lot of mythology of quilts. They seem to speak to the heart of Americans, even though America didn’t invent them,” she said. “They’re linked to the myth of the happy home in the 19th Century.

“They have so many meanings. They’re intimate. They’re close to the body, connected to family and speak about community. They’re something that is usually handed down. Mothers taught daughters to sew. Quilts are very powerful objects for people.”

Needle and thread

As Rita’s quilt takes shape, the women reach out to touch parts of it, and make sure all the stitches are complete and it’s flat. As each section is held up, there is spontaneous applause and cheering.

“Don’t drop the baby!” someone calls out, to laughter.

Stitching the hexagons together

Stitching the hexagons together

The group size gets whittled down. Activity becomes focused on one corner of the room, now being lit by people’s phone lights and torches, as darkness falls. It comes down to just one stitcher. Finally it’s done.

But there’s a last minute panic - there’s a spot missing a stitch, and the quilt is handed to someone else. 

At the time Rita would have bought the quilt’s pattern, there was something of a quilting revival in the US, according to Lauren Whitley, senior curator of textile and fashion arts at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

The practice took a back seat in the 40s and 50s, but became fashionable again in the 60s and 70s, she says, when there was a re-claiming of craft - hitherto dismissed as “women's work” - from a feminist perspective. It was also a way of kicking against the commercialisation of modern society.

The centre of the new quilt - Rita's original tapestry - laid face down

The centre of the new quilt - Rita's original tapestry - laid face down

“This pattern Rita used could have been bought around the time of the bicentennial in 1976, when there were so many patriotic American quilts and a whole revival going on,” she says.  

“It’s also very folky and there’s a certain nostalgia to it. People were celebrating America at the time.”

Lauren, who is currently working on an exhibition that tells the history of the US through quilts, to be shown at the museum next year, says they provoke strong feelings about the notion of home in the country. 

Hexagon of Alaska

Alaska hexagon

“There’s a lot of mythology of quilts. They seem to speak to the heart of Americans, even though America didn’t invent them,” she said. “They’re linked to the myth of the happy home in the 19th Century.

“They have so many meanings. They’re intimate. They’re close to the body, connected to family and speak about community. They’re something that is usually handed down. Mothers taught daughters to sew. Quilts are very powerful objects for people.”

Stitching close up

A needle

As Rita’s quilt takes shape, the women reach out to touch parts of it, and make sure all the stitches are complete and it’s flat. As each section is held up, there is spontaneous applause and cheering.

“Don’t drop the baby!” someone calls out, to laughter.

Concentration while quilting

Stitching the hexagons together

The group size gets whittled down. Activity becomes focused on one corner of the room, now being lit by people’s phone lights and torches, as darkness falls. It comes down to just one stitcher. Finally it’s done.

But there’s a last minute panic - there’s a spot missing a stitch, and the quilt is handed to someone else. 

The quilt nears completion

The next stage is for quilting expert Sarah Evans to stitch this top layer to its other layers, before it is previewed in Chicago.

Because this is a quilt that will hang not on a bed, but on a museum wall - at the National Quilting Museum.

There will be Rita’s fingerprints at the centre of the piece - a tapestry completed by her that Shannon saw hanging in her house when she first entered the estate sale.

Stars on Rita's quilt

Messages in the quilt's stars

There are messages in the quilt. The star spelling Rita's name in morse code. The star bearing a quote written in Nushu, a script that was developed and used exclusively by women in China's Hunan province.

There are messages everywhere, once you know where to look.

“I know that Rita is resting in craft peace today,” Shannon says. “I love the legacy it brings.”

Quilters hold up Rita's completed quilt
Quilters hold up Rita's completed quilt

Pair of sewing scissors

Credits - Author: Lauren Turner, Photos: Laura McDermott, Production: Paul Kerley, Research: Ritu Prasad, Artwork: Emma Lynch, Editor: Sarah Buckley

Additional research: Rozina Sini, Kris Bramwell and Paula Hong