Keeping the tradition of quilting alive through charity and community service
(Quilting a diverse mosaic as beautiful as the community it represents)
On Thursday, Oct. 20, from 8:00 to 11:00 a.m. at the Senior Recreation Center on 34th Street, the Quilters of Alachua County Day Guild will be welcoming volunteers from the community to help organize homemade quilts, pillowcases, tote bags and medical dolls to be charitably donated to 14 Alachua County organizations serving those needing assistance.
The recipients include UF Health Shands Medical Hospital, Arbor House, Fisher House, Ronald McDonald House, Alachua County Fire Rescue, Guardian Ad Litem, Family Promise of Gainesville, among others providing assistance to foster children, pediatric patients, elderly residents, veterans’ families undergoing surgery and those seeking shelter from domestic abuse.
The event continues the guild’s long-standing initiative to preserve the tradition of quilting by providing community service and promoting local education of the storied craft. Over 450 quilts will be organized for donations to senior citizens, parents, children and infants.
Carol Wilkerson is the director for the guild’s Community Service Bee. She explained the tight-knit camaraderie experienced by members stems back to the beginning of the quilting tradition.
“We call our group a ‘bee’ because back in colonial times, bees were groups of women that huddled together and would finish a quilt by hand,” said Wilkerson. “It was all about coming together as a group.”
The sense of a unified purpose is demonstrated by the lives the guild’s charitable actions have touched.
Since 2013, the 170 members of the guild have donated 3,020 quilts, 3,573 pillowcases, 1,916 tote bags, 1,741 COVID-19 face masks, and 766 medical dolls for child patients. The tote bags are donated to both children in foster care and senior citizens who use them to carry their belongings. Quilts have been donated to women and children in shelters as part of the St. Francis House.
“As part of our partnership with UF Shands Children’s Hospital, we donate sewn dolls wearing little sewn surgical gowns just like the child (entering surgery) will wear,” said Wilkerson. “The doctor can use a marker to show the child where he’s going to operate. During this difficult time, it gives the child something lovely to hold on to as their own.”
Individual guild members have sent quilt blocks across the world to help those in need. From quilts made for child refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, to families who lost everything from the devastating wildfires in Australia, to families affected by the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, a little bit of comfort is extended to all those seeking a sense of shelter and security.
“We like to show solidarity with other cultures and quilting organizations across the world by helping wherever we can,” said Wilkerson.
When COVID-19 first struck Gainesville in early 2020, a physician at UF Health Shands contacted the guild to help mitigate the hospital’s scramble for protective equipment. Over the next five months, thousands of masks were sewn for local medical facilities.
“The physician’s prototype for a surgical quality mask was very challenging for us, but we succeeded,” said Wilkerson. “Each of us decided what specific skills we could teach to the rest of the group to be more efficient. We used interfacing, which is a kind of tissue that melts the fabric to give it more protection. We also used plastic and vinyl sensors cut and sewn into the masks. Because of COVID, we couldn’t be in close proximity to each other and had to drop off parts we completed on each member’s front porch until the total product was assembled. Lots of the masks were distributed to a cancer unit at the hospital.”
Always trying to inspire new community members, the guild runs a Foster Grandparent program teaching children the artform and has partnered with the Arbor House to help provide elderly residents a sense of artistry and community. The guild also runs free educational quilting programs across the county libraries.
“The library programs are a fun way to celebrate national quilting month in March,” said Wilkerson. “We bring in sewing machines and teach anyone how to make their first quilting block. Everybody is excited because most have never had the opportunity to craft something so unique.”
She expressed the importance of the younger generation carrying on the tradition. Like the diverse communities the guild is trying to inspire, the quilts represent a larger, vibrant tapestry.
“We can get a produced blanket anywhere, but there’s something special about colorful tiny pieces of fabric turning themselves into a beautiful mosaic,” said Wilkerson. “I love the artform so much and want to see that love continue.”
The guild is open to all quilters of any skill level. They meet every third Thursday of the month at the Senior Center between 9:00 a.m. and noon as well as hosting many special-interest quilt bees. An annual three-day Quilter’s Day Camp is designed for beginners. The guild features experienced quilters, newcomers, traditional needleworkers, machine-or-hand embroiderers, quilting historians and fiber artists.
Wilkerson described the guild as a harmonious blend of retirees, newbies, people who sewed a long time ago and want to get back into the craft, and a few military veterans and former nurses.
She said the camaraderie enables her to feel encouraged to succeed in the art and the warmth of the community often transcends personal struggles. Retired nurses in the guild often swap medical advice and check-in on one another’s well-being. The social connection also challenges them in ways they never could have imagined.
“A beautiful story that will never leave me is of one of our quilters who was diagnosed with terminal cancer,” said Wilkerson. “As her health was failing, we helped her get fed and read to her when she lost her eyesight. Among her life’s work, there was one spectacular unfinished quilt that meant the world to her. She asked us to finish it for her. Literally moments before she lost consciousness, a member told her we had finished the quilt for her. Her wish was to have the quilt entered in a competition. This past week, it won second place in the competition we entered.”