Quilters Across The U.S. Answer Call To Help Sew Up Unfinished Project

Dec 9, 2019

Whenever Shannon Downey comes across an unfinished craft project at an estate sale, she feels compelled to buy and finish it.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time it's an unfinished pillow or just a small hoop," Downey said.

But earlier this fall, Downey stumbled across an unfinished quilt of the United States at an estate sale on Chicago's North Side. She immediately knew this project was different.

"I just sat down and I started shaking my head and my friends were standing around and they were like, 'Oh dear.' I was like, 'This feels much bigger than any of the other ones!'"

The bin was filled with hexagons of white fabric and a pattern for a large quilt of each state along with some stars. A few hexagons were already embroidered with the outline of a state, along with that state's bird and flower. Alaska and Georgia were finished. New Jersey was halfway done.

Rita Smith, pictured, started the quilt that Shannon Downey found at an estate sale.
Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

The project was started by Rita Smith, a 99-year-old woman who died earlier this year.

Downey's known on Instagram for blending art and activism under the name Badass Cross Stitch. Her friends are used to her buying these unfinished projects at estate sales. But she knew she couldn't do this project alone, so she put a call out on Instagram.

She needed nearly 100 women to embroider each state hexagon and the stars. The response was overwhelming. Women from across the country wanted to help. Some participants researched Smith and found out she was a nurse and avid crafter. They even found her high school yearbook photo. Whenever someone had a question, Downey thought about what Smith would want.

"This is her art and we're just the hands," Downey said.

After Downey received the embroidered hexagons, she organized a modern day quilting bee at a crafting workshop called Wishcraft, carrying out a long tradition of women getting together to sew and quilt. Women came from all over the Midwest this past Saturday to help.

Downey said she's frustrated that society doesn't place the same kind of value in crafting, whether it's embroidery, quilting or sewing, as people do in other types of art. She feels like a lot of that is because these skills are considered "women's work."

When she attended Smith's estate sale, Downey purchased another completed map of the United States that Rita had embroidered. It sold for $5.

"That gutted me," she said, knowing the time and effort that went into the piece.

Women from all over the Midwest traveled to Chicago this past Saturday to help finish the quilt.
Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

This weekend, as some women sat and chatted, hunched over pieces of fabric, Downey's theory played out in real time.

"My work isn't worth somebody finishing when I die," said Hannah Allen, who lives in Chicago but grew up in Kentucky and stitched the Kentucky hexagon.

"But maybe it is," interjected another sewer, Tiffany Quade. She drove down from Minnesota and stitched that state's hexagon. "Maybe that's the whole point! Maybe Rita felt the same way too."

Allen paused.

"This goes to a point of underappreciation of women's work and we're kind of told our work isn't worth anything,"she said.

Another stitcher, Elizabeth Foley, agreed. "[People think], 'Oh, it's just a little hobby.'"

"We underappreciate ourselves then," Quade said.

As the day crept along and the women connected more and more pieces, Downey gathered them around.

"Rita is resting in craft's peace because this is going to be done and it's going to be done in a really epic way," Downey said. "Rita was just a normal person and we're just normal people. It's wildly honorable and worth there being artifact and story and memory around. So, yay, Rita!"

A professional quilter will put the filling and back on the quilt.
Kate McGee / WBEZ

The woman, of varying ages and backgrounds, stood around and applauded. "Thank you, Rita!" some of the shouted!

Seven hours after they started, the last stitches were put in place. The remaining stitchers stood in a circle, each holding an edge of the quilt top, nearly 8 by 9 feet. They admired their handiwork and the skill of so many other women, including Rita, whose embroidery is now mixed in with others. In the middle of the hexagons, the women put Rita's completed map of the United States that Downey had also purchased at the estate sale.

In the coming weeks , a professional quilter will put the filling and back on the quilt. Afterwards, people across the country will have a chance to see the quilt themselves. On Dec. 21, it will be displayed in Chicago at a local gallery called Women Made, before moving on to the National Quilting Museum in Paducah, Ky., in March.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Our next story is about a woman in Chicago. She often visits estate sales. And when she finds an unfinished craft project - think cross-stitch or embroidery - she feels compelled to buy it and finish it. But when she stumbled upon an unfinished quilt of the United States earlier this fall, she knew she would need help to complete it. And she got that help this weekend.

Kate McGee from member station WBEZ was there.

KATE MCGEE, BYLINE: Shannon Downey found the unfinished quilt in the bedroom of an old house on Chicago's North Side. At that point, it was a pile of fabric cut into hexagons. A few were embroidered with the outline of a state along with that state's bird and flower. Alaska and Georgia were finished. New Jersey was halfway done.

SHANNON DOWNEY: I just sat down. And I started shaking my head. And my friends were standing around me, and they're like - oh, dear. And I was like, this feels much bigger than any of the other ones. And they're like, yeah.

MCGEE: The project was started by a woman named Rita. She died earlier this year at 99 years old. Downey's known on Instagram for blending art and activism under the name Badass Cross Stitch. And her friends are used to her buying these unfinished projects at estate sales.

DOWNEY: Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's an unfinished pillow or, you know, just a small hoop.

MCGEE: But she couldn't do this project alone, so she put a call out on Instagram. First step - getting the hexagons embroidered. The response was overwhelming. Women from across the country wanted in. Some researched Rita and found out she was a nurse and avid crafter. They found her high school yearbook photo. Whenever someone had a question, Downey thought about what Rita would want.

DOWNEY: This is her art, and we're just the hands.

MCGEE: Next, she organized a modern-day quilting bee, carrying out a long tradition of women getting together to sew and quilt. Women came from all over the Midwest to help.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'll start doing Utah, West Virginia.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'll do Texas, Washington and 45.

MCGEE: The women sit, chatting away, hunched over pieces of fabric, their needles and thread weaving in and out of the colorfully stitched hexagons.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: So Wisconsin sticks...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I'm going to...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...Sits here.

MCGEE: A few of the women sewing the quilt top together had also embroidered a state, including Hannah Allen, Elizabeth Foley and Tiffany Quade (ph). As they stitched, they discussed the project.

HANNAH ALLEN: My work isn't worth somebody finishing when I die. No, you could...

TIFFANY QUADE: Maybe it is. Maybe that's the whole point. Maybe Rita felt the same way, too.

ALLEN: And this goes to a point of underappreciation of women's work. And we're kind of told that our work isn't worth anything.

ELIZABETH FOLEY: Oh, it's just a little hobby.

ALLEN: Yeah, it's a hobby.

QUADE: We underappreciate ourselves then.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Ow - that was a pin in my palm.

MCGEE: As the women connected more and more pieces, Downey gathered them around.

DOWNEY: I know that Rita is resting in craft peace because this - this is going to be done, and it's going to be done in a really epic way. Rita was just a normal person, and we're just normal people. It's wildly honorable, and it's worth there being artifact and story and memory around. So yay, Rita.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Thank you, Rita.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Thank you, Rita.

DOWNEY: Mmm hmm, cool.

MCGEE: Seven hours after they started...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Woo, last stitches.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: This is a porcupine (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: The final thread.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Yay.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: Yay.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: I'm going to cry.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: We made it.

MCGEE: The last stitchers stood in a circle, each holding an edge of the quilt top - nearly 8 by 9 feet. They admired their handiwork and the skill of so many other women, including Rita's, whose embroidery is now mixed in with the others. In March, the finished quilt will be on display at the National Quilting Museum (ph) in Paducah, Ky.

For NPR News, I'm Kate McGee in Chicago.

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