Stitch by stitch, carrying on tradition

Hand quilters at Ellsworth church keep the art alive

— Daily Freeman-Journal photos by Billie Shelton Ruth Peterson and Sue Norem busy at the quilting frame. The quilters say anyone who’d like to learn to hand quilt is welcome to stop by Trinity Lutheran Church in Ellsworth any afternoon.

ELLSWORTH — The Service Project Group is a tradition at Trinity Lutheran Church in Ellsworth, one that continues today even though the group is smaller than it was in the past.

What they do is hand quilt. You’ll find at least a couple of women at the church every weekday afternoon, in a room where there’s always a quilt in the quilting frame with women gathered around it. As they skillfully take the tiny stitches that complete a quilt, it’s easy to see they appreciate the company of their fellow quilters while they all watch the quilt in front of them take shape.

“The quilters were active before this building was built (in the early 1950s),” points out Sue Norem, 76 and a member of the loyal group. “They would come at 8 a.m. and quilt all day.”

Over the years, those long hours have evolved to afternoons only. Except for taking a coffee break each day at 3 p.m., you’ll find these dedicated quilters around the quilt frame with their needles, thread, and thimbles until late in the day. Recently they made two tied quilts for the quilt auction at Riverside Bible Camp that’s held every August.

Most of the quilts that this group works on, though, are made by others and brought to the church. It’s a point of pride. And tradition. “If a product is hand-stitched and pieced, it should be hand quilted,” states Ruth Peterson, 93. She’s one of the regulars who quilt every afternoon. They also tie quilts if requested, and almost always have a supply of embroidered tea towels on hand that they have made.

“It’s a dying art,” Peterson continues about hand quilting. “So many people do machine quilting now, but it’s just not the same.” Even supplies for hand quilting can be hard to find in sewing stores, she reports.

While the women quilt for the love of it, what they do is also a service for Trinity. What they charge for their hand quilting goes into the Service Project Fund, which is used for projects around the church. The money does not go to the general fund; instead, the quilters keep their own bank account, decide how they want the funds to be used and make sure that whatever project they choose gets done.

Last year, money from the fund went to completely renovate the pastor’s study at the church. Recently it was used to purchase a new refrigerator for the church kitchen.

Usually, the women report, there’s a list of quilts waiting to be put on the quilting frame. It often happens that just when the women think their quilt frame will have to sit empty, several more calls come in needing the talents of the group.

“If we don’t have a quilt in, then we bring our embroidery,” Peterson points out. “We’ll do baby quilts, and twin size, full, and queen. And we tie baby quilts.”

The quilters have seen all types and styles of quilts come through their frame over the years, including a three-dimension quilt. They all remember the quilt top that was put together by residents of a group home and later rescued from a Dumpster. They’re rather indignant about that one, but it turned out fine after they assembled and quilted it.

And everyone chuckles at memories of a few quilts that have come in with mouse holes in the top. “Oh, one had been in someone’s attic and chewed by mice there, so we just patched it up and quilted it,” Norem remembers cheerfully.

So what makes a pretty quilt? Colors that blend in a good design, everyone agrees after considering it for a moment or two. And what do you need to be good at hand quilting? “Patience and tiny stitches!” Peterson answers. “We all think the back is the prettiest part of a quilt.”

“We’re always excited to see the finished product,” Norem points out. “It takes us about a month to finish a quilt, and then we turn it over on a table, turn out the lights, and check to see if we’ve missed quilting anywhere.”

Since the days when pioneer women gathered for quilting bees and socialized with their neighbors at the same time, quilting continues to be a valuable art. Peterson says that because she lives alone, the social part of quilting is important to her. “I get satisfaction out of doing something that’s appreciated,” she adds. “We just love doing it!”

And the service they perform for their church — one tiny, perfect stitch at a time –makes their efforts that much better.