A grandmother, mother and daughter all snuggle together under a big quilt in front of a cozy fire as cold weather settles in. Babies in the neonatal intensive care unit at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center are lovingly covered by pastel infant quilts. Veterans at the Fayetteville Veterans Affairs Medical Center stay warm under patriotic-themed lap quilts spread over their wheelchairs or hospital beds.
Since its inception in 1981, members of the Tarheel Quilters Guild, a nonprofit arts organization devoted to teaching the craft of quilting, have donated quilts to community causes. The labors of love involve nearly 90 guild members who create almost 400 baby quilts and 200 Christmas stockings for the NICU each year.
The quilters also make about 400 placemats to be given each year with holiday meals through Meals on Wheels.
“It’s a craft people don’t readily see unless they’re lucky enough to be gifted a quilt,” says Rhonda Gooding, the guild’s treasurer and a member for at least a couple of decades.
At a recent “Sew Day” in September, a dozen or so members cranked out patterned quilts for babies and veterans. As the sewing machines hummed, they helped each other with technique and admired each other’s work and the fabrics they used.
“I like to sew quilts because they tell a story and are connected to memories, down to the fabric,” says Sharon O’Hara, who started sewing in elementary school in her 4H Club and has been a guild member for about two years.
O’Hara worked on a patriotic quilt for a veteran during the Sew Day. Many of the women agreed that quilts are often treasured heirlooms passed down through generations that evoke fond memories.
Debby Grice, who taught the featured pattern for that September Sew Day, has been a quilter for more than 20 years. She was president of the guild twice and is currently its second vice president. She and her mother learned how to quilt together after a friend suggested they take a class, so the heritage of quilting that stitches generations together actually started for them at the same time. Grice then passed the hobby on to her daughter.
“My mother and I got bit by the quilting bug,” Grice says. “I’d make the quilts, give them to her, and she’d finish them.”
When Grice’s daughter, Kelsey, was about 4 years old, she made her first quilt and won a ribbon alongside her mom.
“Kelsey would sit on my lap and put her hands on top of mine so she could feel the motion,” Grice says.
Today, Kelsey Grice makes her living quilting. Debby says her daughter even made a quilt for a school book report once, cutting out the characters and quilting them onto the fabric.
“Quilting is good therapy,” Grice says. “You can get lost in the colors and the textures as you listen to the soothing hum of the sewing machine.
“It’s more expensive than therapy, though, I can tell you that,” she quips with a laugh.
Her mother doesn’t quilt anymore, so the quilts they made together are very special to Grice.
“I have such good memories of us sitting around, even laughing at our mistakes,” she says.
A gift for all ages
To date, the guild has given more than 12,000 quilts to babies at the hospital at a rate of 25 to 30 per month. During the height of the COVID pandemic, when guild members could not go inside the hospital, they met a social worker in the parking lot to ensure that the babies still received their quilts.
Each February, the guild gives about 100 quilts to the Fayetteville VA Medical Center. Most are 45 inches on a side, so they fit a veteran’s lap without getting tangled up in wheelchair wheels.
“It’s wonderful to give a quilt to a precious baby that’s fighting to live or a veteran who’s given so much to this country,” Grice says. “When the veterans see the patriotic colors, they often get so excited and talk about a quilt their grandma made.”
A guild member of 20 years, Debbie Eberline chose several pastel fabrics to use together for a 36-by-36-inch baby quilt.
“This is material I had at home. I have so much, I could start my own fabric store,” she chuckles.
Quilters purchase only new fabric that is 100% cotton because of how well it washes and its durability, Gooding says.
“We all have quite the stash,” Gooding says. “Quilters have two hobbies: quilting and buying fabric.”
Quilters typically love scooping up fabric at estate and yard sales to add to their collections, but to ensure it’s 100% cotton, they have a test, Ashley Ledford explains. If they put a flame to a corner and it burns, it’s good; but if the flame makes the fabric melt, then it’s not pure cotton.
Ashley was the youngest quilter at the recent Sew Day. She joined the guild during the pandemic. She says her grandmother taught her to sew as a child and she was scrolling through social media during the pandemic and saw that the guild was having a Sew Day.
“Being younger, quilting is kind of isolating,” Ledford says. “So I sought out a group to join. You don’t know what techniques you don’t know until you’re in a room with other quilters.”
Gooding interjects that when she started quilting, she didn’t know how to properly use a rotary cutter — a tool that is about as sharp as an Exacto knife and can cut through about 10 pieces of fabric at once.
Wrapped up in the craft
As many of the women at Sew Day worked on quilts for babies and veterans, Nancy Moore worked on Christmas coasters and demonstrated to several others how she was making them. Moore and her husband, Bob, have been part of the guild for 23 years, and she is another past president.
When Bob got involved, it was because Nancy bought a long-arm quilting machine.
“Nancy bought it and she set it up, and Bob decided he wanted to play with it,” Gooding says. “And that was that.”
Ever since then, Nancy has quilted and Bob has attached the front of the quilt to the batting — the middle layer of a quilt — and back using the quilting machine.
Each year, the guild raffles off a large quilt, with proceeds used to purchase batting for its baby and veteran quilts. This year’s quilt will be raffled on Dec. 17.
The guild had a Sew Day in August 2022, during which each member brought at least one block of fabric. They laid out the quilt together to determine its final design, and Kelsey Grice used a long-arm quilting machine to stitch it all together.
Raffle tickets are $2 each and can be purchased from guild members.
“As a group, quilters are some of the most generous people; they have this skill and want to share it,” says Linda DeGraw, who has been quilting for more than 20 years and a member of the guild for about two years. “They’ve all been so welcoming.”
DeGraw has been quilting so long that her grown children say they don’t need any more quilts from her. Instead of giving up the hobby, she turned her talent toward helping others. In addition to the guild’s focus on baby and veteran quilts, DeGraw now sends quilts to her daughter’s favorite pet rescue agency to be raffled as a fundraiser.
Other guild members have outside projects to support community groups. At the August meeting, current President Barbara Munoz alerted the quilters that one member is taking donations for migrant workers in Dunn who need fabric and notions. And Debby Grice has started a quilting group at her church to bring people together.
In the end, quilting is an artistic pursuit, but it does have a practical side.
Quilters have to cut and measure precisely. As Debbie Eberline was cutting out fabric, DeGraw noticed how carefully she was working.
“A lot of us are women who said we didn’t need math,” she says with a laugh.