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Quilting group keeping tradition alive in Butler

Quilts made by the Caring Quilters can be identified by a signature patch its members sew onto each of its creations. Eddie Trizzino/Butler Eagle

Quilts crafted by the Caring Quilters are almost always made of 6-inch squares arranged in lines of seven by nine, and each one has a special patch sewn in bearing the group’s name.

Although each has the same structure, every quilt made by the group is comprised of different materials and fabrics, and is usually the product of at least two crafters working on different parts of one quilt. A founder of the group, Courtney McNamara, said the specific structure allows everyone in the group — even new quilters — to contribute something.

“If you don't have experience, we have things for you to do, and if you do, that's great too, because they are collaborative,” McNamara said. “We have a specific pattern we do just so we can make them quicker ... That way everybody is on the same page.”

The Caring Quilters have been meeting at the Butler Art Center & Gallery at 1 p.m. on Thursdays since February. McNamara, who is the marketing and education director at the art center, said she kick-started the group to get herself back into quilting, and to offer another kind of art at the center.

While some programs at the art center have a participation cost, attending a Caring Quilters session is not only free, but also the quilts created by the group are donated to people and organizations once they are done.

“We have given quite a few away to cancer patients who were friends of our members,” McNamara said. “We gave some to people in a care home.”

Quilting together

On May 23, the Caring Quilters received a load of donated fabric materials, which would each be cut, sewn, folded and pressed by several different members before becoming fully assembled quilts. While Kim Boyce, of Butler, unpacked and organized materials, Judy Gaiser, of West Sunbury, used a sewing machine to attach pieces together, and Karen Spurk, of Lyndora, folded completed quilts.

“I might cut out pieces and someone else might sew them together,” Boyce said, “and then we might switch around.”

Spurk explained the plight of crafters, saying people like herself always have many materials stowed away for quilting. She said quilting groups often have a stash of communal materials they share with one another to make quilts.

“When someone passes away, families just don't know what to do with it, they donate it,” Spurk said of material caches. “Quilters have various abbreviations and one is ‘STABLE,’ Stash Accumulated Beyond Life Expectancy, and I'm one of those people. I inherited my mom's stash because no one wanted it.”

Several members of the Caring Quilters said they had quilted in the past but did not have the opportunity or drive to do it again in recent years. Gaiser is one of those people.

Gaiser said she learned how to do fabric work from her mother, but didn’t do as much crafting once her son was born. Now, she enjoys having projects to work on alongside a group with the same goal.

“I sewed a little bit, and then I kind of quit because I am not one to sew just for the sake of sewing,” Gaiser said. “I always like having a project, and I didn't have a lot of projects.”

Spurk said she picked up quilting decades ago, also around the time her mother picked up the hobby. She said the mentoring and collaborative aspects of quilting, like many forms of crafting, make it not only an entertaining hobby, but also one that has self expression sewed into its seams.

“With quilting, there's so many different ways to do the same thing, and they are all right,” Spurk said. “Someone once told me that done is better than perfect, and that's become my mantra. If you wait for it to be perfect, you'll never finish.”

Sewing it all together

Spurk, who is retired after working as a paraprofessional in the Slippery Rock Area School District, said quilting took off in the early-1900s, when it was cheaper for families to make their own clothing than to buy individual articles.

“The scrap quilts in particular really took off during the Depression because the seed companies and the flower companies were selling their bags printed when they realized women were taking the feed sacks and using them to make clothing,” Spurk said. “So they started printing the feed sacks as a little extra. It was printed so that it at least looked nice.”

Although quilting has a rich history of being a skill often passed down through a family generation to generation, Spurk said it has become more of a niche hobby than ever in the 2020s, when people seem to have less and less time for crafting.

“My husband still doesn't understand why we should cut fabric apart and sew it back together, and then there's more things you have to do with it before it's usable again,” she said.

The hours of work and rework that go into making just one 7-by-9-square quilt is what the Caring Quilters said makes each one special. Boyce said people wrapping themselves in a quilt for warmth are wrapping themselves in a product created with care.

“They evoke a sense of comfort, I think, security,” Boyce said. “It’s just plain fabric.”

Quilting in a group setting has also reignited some of the Caring Quilters’ joy for crafting, for someone like Gaiser, who said doing it with a group has also taught her a lot about the art.

“I have met a lot of nice girls here; I pick up quite a bit from them working,” Gaiser said. “There's no contention. It's a joy.”

The Caring Quilters is an open organization, and anyone can attend the group’s sessions at the art center for free. The 10 or so people who regularly attend Caring Quilters sessions have already made dozens of quilts together since February, many of which have been donated.

McNamara said the group is open to all quilters, new and experienced alike. Her daughter is also learning how to quilt with the group.

“I think we've all learned from each other,” McNamara said. “A lot of us have been quilting for years, but we still learn from each other.”

Karen Spurk, of Lyndora, shows off a quilt she recently made during a meeting of the Caring Quilters on May 23 at the Butler Art Center & Gallery. Eddie Trizzino/Butler Eagle
Nancy Hoover, of Middlesex Township, shows off an antique sewing machine Thursday, May 23, which she brings to Caring Quilters sessions at the Butler Art Center & Gallery. Eddie Trizzino/Butler Eagle
Judy Gaiser, of West Sunbury, sews patches together for a quilt May 23 at the Butler Art Center & Gallery. Eddie Trizzino/Butler Eagle
Members of the Caring Quilters spread out a new fabric they plan to make into a quilt on May 23 at the Butler Art Center & Gallery. Eddie Trizzino/Butler Eagle
Kim Boyce, of Butler, holds a quilt made by the Caring Quilters on May 23 at the Butler Art Center & Gallery. Eddie Trizzino/Butler Eagle

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