Allison Evans (@phdstitchery) is a regular here with our monthly Sew Good series. Allison finds great examples of sewists sharing their passions with others through charity sewing projects. (She also just welcomed darling baby Lucy to her family! Congratulations!)
Find the full Sew Good series here, and let us know if you have a group we should hear about. (Email: email@example.com)
This month’s Sew Good installment looks at a program in Oregon that started with one woman’s not-so-conventional idea and blossomed into 40 volunteers and hundreds of participants.
In 2002, the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility for women opened in Oregon. When a local church held a meeting looking for suggestions of enrichment activities and people willing to volunteer their time at the facility, Koko Sutton was quick to suggest quilting. Sutton started small, soliciting donations from local shops for supplies and sewing machines, and soon The Coffee Creek Quilters were born. Sutton began with one other volunteer and a class of six incarcerated women. They met weekly and began with basic quilting skills, but the two instructors quickly realized that the students could benefit from more individualized one-on-one sewing instruction, and more volunteers were brought on. At first, the classes experienced some attrition; enthusiasm among the participants waned, and some women stopped attending. But as it became clear that the same instructors would be showing up weekly, the participants showed more enthusiasm; they saw they would be working with the same instructor on a regular basis. While much of the program’s initial start-up efforts for tracking down donations for supplies, fabrics, etc. were similar to other quilting groups, because the program was being taught in a correctional facility it presented a few unique challenges that had to be carefully navigated. As one instructor, Mary Ann McCammon recalls, “This was not a senior center…” Certain items such as rotary cutters and scissors had to be distributed and accounted for at the beginning and end of each class, numbered items were placed on peg boards where it was easy to see which if any were missing, and instructors learned how to make appropriate swaps for supplies that weren’t deemed suitable for the facility. Common sewing supplies that we might take for granted at home had to be replaced with facility-approved alternatives; the instructors soon found that when safety pins were a no-go, blue painter’s tape could be used to hold quilt layers together and for marking quilting lines.
The program quickly grew to four classes a week with 20 women each, and waiting lists of women interested in participating. In order to be eligible, women must be within three years of release at the minimum security facility. Each class runs for about 18 months as the women learn basic quilting skills, and explore different techniques and patterns. The classes now meet in the facility’s dining hall, with 20 women, 21 sewing machines (one extra, just in case!) and 6-7 instructors in each session. Over the span of the course, students work on three quilts— from the very beginning, the program dictated that the first two quilts were to be donated, and the third would be a quilt the women could keep for themselves. The donation aspect of the program was important— this is often one of the first times many of the participants have had the chance to be on the giving side of a donation. It is often a new experience for the women to feel pride about something they’ve made themselves. Most of the women have little to no sewing experience, so the first few classes are spent on basic machine skills and overcoming the anxiety we all experience when faced with a new machine. McCammon, who teaches on Thursdays, often begins her classes asking the students to give the rest of the group some advice based on what they’ve learned. Most women say, “Go slow! Take your time!”
While the women learn to do the piecing themselves and practice quilting skills on their first two quilt tops (the classes go through many, many rolls of blue tape to mark straight lines), their third completed tops (usually about 60” x 80”) are sent to local longarmers who donate their skills. The first two tops are usually a bit smaller and are simpler patterns, but the instructors encourage the women to really think about and plan their third top, the one they’ll keep themselves. For some, this is one of the first creative projects the women have experienced seeing through to completion. Women who finish the full program received a refurbished machine to keep upon their release. Gloria Richardson, one of the program instructors and also a volunteer longarmer, says, “What I get out of the program is a full heart from being able to give a gift to someone who is in need. It’s hard to put this into words but it makes me cry to see how appreciative the inmates are to have someone do something nice for them. Seems like I get more out of it than even they do.”
The program requirement that the participants’ first two quilts are donated has turned this program into soemthing that provides enrichment for the incarcerated women, and also provides much needed items to other charitable organizations. In 2015, the program provided 136 quilts to local agencies. In a selection of quotations on their website, the Coffee Creek Quilters share gave an example of a donation from a hospital chaplain: The recipient of one Comfort Quilt was a much loved mother and grandmother. The patient’s favorite color was red, and the quilt was a red design on white background. “Oh, this is beautiful! She would have loved this,” her daughter smiled through tears. The quilt was placed on the patient as she lay dying. Afterwards, it was brought out to her daughter in the waiting room. She carefully folded the quilt, gently tracing the pattern with her fingers, hugging it close as she left the hospital.
The women in The Coffee Creek Quilters program are often particularly interested in donating their quilts to children’s foster and bereavement programs because many of them have benefitted from these programs themselves. As McCammon says, the sewing sessions frequently turn into a chance for the women to reflect on their own life circumstances. Through quilting, they’re learning to create something in which they can take pride. And by donating quilts, knowing they’ve created something that can bring someone else comfort is a powerful and positive experience.
The Coffee Creek Quilters have a wonderful website with a student quilt gallery, comprehensive information on starting a correctional facility quilting program and more (including info on how you can donate and support their work). Take a look!