Allison Evans (@phdstitchery) inspires us each month with her up-close looks at charity sewing projects. We really enjoy learning about sewists who share their skills and passion for stitching with others! When things feel overwhelming, or bad news fills the day, it’s nice to think of all the love out there. We hope you enjoy the series too.

You can find all of the Sew Good posts here.

Previous installments of Sew Good have looked at charity sewing groups that have utilized a few main methods of getting the job done. Examples include weekly sewing meet ups, annual sewing days and people who sew at home and then submit their finished projects to the organization. This month’s focus is on a group that has managed to incorporate all of these methods with overwhelming success to maximize production.

The Stitching Sisters started in Columbus, Ohio in 2005, under the direction of Joanne Lester. Lester, then a nurse practitioner at the Breast Center at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, saw the chemo infusion center as drafty and in desperate need of some perking up. As a quilter, she knew quilts could be an easy source of comfort. She says, “Quilts could provide both emotional and physical warmth at a time when it was really needed… Giving someone something in a period of time when they are so scared, we are able to wrap our arms around them.” The group’s goal was to provide quilts for every breast cancer patient being treated at the center, but eventually the program grew to include donations to ovarian and lung cancer patients as well. Over the span of the past ten years, that’s a lot of patients. So, they needed a lot of quilts… To date, over 11,000 quilts have been donated by a group that started on the ping pong table in Lester’s basement. From the very beginning, says Lester, they vowed that every quilt would be quilted, not tied, so that it could be washed as often as needed and would hold up over time. In order to meet that need, the group utilizes a number of production methods that employ hundreds of volunteers.

The Stitching Sisters’ Quilt Center (pictured) is a large storefront where volunteers can assemble tops, cut donated fabrics to assemble into quilt top kits, sandwich and longarm quilt tops, and store finished quilts for donation. The walls of donated fabrics are swoon-worthy. Local quilting guilds are welcome to come to the center as a group and work on tops, and the organization maintains a monthly calendar of set sewing days when 20-25 volunteers meet on a regular basis every week to sew. One of these volunteers is Kathy Gordon, a longtime supporter of the program and sewing blogger. As Gordon says, “Everyone is touched by breast cancer… Either as a survivor, losing someone to it or just knowing someone who has it. I love making quilts and they have everything under one roof with no cost to volunteers.” After meeting Lester at a breast cancer education and fundraising event, Gordon says, “The Stitching Sisters’ story and commitment to provide quilts for breast cancer patients was intriguing and pulled at my heart strings.” An active member of a quilting group at work, Gordon then spoke with her employer’s community service program and her employer agreed to donate funds to the Stitching Sisters when employees logged a certain number of service hours.

Not everyone who would like to participate can make it to the Sewing Center on a regular basis. The Stitching Sisters rely on a huge network of at-home sewers too, either across the country or individuals who meet in satellite groups around Columbus. Pre-cut quilt top kits are available to pick up at the center, or are often given out at local guild meetings to anyone willing to take them home and finish them. The patterns are usually fairly simple, so even beginning quilters can complete them, and all fabric needed is provided through donations. Once the tops are finished, volunteers can drop them off at the center or with a designated person in their guild. There’s no pressure to return a finished quilt, which makes a lot of (basting-hating) quilters happy. Just return the top and other volunteers will sandwich, quilt and bind it. This approach also keeps a lot of tops from languishing at home waiting to be finished, which means turn-around time is faster.

Stitching Sisters’ Annual Quilt Day

And then there’s the Annual Quilt Day, where over 200 people gather for a day to sew. Each year on average 300 quilt tops are pieced during the day from kits provided by the organization, and sewers are entertained by constant raffles and giveaways (including new sewing machines). This year, 142 sewing machines were going at once! While some people piece tops, others work on ironing, sandwiching, quilting on the two longarm machines that are supplied, and binding. Repeat volunteers who come from outside Columbus (some from as far away as Arkansas) bring back completed quilts and take new kits home to return the following year. In 2016, over 240 finished quilts were turned in. As Jennie Hayes says, “Quilt Day is a day where I get to be a part of something… They provide food and fabric, and I get to just sew. This year was also important because my friend’s mom was just diagnosed with leukemia a week before, so it kind of hit closer to home what the Stitching Sisters do. After doing research on my own about what size quilt to make my friend’s mom, fabrics, etc., I was in a room of hundreds of people doing that exact thing.”

Completed quilts, ready for donation.

Quilt Day, though important in meeting the group’s donation needs, is also a day of fellowship for the volunteers. The Stitching Sisters believe strongly that providing a fun day of sewing, friendship, food and giveaways is important in keeping volunteers coming back year after year. Fellowship is a benefit the group’s organizers hadn’t initially thought about when starting up. But over the past ten years, despite having so many volunteers, the group has become a close-knit community. As Lester says, it would be hard to ignore the fact that being primarily made up of women, odds are that some members will be diagnosed with breast cancer themselves. Having the support network of the Stitching Sisters is something that they never anticipated. As Kathy Gordon says, “It is a sisterhood of volunteers, survivors and friends, bound together by thread and fabric.”

All photos courtesy of Kathy Gordon, used with permission.