50 comforters project: From spreadsheets to works of art
Amy Stauffer-McNutt's journey to 50 comforters to celebrate her 50th birthday
Three years ago, Amy Stauffer-McNutt never would’ve imagined the extent to which comforters would take over her life. In fact, at the beginning of 2020, she barely had any sewing experience. Fast forward to this past November when Amy put the finishing touches on comforter number 50 for MCC.
The path to 50 comforters was anything but straight. Amy started with the goal of completing 50 comforters by her 50th birthday in November of 2020. But when the global COVID-19 pandemic hit, she quickly had to adjust her vision of large groups of friends and family gathering.
While she hasn’t been able to share her project in person with as many people as she would’ve liked, Amy created the hashtag “#amys50by50mcc” to chronicle her journey on social media and share photos and updates with friends and family around the world.
How it started
The comforter-making seed was first planted through Amy’s role as a chapter advisor for a career and technical education organization called Business Professionals of America (BPA). Student members of BPA have the opportunity to take part in community service activities, leadership development, field trips, and competitive events related to workplace skills.
In 2019, one of the students shared about Katie Miller from the Winesburg area, in Holmes County, Ohio, who pieces and knots comforters for MCC and has a work area set up for small groups in her basement. The class scheduled an evening to meet at Katie’s and learn to help knot comforters to earn community service hours. “It was an absolute blast!” recalls Amy. “That was such a good experience.”
Sarah Doerksen, MCC Great Lakes material resources coordinator, was invited to share information about MCC with the students and noticed Amy's enthusiasm. She invited the group to take part in the Great Winter Warm-up, a comforter-making event across the United States, Canada and Europe to kick off MCC’s centennial celebration year in 2020.
Next thing she knew, Amy found herself on a committee to help plan the local Great Winter Warm-up event in Kidron, Ohio. Around that same time, she also saw an article in Mennonite World Review (now Anabaptist World) about a woman sewing 60 comforters to celebrate her 60th birthday.
“It got my wheels turning,” remembers Amy. “I thought, I have a milestone birthday coming up!”
An idea is born
With her 50th birthday about a year away, Amy thought she had plenty of time to put together a plan to make 50 comforters. She purchased a couple of secondhand sewing machines, started building up a fabric stash and gathered other supplies.
“What I imagined was I would get all these supplies and friends would get together, and we would cut fabric. And the next time we would get together, we would lay out our designs. And continue the whole step of the way,” she explained. “It would be little mini birthday parties all along. A way to celebrate turning 50 with my friends.”
Her daughter, Greta, helped to pick out fabric and cut some of the initial squares for the first comforter. Amy then attended a quilting retreat at Camp Friedenswald in November 2019 where she sewed together that first comforter. “That experience of putting that comforter together at Friedenswald with all those other people doing their projects was so fun!”
Pivoting with the pandemic
After a successful Great Winter Warm-up event in January 2020 and all the enthusiasm that came with it, Amy went to work cutting lots of fabric for comforter blocks for her quest to make 50 comforters. Then the pandemic hit in March of 2020 and there was an urgent need for sewists to make masks.
So Amy, along with her mother Suzanne Stauffer, made a hard pivot and began sewing masks to give away, mainly to healthcare professionals. “We never had to turn anybody’s request down, but 1,400 masks later…” said Amy. “It was a crazy amount of sewing, all the time sewing.”
They didn’t charge for any of the masks, but some people gave donations which they used to replenish their supply of fabric for comforters.
With her dream of gathering groups of friends together pushed to the side due to the pandemic, Amy and Suzanne decided to start tackling the 50 by 50 project themselves. “We made comforters, comforters, comforters. We can never say that we were bored during lockdown!” laughs Amy.
At any one time, there would be comforters at various phases of the process scattered throughout Amy’s house and her parents’ house as well.
Math meets art
Amy and Suzanne were meticulous about planning and tracking each comforter. Amy created elaborate spreadsheets chronicling which stage each comforter was in and the dates different steps in the process of each comforter were completed.
And the spreadsheets weren’t just for organization. Amy developed formulas for calculating how many blocks of each color were needed for each design, depending on the size of the blocks and the pattern, and formulas to calculate how many yards of each fabric they needed.
“I enjoy math, and I teach spreadsheets,” said Amy. “So instead of doing the math every single time I thought, ‘why don’t I put this in a spreadsheet?’”
They then used the digital spreadsheets to organize the actual blocks of fabric. Their first quilt was pretty basic - a standard diagonal pattern with 6 ½ inch blocks, 10 across and 14 down.
“We labeled them with masking tape and a sharpie marker, kind of like a spreadsheet. We’d have A1, A2, A3, A4, B1, B2…and so we’d just label the blocks,” explains Amy. “And then once we had the blocks labeled for a row, we’d gather them up in order and put a binder clip on them.”
The labeling and organization made it easier to make sure they were sewing them in the correct order. Once they got the hang of it, Amy and Suzanne started branching out into more complicated designs. “Amy is not a person who likes doing the same thing all the time,” said Suzanne. “Every one got more and more complicated.”
They started perusing Pinterest and finding designs that looked interesting. As the designs got more complicated, figuring out the math became even more important. “Amy is a mathematician whiz,” says Suzanne. “We ended up with beautiful patterns. It’s not just a simple ‘put blocks together’ process.”
As they cut the fabric for the blocks, all the leftover fabric was collected to make smaller blocks and crumb quilts.
Teaching herself to sew
What makes this even more amazing is that Amy’s previous experience sewing was extremely limited. She says she learned some sewing basics in 4-H as a child but hadn’t really sewed at all since then.
Suzanne, who has sewn all her life, says Amy didn’t have sewing interest before joining the Great Winter Warm-up committee. “I’ve been amazed at all she’s learned and her precision and her talent for putting fabric colors and patterns together,” reflects Suzanne.
As she was prepping for the Great Winter Warm-up, Amy decided to teach herself how to make a comforter on her own. “I remember thinking, ‘I feel like I should work my way through this whole process, so I understand how a comforter is made.’” She says she used the three tutorial videos provided by MCC which she found really helpful.
Getting others involved
While Amy and Suzanne did the large majority of the sewing themselves, they also found creative ways to get some other folks involved.
They made kits from some of the basic comforter designs – labeling all the blocks and organizing them by row. Amy had some friends with basic sewing skills that took the kits and sewed the blocks into rows and then sewed the rows together before returning them to Amy and Suzanne for completion with batting, backing and binding.
Amy also told her students about the project and gave them an assignment to go on Pinterest and find a pattern that they liked. They then had to work out the Excel spreadsheet and formulas to figure out the numbers of blocks and colors of fabric. She ended up making the actual comforters from their designs so they could see it all come together.
Amy and Suzanne were excited to finally hold some in-person comforter knotting gatherings with their congregation from First Mennonite Church of Sugarcreek starting this past summer. “A lot of people were into it, and a few people came from the community as well,” said Suzanne. “We had such a wonderful time visiting, and they loved it.”
They held four gatherings throughout the summer, with attendance ranging from 15-20, close to their average Sunday morning worship attendance. When school started up again, Amy and Suzanne were more limited on time, but each week they set up a comforter and folks gather on Wednesday mornings to knot it. Suzanne takes them home and binds them each week.
At the Ohio Comforter Bash in Kidron on April 22-23, 2022, Amy picked up knotted comforter tops from the event after school on Friday afternoon and she and Suzanne spent all day binding comforters on Saturday.
Amy grew up at First Mennonite being closely tied to MCC, so connecting with MCC for this project felt natural. From making school kits, to helping with Ten Thousand Villages sales as a child, to staffing their church’s apple fritter stand at the Ohio Mennonite Relief Sale, MCC was continually present. Once a year, the Women in Mission hosted a “Day of Comfort” and set the church basement full of comforters in frames, inviting the church family to help knot and then share a light supper featuring rivel soup.
“My whole life, I’ve thought of MCC as being an important arm of the church and how the church exists in the world,” said Amy. “It provides avenues to help in concrete and accessible ways, in the face of daunting hardship and struggle. MCC helps people in meaningful and empowering ways.”
Suzanne, who grew up at Grace Mennonite Church in Pandora, Ohio, remembers her congregation hosting international young adults with MCC through IVEP (International Volunteer Exchange Program). One of her favorite childhood memories was making Christmas bundles for MCC, and MCC workers regularly visited their congregation to share stories. “MCC has been an important part of our lives,” she said.
For both Amy and Suzanne, the project was very meaningful as they thought about the people who would receive their comforters.