Lancaster County, PA

Thousands of stitches

How a local fabric store’s Facebook win spurred a “Challenge” inspiring many to support MCC through quilts

Diana Williams serves as East Coast communications coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). She had the opportunity to participate in the “Charity Block Design Challenge” benefiting the Pennsylvania Relief Sale and MCC because of her love of textiles and quilting. This is a first-person account of her experience.

RELIVING CHILDHOOD MEMORIES

Quilts and quilting have always been a part of my life. As a young girl, I remember playing on the floor with my dolls under quilts stretched to fill the entire den in my grandparent’s house in the mountains of Belleville, Pa. Meanwhile above my head, my mother, grandmother and sometimes other Amish relatives would quietly chat and solve life’s problems, needles being rocked back and forth, back and forth in the muslin fabric. I enjoyed watching the patterns emerge from underneath where the simple cloth revealed all of the stitches evenly spaced.

On my fifth birthday, my father gave me a wooden sewing machine he’d created. My grandmother (right) admires my new gift.MCC photo/Diana Williams

But quilting was more than just time spent under the quilt frame for me. It was trips to Amish farms where my mother would borrow and reproduce passed down templates used for marking the designs on quilts. I still picture the sights and new fabric smells of Mennonite-run dry good stores with all the bright and colorful textile options available. I remember how special I felt when my mother asked for my opinion on what color or pattern looked the best. I especially remember picking out fabrics for my own quilt, made with blocks my grandmother had embroidered with baskets and butterflies.

RAISING MONEY FOR MCC THROUGH RELIEF SALES

But one of my favorite memories as a child was going to the Pennsylvania Relief Sale (PARS) with my mother and grandmother every year at the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, Pa. I remember staring up at the beautiful quilts being sold on the main stage thinking, “Wow!” and “Don’t accidentally raise your hand and bid!” and “My grandmother could make that.”

Over the years, my mother and grandmother taught me how to quilt, how to sew and then how to put together blocks to make a wall hanging. I started to realize that what I used to see as just a peaceful pastime was really a lot of challenging work, consuming countless hours, lots of fabric, yards and yards of thread and sometimes several extra hours spent with a seam ripper fixing mistakes.

Three generations quilting on “my” quilt embroidered by my grandmother: my mother, me, and my grandmother.MCC photo/Diana Williams

Today, I think of my grandmother at every relief sale I attend as part of my job as East Coast Communications Coordinator at Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). I stare up at those works of art on the stages at relief sales across our region thinking, “Wow!” And when those quilts aren’t going for as much as I know they’re worth, I find myself raising my hand and bidding.

Relief sales, like the PARS, are annual events that raise funds for MCC’s relief, development and peace work around the world. Relief sales attract thousands of people at locations throughout Canada and the U.S.

One of the many reasons I love my job at MCC is because I get to see how people from communities across the East Coast use their gifts and talents to support MCC. Some offer prayer support, others pack relief kits, many donate money… and some create beautiful handmade quilts.

People pack into the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, Pa., to bid on quilts at the Pennsylvania Relief Sale.MCC photo/Jim Wiegner


SUPPLYING QUILTS TO RELIEF SALES

Here at the Material Resources Center (MRC) in Ephrata, Pa., where my office is, I see thousands of volunteers come into the center’s Quilt Room to work on quilts to be sold at relief sales around the country. This is a very unique room as there is no other place that creates and sends quilts to 20 of the 29 U.S. relief sales every year.

Connie Lapp, Quilt Room supervisor at the MRC, says, “I interact with approximately 3,000 Quilt Room volunteers in a year’s time. I’ve established wonderful relationships above and beyond quilting with many of the volunteers.”

The heirloom quilts, made from mostly donated fabrics, are quilted by volunteers that include many Amish and Mennonite women. It’s more than just quilting here. It’s community building. That’s why the Quilt Room, and the quilts that come from it, is one of my favorite places.

Connie notes, “I often wish I could record the conversations that happen around the quilt frame. The women gather to share the intimate details of their lives and I have the opportunity to witness this on a daily basis. It’s the invisible charm of the quilts that are produced in the Quilt Room that are then sold to support MCC.”

CREATING “THE CHARITY BLOCK DESIGN CHALLENGE”

Little did I know, but in September of 2018, a fabric shop located in Intercourse, Pa., was envisioning a way to support MCC through the PARS. The Old Country Store won a Facebook contest sponsored by Jaftex Corporation’s CEO, Scott Fortunoff, a fabric manufacturer in New York City. The win included a store visit by Scott and, because of his passion for giving back to others, also encouraged a charity element. The Old Country Store decided that MCC and the PARS would be the recipient of “The Charity Block Design Challenge,” a contest they created.

Jan Mast, co-owner of The Old Country Store with her husband, Dean Mast, told me, “MCC and the quilt auction at the PARS were an easy choice for beneficiary partners when Scott suggested that we include a charity element in our event.”

“As active Mennonites (and with a staff that includes several Mennonites) we have been long supporters of MCC. Our passion for cultivating a community of sewists and quilters among our constituency, and as a premier source for locally handmade quilts, a partnership with the quilt auction was also a natural fit.”

- Jan Mast, The Old Country Store

The store decided to hold an event, with Scott as the main speaker, and paired it with the “Challenge” where registered participants received a mystery pair of fat-quarter fabrics beforehand from one of five featured Jaftex designers: Kaffe Fassett, Kim Diehl, Tula Pink, Tim Holtz or William Morris.

The rules of the “Challenge” were pretty simple. Event-goers could choose to either keep the fabrics or they could create a 10.5” x 10.5” quilt block. The block, however, needed to include the two fabrics they received, although additional fabrics could be added. The block could be in any pattern or design.

Jan notes, “We’ve never seen this idea anywhere else. It was entirely our idea to turn his [Scott] coming into a bigger event than just a store visit with his giving some bolt of fabric to a project or charity of our choosing. We (Dean and I) thought up the ‘Challenge,’ the voting, the MCC connection, the prizes, etc. Scott was an ‘easy sell’ for agreeing to our ideas and was quite supportive with fabric, prizes, and free publicity.”

Imagine my excitement when I heard that quilt and fabric enthusiasts from around the area would be creating blocks for the “Challenge.” The blocks would then be donated to the Quilt Room to be sewn into sampler quilts for the PARS. Jaftex donated the fabric for the challenge, the backing for the quilts, and The Old County Store donated any added fabric needed for the construction of the quilts.

Everyone at the MRC and the PARS was thrilled for this opportunity! I quickly signed up for the event and decided to take part in the “Challenge.” I also invited my mother to join in.

PARTICIPATING IN THE “CHALLENGE”

One of the many reasons why this “Challenge” excited me was that it gave me a chance to dust off some of my sewing skills and get creative. The thing I love about quilting is choosing a pattern, with designs and fabrics that make a quilt either contemporary or traditional, fun and energetic, or sophisticated.

My design process: I took the fabrics I was sent and tried to find a pattern I liked. Then I sketched it out on graph paper. MCC photo/Diana Williams

However, I quickly realized that it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. My goal was to create a block that at least had potential to be used in one of the sampler quilts. Do you realize how much geometry goes into quilting? Luckily, my mother was ready to step in and help me out and together we worked hard at creating a block that used the two Kaffe Fassett fabrics I received. So, on a cold and rainy fall day, we spent five hours together creating one block. Let me repeat, five hours to create one block!

I didn’t pick an easy pattern, although it looked easy in the book. My mother and I figured out what size to cut each piece, making sure to include seam allowances. It involved a lot of math and geometry.MCC photo/Diana Williams

 

Of course, there were a few times we had to use the seam ripper as we got the measurements wrong. When we stopped for a lunch of Chinese take-out, my fortune cookie said, “Do not give up, the beginning is always the hardest.” I thought that was fitting for the day. MCC photo/Diana Williams
 

After five hours, I sewed the final seam and my 10.5” x 10.5” block was complete. I definitely learned a lot from my mother and realized that projects like this aren’t easy but are worth the work. My sister’s dog also wanted to join in on the fun.MCC photo/Diana Williams


ATTENDING THE EVENT

I sent in my finished block to The Old Country Store along with other participants. During the event, everyone had a chance to vote on their favorite block in five different categories: best use of color, best pieced, best applique, best non-traditional and people’s choice. Over 150 blocks were submitted for the “Challenge” and prizes were awarded to each of the winners.

I enjoyed looking at all the blocks designed with the same fabric I received: Kaffe Fassett. MCC photo/Diana Williams
 

These blocks were made out of Tula Pink fabric (left) and William Morris fabric (right).MCC photo/Diana Williams
 

These blocks were made out of Kim Diehl fabric (left) and Tim Holtz fabric (right).MCC photo/Diana Williams
 

Participants voted on their favorite blocks and these are the five winners. We were all excited to see that Ellen Ressler, one of our MRC Wednesday volunteers, won the best pieced block. MCC photo/Diana Williams

Together, Connie and The Old Country Store decided that the winning blocks would be sewn into individual wall hangings. Blocks that met the criteria and worked with the design would be sewn into quilts. The remaining blocks would be donated to Quilter’s Attic at the PARS where they sell unfinished quilt projects, linens and fabrics and other quilting supplies. All the blocks would be used to benefit MCC!

TURNING BLOCKS INTO QUILTS

It’s been fun to watch Connie’s creativity as she visualized and mapped out five different sampler patterns with the submitted blocks. She told me, “I had no idea what I was going to get to work with until I saw the blocks at the event. I knew it would be a challenge for me, but I knew I’d figure it out.” For Connie, browsing the internet and Pinterest gave her some ideas for the sampler-quilts.

It's always amazing to see what Connie comes up with. One day she was framing submitted blocks and the next day, she was pinning borders on the quilt. On days when she doesn’t have many volunteers, she can move quickly. This quilt is made of Tula Pink blocks. MCC photo/Diana Williams
 

Connie sews the final borders on the Tula Pink quilt and I get a glimpse of her vision. She added two blocks, a dark blue and a green, in between the submitted “Challenge” blocks to give your eye a rest. These were donated fabrics she had in the closet. MCC photo/Diana Williams

“There is no other job like mine in the universe. It’s a dream job for a quilter,” says Connie. “The palette that I work with provides the inspiration. I don’t go to the store with a concept in mind, the donated fabrics give me ideas.”

Many people don’t realize how much goes into just one quilt. It’s hours and hours of quilting, not to mention choosing fabrics, figuring out sometimes difficult geometry and assembling it all together.

The Kaffe Fassett quilt is starting to take shape. I was so excited that she is using the block I created for the “Challenge.” MCC photo/Diana Williams


SUPPORTING MCC THROUGH THOUSANDS OF STITCHES

Thank you to The Old Country Store, Jaftex Corporation, the 150 block creators and to the countless volunteers who quilted on the “Charity Block Design Challenge” quilts. Thank you for using your businesses, time and talents to support MCC.

Hopefully when you look up at quilts and wall hangings on the stages of relief sales, you’ll stop and think of all of the time that went into creating these works of art. And for the quilts that were created from the “Charity Block Design Challenge” you’ll think of all of the hands that went into making these masterpieces.

Did you know it costs approximately $2,350 to make an average queen size quilt (98 x 112 in)?

Jan reflects, “Everyone who submitted a block for the ‘Challenge’ has vested interest in witnessing the power of seeing their ‘seed’ grow into something bigger than themselves.”

And that’s what is happening with these quilts as these thousands of stitches raise money for MCC’s ministries around the world.

From left, Elaine Good from Lititz, Joan Tice from East Petersburg, Robin Gosch from Sinking Spring and Nancy Taylor from Reading work on “Wild Orchid Sampler,” the “Challenge” quilt made from fabrics by designer Kaffe Fassett in the Quilt Room. You’ll notice the block I made right in the middle! MCC photo/Diana Williams