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A decade of being crafty

Millions of stitches. Thousands of scraps of fabric. And hundreds of hours of work to transform that fabric into complex, colourful quilts.

The Needlesisters Quilt Guild is celebrating its 10th anniversary this weekend, and even its charter members have no idea how many hundreds of quilts the members have created over that decade.

The guild grew out of the Quilts from the Heart quilt show that used to be held annually in Elmira. In 1999, the show’s fifth year, someone suggested that there ought to be a quilting group in Elmira to get more women involved. Some 35 women signed up at the show, and 57 came out that September.

Edna Keown, Deb Beirnes and Sheila McMillan with blocks and scraps of fabric that will be turned into beautiful quilts. The three are members of the Needlesisters Quilt Guild, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend.
Edna Keown, Deb Beirnes and Sheila McMillan with blocks and scraps of fabric that will be turned into beautiful quilts. The three are members of the Needlesisters Quilt Guild, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend.

“There was definitely a desire to have a quilt guild in Elmira,” said Deb Beirnes, one of the founding members.

Membership has been as high as 85 people and now sits around 65. Members range in age from their 30s to over 80, with skill levels ranging from beginner to master. The guild isn’t exclusive to women, although they’ve never had any male members.

To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the guild is hosting a workshop with Rosemary Makhan. A quilt designer and author from Burlington, Makhan will be showing a selection of her quilts and talking about the history and techniques of each one.

The guild offers members the chance to learn about new equipment and techniques, exchange information and turn an otherwise solitary hobby into a social activity, said Sheila McMillan.

“We have lots of fun,” she said, adding that the creativity and the socializing are her favourite aspects of quilting.

Just as important as the social aspect is community involvement. The guild operates for free out of the basement of the Elmira Mennonite Church. In lieu of rent, the guild stitches and donates quilts to organizations in the community.

In February, the guild donated 38 lap quilts to the residents of Elmira Community Living. They’ve also stitched wheelchair quilts for Alzheimer’s patients, placemats for Meals on Wheels, and quilts for the Mennonite Central Committee’s quilt auction.

The guild meets from September to April on the fourth Monday of every month except December. The guild holds a quilt show every two years, with the next one coming up in May 2010. Around 75 quilts made by the guild’s membership will be on display at the St. Jacobs Mennonite Church.

Although there are traditional quilt patterns, some of which have been handed down for generations, the use of different fabrics and colours makes each quilt unique to the person who made it.

“If we were given the same piece of fabric, we would not come out with the same project,” Beirnes said.

“It really is so much fun to take the fabric and put it together and see what it looks like and transform it,” McMillan added.

It can take weeks and months – sometimes years – to finish a complex design, from cutting out the blocks, piecing them together, attaching the top to the batting and backing material, sewing the layers together and finishing the borders. Most quilters have several projects on the go at once; few start a project and work all the way through to the end without doing anything else in between.

While many quilts are still made to provide warmth, the more intricate and abstract designs are hung on the wall to be admired. Quilters will hand-dye their fabrics, add beads and sparkly threads and use new machine stitches for pieces that are less a craft than an art form.

“Some quilts you look at and some you sleep under and love them and wear them to rags,” Beirnes said.

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