A thousand needle workers volunteer to finish dead woman's quilt

By Rozina Sini
BBC News

  • Published
An image of Rita's quilt showing a map of the US and embroidered representations of each state around the outside.Image source, Shannon Downey
Image caption,
A wall hanging in Rita Smith's house showing a map with each US state's flowers is similar to the unfinished quilt

A craft enthusiast has described how she came across a huge embroidery project at the home of a recently deceased woman.

Shannon Downey was at an estate sale in Chicago where a 99-year old woman named Rita Smith used to live.

In the bedroom Downey found hundreds of pieces of fabric that had been intended for a big quilting project which Smith started before she died.

Downey, who often looks for antique and vintage textiles to work with, said she was "emotional and overwhelmed" when she came across the unfinished quilt.

"It felt so personal and intimate seeing the way she had left it. As soon as I saw the pieces I knew I had to complete it but I knew it was bigger than anything I had ever done before," she told the BBC.

Image source, Shannon Downey
Image caption,
"Every bit of the project was mapped out and in this plastic tub. I sat on the floor and almost cried," Shannon said

After buying all the fabric pieces for $6 (£4.6) Downey took to social media to put out a call for help in completing the quilt.

"While I embroider, I don't quilt. So I asked my Instagram community if people would help me finish it.

"In one day, I had over 1,000 volunteers. Because people are amazing. There are 100 individual hexagons to be embroidered to make the quilt," she tweeted.

Downey explained she had to start a spreadsheet to organise who would be embroidering individual pieces and where to send them.

Image source, Shannon Downey

Many of the volunteers were keen to learn more about the woman whose quilt they were making. Downey got insights into her life after making contact with Smith's son on Thursday.

"He lives in the area and told me his mother was born in Michigan and worked as a school nurse all her life. He said she loved to undertake big craft projects, some which would last for years.

"He was really excited to learn about the joy people were finding in completing his mother's work."

Image source, Shannon Downey
Image caption,
Rita was born in Michigan and worked as a school nurse.

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Downey's volunteers, who are all over the US and Canada, have until 15 November to complete their needle work and send the finished pieces back to her.

"We've got over 30 Chicago quilters lined up to handle the quilting phase of the project once we get all of the hand-stitched hexagons back.

"A local quilting studio has also offered its space," she said.

Image source, Shannon Downey
Image caption,
On Instagram the hashtag #Ritasquilt is being used by the people who have volunteered their needlework skills to help finish the quilt's individual pieces.

Once the piece is completed, Downey wants to donate it to a quilting museum to showcase the huge collaborative project.

"Humans are amazing. Community can be built anywhere," she says.