The store space is dark and quiet most days, but on the second Friday of the month, from 9 to 5, it comes alive as 25 to 30 quilters get to work at the Fergus Falls Westridge Mall.
Penny Miller, left and Paulette Hoebelheinrich are members of Quilters Embrace, a group of Otter Tail County quilters making and distributing quilts to military veterans.
There are around 15 sewing machines buzzing as quilters sew quilt tops, machine stitch bindings onto quilts and sew quilt backings. Another group hand stitches binds and trims each quilt. All are gathered for one purpose: They are making quilts to be given to military veterans.
Many of the quilters had originally gathered with other enthusiasts as the Evening Quilters in Fergus Falls. At a meeting of the group in 2007, Dent area quilters presented a program on Quilts of Valor where quilters make and award quilts to veterans.
“As you hear stories of the quilters making and awarding quilts to our military, your heart goes out to them all,” Hoebelheinrich said. “We thought we can do something like that in the Fergus Falls area. I said, ‘We should do something.’”
And they did.
First a quilting group from the Perham and Dent areas started a local Quilts of Valor in 2005. Two years later, the Fergus Falls quilters and a group from St. James Catholic Church near Underwood joined. The three Otter Tail County groups merged to form a 501 (c)(3), Quilters Embrace.
“Little did we know that when we decided to do this, we would have this many women from this area and beyond working to make quilts for soldiers and veterans,” said quilter Penny Miller of Dalton.
Since 2010, the Otter Tail County quilting groups has given more than 4,000 quilts to World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan war veterans. Many have been given to local veterans and some to national military sites and bases.
They aren’t alone in the endeavor. Quilters Embrace members cut quilt top kits which are available to those wanting to sew and return the quilt tops. Those tops are sewed together with other tops to make a quilt. The quilts are not tied, but are machine quilted by a number of members, including Miller and Rosalie Davenport, of Campbell.
It’s a lot of work made light by the number of caring quilters willing to help.
There are costs to the process. One quilt is made from 10 yards of fabric at $13 a yard; two and a half yards of batting at $5 a yard with four to eight people donating their time of 24 to 30 hours to complete. That doesn’t include the machine time, Hoebelheinrich said.
The Underwood American Legion has walked alongside the quilters. With the underwood Lions, the groups sponsor an annual fundraiser on St. Patrick’s Day. The event will take place March 17 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Underwood American Legion with a corned beef and cabbage meal, bake sale, raffle of a crown royal quilt and more. The groups hope to raise around $25,000 Hoebelheinrich said.
Funds will be used to purchase materials and cover costs of possible bus trips to deliver quilts to military sites and bases.
Since Quilters Embrace formed, the group has made four trips – Ft. Campbell along the Kentucky and Tennessee border; Ft. Knox in Kentucky; Ft. Sam Houston and Ft. Hood both in Texas and Ft. Bragg in North Carolina. They took more than 500 quilts on their first trip and more than 1,000 quilts on the second.
In order for the trips to take place, the group needs a contact person at the military site or base to coordinate where and how the quilts will be awarded. The quilts are unloaded and soldiers are able to choose their quilt. Often they choose a quilt that has special meaning to them. It might be the color yellow found in the squares that reminds them of sunshine. One soldier picked out such a quilt saying it reminded him of his home state known as the Sunshine State, Miller said. Another picked a brownish quilt reminding that person of trees near his home.
Attached to each quilt is a label where the soldiers or veteran’s name and date are written. Included is the first name of the person who has sewed and quilted it. The label says, “May this quilt keep you safe from harm. May it be your good luck charm. I do not know your name nor the mountains you face, but what you hold in your arms is a quilter’s embrace.”
A card is also attached.
“Dear Brave Soldier, As a small community in West Central Minnesota, we want you to know how much we appreciate your service and sacrifice. Your quilt was handmade by mothers, sisters, wives and friends much like those you left to serve your country and defend its ideals. We are truly grateful, and it’s our hope that the quilt will comfort you.”