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Stiches in honor and gratitude

Veterans reserve Quilts of Valor

Rosemary Gilbert, Quincy, cuts fabric for her quilt at a retreat in Carter Caves State Resort Park. She first learned to sew when she was 10 on a single treadle machine.
Fabric ready to be pieced together for Keisha Ison’s “swoon sixteen” quilt top.
Mary Skaggs, Isonville, a sixth grade teacher, works on a quilt at the retreat.
Fraley hand stitches a custom label; Photos: Mary Strubbe

Mark See served in the U.S. Air Force for 26 years—14 years as an officer and 12 years enlisted. Months after terrorists attacked the twin towers on September 11, 2001, See was deployed to an air base in the Middle East to provide support for Afghanistan. Before that, he served as a supervisor in aircraft maintenance and in the Security Forces, the Air Force’s equivalent of military police.

Despite serving through several wars and other tumultuous times, See, a consumer-member of Owen Electric, still didn’t think he deserved the Quilt of Valor he was awarded by Stitches of Honor, a chapter of the national Quilts of Valor Foundation.

“I was shocked that I received it, but I was also really honored. It left a warm feeling in the center of my heart. It’s really hard to describe,” says See, of Alexandria.

That is the characteristically humble reaction among the veterans, according to Diane Taylor, president of Stitches of Honor, based in Alexandria in northern Kentucky. Taylor and her local guild members feel equally strongly about honoring them.

“We need to give back and honor the vets,” Taylor says. “Our organization was passionate about recognizing the veterans and the military. The veterans have been extremely thankful, very appreciative and very honored.” 

In nearby Burlington, Cindy Gamble, past president of the Stringtown Quilters Guild and a consumer-member of Owen Electric, says the love of sewing brings people to the guild and the desire to give back draws them into projects such as the Quilts of Valor.  

The 105-member guild has a variety of other projects, including quilts for people in drug or alcohol rehabilitation programs as well as quilts for homeless individuals.

Fraley and Evelyn Morgan, owner of Quilt Heaven in Grayson, showcase some quilts made by Carter County Quilts for Veterans. Photo: Kim Bush
Air Force veteran Mark See, Alexandria, received this Quilt of Valor from Stitches of Honor. Photo: Mark See

“The women in the group seem so much like family,” Gamble says. “The quilters love to get together and sit and sew. We don’t want the craft to die, so we are always out there trying to get people involved.”

The desire to honor veterans and the humility the veterans express is seen across the state.

In eastern Kentucky, stories such as this nudged Carol Ann Fraley, president and CEO of Grayson RECC, to join the Carter County Quilts for Veterans, whose goal is to make sure every veteran in Carter County receives a Quilt of Valor. 

“Quilting is a labor of love,” Fraley says. “Women have been making quilts for veterans since Colonial times. It’s a very honorable program. We don’t even know all the sacrifices they made for us. The least we can do is to honor them with a quilt.”

Quilts of Valor origins 

The Quilts of Valor Foundation is a national nonprofit organization that sets standards for those quilts. It has at least 12 chapters in Kentucky. 

The foundation began in 2003 when founder Catherine Roberts’ son Nat was deployed in Iraq. Roberts literally had a dream; she tells the complete story on the foundation’s website (www.qovf.org). Roberts says the message of the dream was quilts equal healing. 

The first Quilt of Valor was awarded in November 2003 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to a young soldier from Minnesota who had lost his leg in Iraq. 

The idea resonated with quilters and quickly spread from Roberts’ home state of Delaware across the nation. 

Carter County Quilts for Veterans

Although she does not sew, Sheila Binion wanted to honor veterans in Carter County, including several brothers who are veterans. She decided to start the Carter County Quilts for Veterans, to which Fraley belongs. Binion serves as its president.

Members of the Carter County quilting group gather twice a month to create high-quality quilts they hope will become legacies for the veterans and their families. 

“Most quilts have a patriotic theme, while others are personalized for the veteran,” says Fraley.

On a gorgeous spring day in April, 47 quilters gathered for the first of three days in a vast, brightly lit room at Carter Caves State Resort Park. Tables dotted the room, each loaded with red, white and blue fabric and a sewing machine ready for work to create Quilts of Valor and other projects. The group has a list of over 350 veterans its members want to honor with a quilt. To date, over 170 Quilts of Valor have been awarded by this group to Carter County veterans. 

The intermittent whir of sewing machines is punctuated with laughter and chatter as the quilters stitch pieces of fabric together, each unique within the patriotic theme. Serious about the work, each quilter focuses on how the thread joins the fabric. During natural stops to turn the fabric, the quilters look up, chat with others around them for a few seconds, and then set the fabric on the machine. Whir. Right back to work.  

Evelyn Morgan, a lifelong quilter, is a member of the Carter County Quilts for Veterans and a consumer-member of Grayson RECC. Her mother and grandmother taught her to quilt when she was a child. Once grown, she used those skills to make utilitarian quilts from old clothes to keep her young family warm. Her quilting took a hiatus for a few years surrounding a divorce and working full time, but she returned to quilting to keep her hands busy.

Quilting, says Morgan, is “contagious.” When she retired in 2011, Morgan came full circle when she opened Quilt Heaven quilt store and began teaching others to quilt.

A Vietnam veteran and recipient of two Purple Hearts, Eddie Hale Sr., center, was presented a Quilt of Valor by members of the Carter County Quilts for Veterans at the Carter County Veterans Memorial Park. From left are Sheila Binion, Sue Tackett, Hale, Joyce Jackson and Sandy Stewart. Photo: Carter County Quilts for Veterans

Patriotic Patchworkers, Nicholasville

On Veterans Day, there is no question where members of the Nicholasville-based Patriotic Patchworkers will be. Its members spend the day presenting quilts at Lexmark in Lexington. The atmosphere is patriotic, complete with a color guard and performance by the Lexmark Singers.

Linda Hollembaek and Julie Knight, co-chairs of the guild, recall many quilt presentations, but one to a Vietnam vet was especially memorable. 

Hollembaek recalls: “The veteran said, ‘We didn’t get a warm welcome when we got back from the war, but the award of the quilt completes the welcome home.’” 

“It really touched all of us,” Hollembaek says. 

Veterans who are unable to attend a public presentation due to illness or other limitations may have their quilts presented privately. “Whatever the veteran wants, we do,” Hollembaek says. 

A guild member is chosen to lead the creation of each quilt. 

“Whomever leads the quilt cuts the pattern and donates fabric,” Hollembaek says. “We then divide the tasks into little kits with specific instructions. We get together every two months to put the pieces together. That way, everyone can participate in a way that fits their available time.”

The group also tries to renew interest among those whose sewing has flagged, and also uses meetings to trade ideas and show off patterns or techniques. 

“Quilter’s Square (a store in Lexington) gives us space to put the tops together as a group,” Hollembaek says, “and we have another person who uses a long arm machine to do the quilting.”

Many of the groups use these massive long arm machines to do the final quilting, and a man is often behind them. For the Patriotic Patchworkers, it is Mike Timperman. Although not as well-represented, men do play important roles in honoring the veterans with a quilt.

Ultimately, the quilt becomes a story of its own—mixing memory, hope, comfort, the past and the future.

“Every quilt tells a story,” says Carter County’s Morgan. “How you got the fabric, who are you making it for, the events that happened in life while you were making the quilt, and the events that led up to the quilt.” 


AN OPEN LETTER IN MEMORIAL AND TRIBUTE TO VETERANS AND PRESENT MEMBERS OF OUR ARMED FORCES: 

You don’t know me, but my face is the first thing you see when you waken to a desert sun and the last thing you see when you close your eyes and rest your head under a foreign sky. 

It is my voice that echoes in your mind as I stand in the church of my choice and worship my God. 

It is my words you hear as I voice my opinions without fear of punishment or imprisonment. 

It is my hand you see as I vote for the ruler of my choice, to elect officials who will make the laws that guide me and protect my life and my rights. 

It is my pride you feel as like the Phoenix that rose from the ashes; my country regains its strength from the devastation inflicted by 9/11. 

It is my heart you can feel beating as I pledge allegiance to the flag. 

It is my eyes that behold the freedom and liberty symbolized by the waving of Old Glory on Memorial Day. 

No, you don’t know me, yet you were willing to give up your life for me, leave your homeland and family so I could continue to live in peace and prosper in freedom.

Written by Nanette Wagner

May 2017


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