Emma Marie Goldman carefully lines up a long strip of yellow cloth”about an inch wide”and lays it on top of a large piece of darker fabric. The yellow strip, which she lines up using stick pens, will make a frame-like border near the edges of the roughly 20-by-20 inch piece of fabric.
Once the frame and fabric stitching are complete, along with a cotton cloth added for cushioning under the large fabric, Goldman and other volunteer quilters at Austin’s African Accents will donate the completed quilts to Northwestern Children’s Memorial Hospital.
This is the third year that the owners of the West Side, African-American apparel shop, 5840 W. Chicago Ave, will donate handmade quilts to Northwestern. The blankets are for infants in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit.
Oak Parkers Stacia and Malcolm Crawford, owners of African Accents, have donated quilts to the hospital since their son Emanuel, now three, was born pre-maturely in December 2002. He was in the Infant ICU for a month, Stacia said. In a time when families are supposed to be celebrating the holidays, the Crawford’s and other ICU parents were worried if their newly born little ones would see their first Christmas. The quilts are as much a comfort for the parents as the newborns, said Stacia.
“During that time I got to see so many sick babies and seeing the stress and trauma that the families were going through,” she said. “We just decided that we would make a pledge to do this every year to remember those parents who are going through the same difficulty that we went through.”
Little Emanuel is a healthy baby boy today, his mother said. The first year, the Crawford’s and their friends, family and customers cranked out 70 quilts for the 70 babies in Northwestern’s IICU. They’ll donate around half that number this year. Stacia Crawford has been quilting before Emanuel’s birth.
Quilting within the black community goes back centuries. A number of volunteers at the shop’s first quilting session last Wednesday fondly remembered quilt making in their own families.
“When I was a little girl you would look at the quilt and you would see your clothes [and] your brothers and sisters’ clothes,” said Goldman, who made quilts with the Crawford’s last year, too. “Whatever leftover garment, they would put it in the quilt and it may have been something you wore when you were two year’s old.”
The piece Goldman worked at the quilting session is smaller than a traditional-sized quilt, some king size or even larger.
Back then, the cutout patch of cloth from things like blue jeans, blouses or sweaters were stitched to a piece of cloth, also called shams. That cloth was added to the quilt in a variety of patterns. It’s still a well-used style today.
Austin resident Glynnis Redmond, who heard about the quilting project from Malcolm Crawford, recalled her grandmother Ethel Lee Spight, who had dozens of small shams that she kept and made into quilts. The family discovered some remaining ones that were never finished following her death in 1969. Grandmother Spight wanted the children and grandchildren to have them, Redmond said.
“We knew that this was in the family,” she said. “We kept hearing about these ‘little patches’ that grandmomma saved.”
Redmond, who was born the same year of her grandmother’s death, had several patches made from her aunt and uncle’s cloths. She held onto them for years.
Redmond had her sections completed into a blanket and pillows early this year. She surprised her family with them on Mother’s Day. Several tears of joy were shed that day, she said.
“I was the last grandchild she saw, and the only child to complete the quilt,” Redmond said. “My aunt pointed out which patch was hers and which patch was her brothers’ and sisters’. It’s a sentimental thing for me. In presenting it to the family on Mother’s Day, it was honoring their mother, and honoring my mother as well.”
Quilting within the black community also has a historical significance. Quilts made by American slaves were used to convey messages to one another.
In the book “Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad,” author Jacqueline L. Tobin chronicles how quilts were hung out of the window or on clothing lines during slavery time.
The patterns of artwork within a patch or sham alerted other slaves of where they should go and what they should do. The patterns were inconspicuous to the master.
“If you saw birds flying, you knew to head south because birds flew south for the winter. If you saw the bear-claw, you knew you were to head to the mountains because that’s where the bears would go,” said Shirley Smith, an Oak Park resident of 32 years and lifelong quilter.
Smith, also known as Mama Shirley to others and to her Girl Scout troop, who will be donating their homemade blankets to Northwestern, started with the project last year.
She has another motive, though. Smith will donate blankets in her great-granddaughter’s name, Her great-granddaughter died at Children’s Memorial Hospital at six weeks old.
“With what we’re doing, these babies are wrapped up in a lot of warmth and love,” Smith said. “And we’re hoping that it will be a comfort to the parents.”
The Crawford’s will personally deliver the quilts to parents’ on Christmas Day. Quilting is becoming a lost art, many of the volunteers admitted. They hope the project will inspire others.
“It’s something that is passed down from one generation to another generation,” said Smith. “And the stories that were told, if we don’t learn them now, our children will never know.”
Those interested in African Accent’s ‘Quilts for Babies’ project, call 773/626-4497. Quilting sessions will take place every Saturday at 1 p.m., until late December.