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Seeing the dedication Mennonite women show in creating beautiful quilts, two researchers are asking one question: Why?



Published: Sat, April 30, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

T'S A COTTONY SOFT SATURDAY MORNING , and 10 Mennonite women are gathered in Margret Graber's home in Lee's Summit, Mo., to quilt for God.

Well, for God, for people overseas they'll never know, for the fun of spending time with church friends. The list of reasons they quilt is quite lengthy, really.

But in the end, this is work of obedience, of gratitude, of grace.

Six hold the edges of a black fan quilt and lift it over a work table. As they let it float gently into position, their voices begin to form a patchwork pattern of its own.

"I think I forgot to bring my needle threader," says Pat Bertsche, who, like everyone working on quilts this day, is a member of the Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kan.

"Do you want me to thread it for you?" offers Phyllis Carlson.

"I'll see if I can get it," Bertsche replies. And she quickly does.

Others pick out places on the quilt that need their handiwork. Using small wooden or plastic frames, they block off the area of the quilt where they will put their stitches.

The quilt eventually will be auctioned to raise money for the Mennonite Central Committee, an international relief and peace organization. This is communal work for a common purpose.

It's also fun work, full of laughter.

Carlson says there's a "danger of being a homogeneous group. We all kind of think alike."

To which Bernita Boyts responds: "Do you think we think alike?"

Carlson's quick retort: "Not you and I." And everyone in the room cracks up.

Research project

Marilyn Klaus and Sharon Sawatsky are here this morning, too. But they're not quilting. Rather, they're working on a research project in which they hope to explain -- eventually in a book -- why these and many other Mennonite women give so much of themselves to this tedious, repetitive, hand-scarring work.

The quilters here today -- like quilters whom Klaus and Sawatsky have interviewed all over America and Canada -- are among the women who annually make quilts for the various Mennonite relief sales around North America. For more than 50 years, the sale of these quilts has brought in tens of millions of dollars to support the Mennonite Central Committee's work.

One of the quilters here today, Betty Wyckoff, says: "My greatest desire is some day to offer my own quilt for the relief sale. This is not mission work. This is helping people to live better."

Then Wyckoff looks at her own wounded hands and sighs.

"This is a very masochistic endeavor," she says. "Your fingers get calluses. But I will also say it's addictive."

Since early 2004, Klaus and Sawatsky have been to relief sales from the West Coast to Pennsylvania and to Sawatsky's native Canada, interviewing quilters and asking them to fill out questionnaires.

"We initially thought of this idea when we were riding in a car one time," says Klaus, "and Sharon said, 'Oh, you have to see the poster I have that my sister gave me of a quilt at the Ontario Relief Sale that sold for $44,000 [Canadian].'"

As Klaus is telling this story, she points to a copy of that engaging poster on a wall in her Lenexa, Kan., home.

"After I picked myself up off the floorboard, I said, 'You know, Sharon, what do you think women through their quilts in the Mennonite Church have contributed to world relief and peace efforts?' And she said, 'Let's research that.'"

So with grants from such organizations as the National Quilting Association, Women in Mission of the Mennonite Church of Canada and the American Quilt Study Group, that's what they're doing.

Both women graduated from the Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., though neither has chosen to become ordained clergy. Sawatsky, who lives in Wichita, Kan., is an adjunct professor of psychology at Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kan., and Klaus sometimes teaches classes about Islam at the University of Kansas.

Quilters' motives

As their research project has moved forward, they've become intrigued both by the quilters' motives and with what the quilts say about Mennonite tradition and culture. They say their study will take at least another year.

"One of the primary things we wanted to look at," says Sawatsky, "was to explore the contributions women have made that I think are unsung in so many ways.

"Marilyn and I are both feminists, and we're interested in women and power and the history that women have in terms of their participation in the culture and, in this case, the Mennonite culture and community."

In mid-March, Klaus attended the annual Illinois Mennonite Relief Sale in Bloomington and found other quilters willing to talk about their volunteer work.

Cheryl Householder of Eureka, Ill., was working in the "Baby Booth," selling handmade comforters and baby blankets crafted by women from various churches. Householder talked about a church quilt committee she served on and about how her grandmother used to make quilts for Mennonite relief sales.

"I always wondered why she did that," she said.

Finally, as Klaus urged her to explain what drives her, she said:

"I think the gift that God gave me is to sew."

Her humble words reflected attitudes Klaus and Sawatsky are finding in lots of places.

For instance, one Tuesday last month, the regular quilting group got together at Sycamore Grove Mennonite Church east of Harrisonville, Mo., and explained why they were working on quilts for an October relief sale.

"We have so much," said one of the quilters, Rose Wittrig. "I'm not the richest person, but my shelves are full and I am so grateful for it. We have so much, and there's a lot of people who have nothing. That's why I like to do this."

That was precisely the attitude suggested by the Rev. Doane Brubaker, pastor of the First Mennonite Church in Morton, Ill., when he offered a prayer to open the auction last month at the large exhibit hall of the Interstate Center in Bloomington: "We have everything that we need," he said.

'A spiritual thing'

And here's how some women explained their motives to Sawatsky and Klaus in a written questionnaire:

"The community-building aspect of quilting is valuable to me. Our conversations grow deeper as the quilt is rolled smaller and smaller."

"Quilting ... is a spiritual thing for me. I often use quilting time as prayer time. It is a time to hold near to my heart the people in my life -- my family, my friends, my co-workers. It is a meditative time."

"At about age 30, I decided to add hand quilting so that it would not die out in my generation."

Lots of today's quilters worry that there aren't enough younger women joining the ranks to produce hand-stitched quilts for MCC auctions.

In fact, she says, "we're seeing more afghans and comforters [at relief sales] because the people who do this are getting older and older. We're also seeing more baby quilts and more wall hangings."

Those products are easier to make and take less time than full quilts. But each also raises less money for MCC.

The loss of Mennonite quilters is happening even as lots of non-Mennonites have taken up quilting in recent years. Quilting, in fact, has enjoyed a boom in the United States since the 1970s. Several years ago, a national survey estimated there were 14 million quilters in America. But that hasn't resulted in an influx of young Mennonite quilters donating their work for MCC auctions.

Time and costs

Still, no matter who shows up to help, most of the women (rarely do men help) who do this work try not to count the cost and the hours, focusing instead on the art they produce and the money it can raise to further the MCC mission.

The question of time and costs, however, does come up occasionally. In a questionnaire returned to Klaus and Sawatsky, one woman wrote this: "I've become very disappointed with the amount of money that my quilts sell for and wonder if making and donating comforters would be a better use of my resources."

One day last month, the Sycamore Grove quilters were asked about the number of hours that go into making a quilt vs. how much the quilts sell for ($500 to $2,500 is the usual range).

Cathy Powers answered this way: "Don't you think it does something to your thinking if we think about the hours? If we're doing it for the Lord, then we should be happy."




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