Outside Kalamazoo’s Second Reformed Church on a warm June evening, the license plate on an SUV reads QLTKAZO, while inside, the sanctuary buzzes with the voices and anticipation of more than 100 women gathered for a monthly meeting of the Kalamazoo Log Cabin Quilters.
This is more than just a regular meeting — tonight guild members will unveil 242 quilts, most of which will be given away.
The guild, which is in its 40th year and has nearly 200 members, undertakes two service projects a year. The first, in November, is to create “lovees” — small quilts that are wrapped around a stuffed animal and distributed to children by various community organizations, including the Kalamazoo County Department of Health and Human Services, public safety departments, foster care organizations and shelters.
In the spring, group members turn in quilts made for a different organization chosen each year. In the past, quilts have been created for hospice organizations, the Battle Creek VA Medical Center, organizations that support young mothers, and nursing homes. For 2018, the guild chose two organizations to make quilts for: Binky Patrol and the West Michigan Cancer Center.
Draped in colorful piles across chairs spanning nearly an entire wall are the 146 quilts to be donated to Binky Patrol, a national nonprofit that distributes blankets to children who are born HIV-positive, drug-addicted, with chronic or terminal illnesses, or abused, in foster care or experiencing trauma. Bunnies, alphabets, diamonds, stars, and Dr. Seuss icons adorn some quilts; a giant panda stares cheerfully from another. Guild members admire the blankets, before the meeting, some keeping an excited count.
The remaining 96 quilts being shown tonight have been made for the West Michigan Cancer Center, where they will grace the walls as art and be given to cancer patients.
During the meeting, quilters stand on a stage and reveal, one by one, the quilts that are designated for the Cancer Center. Holding the 36-inch-by-36 inch-works aloft, quilters announce the people in honor of whom they made their quilts. Sometimes the quilt has been crafted for loved ones lost to cancer; sometimes it has been made for the living; and sometimes it has been made to honor specific cancer survivors, including some of the quilters themselves.
The ceremony is understandably moving — to see so much labor in service to others, well, just try to sit through that without shedding a tear or two. But the quilts are the real showstoppers. Ranging in color and height, pattern and style, from complex and brightly kaleidoscopic to understated, sophisticated and traditional, the quilts are emblems of not only a dedication to helping others, but an astonishing amount of skill.
“The more that you do, the better you get,” says Jenny Grunberg, a 70-year-old practicing dentist from Kalamazoo who has been quilting for 10 years.
Describing her devotion to “piecing” the top of a quilt (matching different fabric corners when sewing), Grunberg says, “Some patterns are very forgiving. Others are not.”
She is interrupted by a woman holding a square of fabric with a busy, almost neon-green pattern. “Do you think this is ugly?” Sandy George asks.
Grunberg assures her it is.
“Oh, good,” George says.
George explains that the guild is engaging in an “Ugly Fabric Challenge,” in which every member gets a “fat quarter” — a quarter of a yard — of the offending fabric, which they must make something with. George recounts all the people she has talked to this evening, and the consensus is enthusiastically unanimous: The fabric is horrible.
In one corner of the room, two women troubleshoot a quilt’s color-bleed problem that occurred after one of the quilters dyed her own fabric. In another corner, a lending library awaits those not already saturated with ideas from Pinterest. Billie Gunderson, who owns Lucy in the Sky Quilts & Fabrics in Kalamazoo, has fabric for sale. There’s also a snack table, a demonstration table, and a “yard sale” table where people have placed materials they’d like to sell.
At the “free” table, fabric scraps, books and magazines await the taking.
“I don’t go over there,” says Carol Fogle Grant, motioning to the free table and wryly suggesting a habit of collecting too much through the years. “I don’t want anything else in my house.”
Grant, 68, who oversees publicity for the guild, once brought an unfinished crocheted comforter started by someone else to the free table. She brought it in as a favor, uncertain what would become of it. Log Cabin quilter Marilyn Seats picked it up, finished it and then incorporated quilting into it, awing Grant and delighting the family of the woman who had originally started it, who had recently died.
Quick and creative
Pauleen Kaiser, a 64-year-old guild member who organized the Binky Patrol service project, is pleased with the number of quilts turned in, saying the guild was aiming to donate 100 quilts to the charity and far surpassed that number.
Sharon Cerovski, co-organizer of the cancer center service project, says the quilts “are smaller than what most of us normally do.”
“It’s fun to make those little, creative quilts. And you can whip right through them, just like that,” she says, snapping her fingers.
Standing on stage, the Cancer Center’s marketing manager, Lynne Emons Corbus, motions to the quilts that cover several rows of chairs and says, “I see what you do, and I’m absolutely awed.”
When she says she might join the group if they will teach her how to make a quilt, there is thunderous applause, showing just how much these talented quilters adore their craft. Good thing, because the group has already chosen its 2019 recipient of quilts: Western Michigan University’s Seita Scholars program, for college students who have aged out of foster care.