Gifts from the Heart
By Debbie Shapiro
"We invest ourselves in our work. With every single stitch, we're giving of our hearts." I was sitting in Etty Robinson's living room, listening in fascination as she and the other women of the Zahava Quilters enthusiastically told me about their many quilting projects. The Zahava Quilters – a religious women's quilting bee —is located in the
"There's something very wholesome and beautiful about quilting together," explains Etty. "The women in our group are all learning from each other and helping each other. There's never time for lashon hora or jealousy. Through talking and sharing, we've bonded to become a close sisterhood."
As I observe the women's relaxed camaraderie, the joking and flowing conversation even as their needles fly, I am reminded of the many years (actually, at the time they seemed liked centuries!) that my afternoons were devoted to sitting at the sandbox. Between wiping noses, admiring our children's muddy creations and stopping arguments from becoming physical, us mothers forged close friendships– friendships that endured and deepened with time. The Zahava Quilters, as well, are creating something much deeper and everlasting than pillows and quilts.
"It all began several years ago," Etty continues, "when my dear friend and neighbor, Bryna White, asked me to teach her how to quilt. We began getting together regularly to quilt and were soon joined by another woman, Sara Fiedler. Now that we were a threesome, we formed an official quilting bee and called ourselves the Zahava Quilters, since we were, and still are, members of Nashei Zahav, Beitar's senior Nashei group. Today, four years later, we have fourteen members and are still growing. We start our weekly get-togethers with a shiur given by Rochel Ginsberg, so in addition to making dozens of beautiful quilts, we're about to make a siyum on Nach."
Etty's house is a quilters dream. The bedspreads, the shower curtains, the throw pillows, even the potholders, are all constructed of different sized homemade quilts, and each is a true work of art. The spare bedroom has been turned into a quilting room replete with a cutting and measuring table, a sewing machine, lots of interesting looking rulers and pins, and a designing wall covered with small squares of fabric.
Bina: Etty, how did you get into quilting?
"It all began in the 1980s, when my husband was in the service and we were stationed in
"Over the next few years I made several quilts, but eventually life became so busy that I had to stop. I didn't start again until 2003, when my husband and I retired and we made aliya from
"What I love about quilting is that it's an activity that I share with others – we discuss our ideas, patterns and fabrics, and really cheer each other on. The quilting bees are so much fun! We laugh and talk and just enjoy being with other women. We're so happy for each other when a project is finished. There is never any jealousy.
"It takes tons of time, money and patience to create a quilt, so when we give it away, it's really a gift of ourselves. I get tremendous pleasure from watching my grandchildren using the quilts that I made for them. They drag them around the house, make tents out of them and sometimes even chew the corners off! Although each handmade quilt is a work of art, I want the people who receive them to use them and love them.
"One quilt has a very special place in my heart. A very dear friend of all us quilters, Shulamit Bell, returned to
"But the truth is, every quilt is a group effort. It's never 'I made a quilt,' because all my quilting friends are a real part of each quilt I produce. One of the ladies who just recently joined our group was amazed at the amount of chessed that goes into making a quilt. When she asked a more experienced quilter to help her to cut the fabric strips for her first quilt, she assumed that it would take half an hour at the most. In the end, they spent an entire morning at it – and this was for a simple, straightforward quilt, not a quilt with funny angles and shapes! It's really beautiful to see the women helping each other without any competition or jealousy, and that positive energy somehow becomes incorporated into the quilt. Then, when we give it to someone, we're really giving a lot more than a simple blanket!"
Bina: Could you tell me how quilts are made?
"A quilt is constructed of three separate sections: a top, or cover; the batting; and a back. The three parts are then quilted together. The first step is to decide what we want to make. Who's the quilt for? What colors do they like? What fabrics will we be using? Some women find inspiration in the fabric store, others scour the local gemachs. But whatever the source of the fabric, it's important that it be really good quality and preferably 100% cotton. "
Etty points to one of the women in the group who is hand quilting a quilt made of dozens of triangles sewn together to make a pattern. "She sews most of her family's clothes, and uses the scrap material to make the quilts. See that flowered material; it's from her daughter's old skirt. If you look carefully, you'll see that the pale blue strips in the quilt are made from the same material as the blouse she is wearing.
"As for patterns," Etty continues, "there are hundreds of books and websites with thousands of different patterns. Some are easy, and others, of course, are extremely intricate.
"Once we've decided on the material and a pattern, the next step is to wash the material in hot water, and then iron it. That should prevent the potential pitfalls of shrinkage and bleeding dye. The material is cut with the help of special rulers, templates and a nifty gadget called the rotary cutter, which looks like a pizza cutter, but is razor sharp and extremely dangerous. It's much more accurate than scissors, and can cut several layers at once.
"Once the material is cut, we follow the pattern to piece them together to form squares that will later be sewn together to form the quilt top. The components of each square is pinned together, and then sewn and ironed. With a simple quilt this step can be pretty straightforward, but it can be quite complicated if the design is intricate. Once all the squares are finished, the entire quilting bee works as a group to pin the squares together. It's a mammoth job involving hundreds of little pins. Sometimes the quilts are designed with contrasting strips separating the squares, or several borders going around all the squares. The choices are endless, and it must all be pinned together with tremendous precision. Once the pinning is finished, the squares are sewn together and ironed. With that, we've finished the first step!
"The second step is to position the batting – we prefer 100% cotton - and backing – which can be anything from an old blanket or sheet to a matching fabric -- to the quilt top and hold it in place with several dozen special safety pins. Only then, finally, can we proceed to the third and final step, the actual quilting."
As I listen to Etty speak, I understand why some people pay a great deal of money for a handmade heritage Amish quilt. They're priceless.
Bina: How is the actual quilting done?
"Quilting connects all three pieces – the cover, the batting and the backing – into one unit and is nothing more than straight stitching that goes through all three layers. It can be done either by hand or by machine, or by a combination of the two. Many of our ladies quilt by hand, creating beautifully intricate designs on the material, while others prefer to use their sewing machines for most of the quilting, and then hand-sew the finishing touches."
Bina: Can you tell our readers about some unusual or interesting quilts?
"One of women, Rina Roston, has a severely handicapped daughter, who was recently placed in a group home. She wanted to give her something very special; something that would connect her with her family. So she had family pictures printed on material, and then incorporated the pictures into a quilt. On the square containing her daughter's picture, she embroidered her daughter's name and date of birth. It's a sleepable photo album!
"Hinda Rich cut out the motifs from old crib sheets that her son had used as a baby and incorporated them into a quilt that she made for that son's first child. Renee Smith appliquéd a felt 'paper doll' on the top section of a quilt and then made a deep pocket on the quilt's backing. She sewed beautiful material 'doll clothes' that were stored in the quilt pocket and used for dressing the gigantic 'paper doll' on the quilt top. When her grandchildren sleep over, she hears them giggling at night as they play with the quilt. A lot of the women have made sturdy 'jean quilts' to keep in the back of the car or to take on picnics. The local clothing gemach gives us all the jeans, which we cut into different sized squares for out quilt making. One woman embroidered a picture of a car on the quilt, and wrote inside, "Mendesohn's Car Quilt."
Bina: It sounds like so much fun! I'm sure many of our readers would like to begin quilting. Can you give them some advice?
"Try to find a teacher or a group of ladies to guide you, at least the first time around. It sounds pretty straight forward on paper, but all those little pieces of material can be really confusing. Although there are so many little tricks of the trade that you can only learn from observing an experienced quilter, with experience each woman learns what's right for her and develops her own individual style. Although some steps, such as accurate cutting and pressing as you go, are indispensable, others are just a matter of preference. So while some women, for example, will only quilt with a hoop, others find it too cumbersome.
One important point to realize is that every homemade quilt has imperfections and it's davka those imperfections that make it so unique. One of the women jokingly commented that if you can't see the mistake from a helicopter, then it's perfectly fine! Interesting enough, when the Amish create a quilt – and their quilts are true masterpieces -- they make sure to do something so that it will not perfect because, as we all know, the only true perfection is Hashem. So when we quilt, we do our best, but we also know that our success is in Hashem's Hands alone.
To learn more about the Zahava Quilters and see examples of their beautiful quilts, go to http://zahavaquilters.blogspot.com/
1. Hindy Rich used pieces from her son's old crib sheets to make this quilt for her granddaughter. Notice the personal embroidery.
2, 3, 4, although these three quilts follow the same design, it's the fabrics and placement that make them so different. 2. Sara Fiedler, 3. Bryna White 4 Etty Robinson
5. Shifra Goldenson made this quilt from her later mother's fine-linen handkerchiefs.
6. Rina's log cabin cozy couch quilt
7. Sara Fiedler made this Log Cabin pillow for her mother-in-law's 95th birthday.
8 The entire group made this quilt for their friend, Shulamit Bell, shortly before she passed away.
9. Detail of picture #5. Notice the decorative hand-sewn quilting.
10. Shifra Goldenson made these bags to hold shalach manos.
11, 12 These two quilts, made by Bryna White, follow the same pattern but use different fabrics. They are both hand quilted.
The Picasso album
1a2a3a. Renee Smith created this quilt for her daughter Reva. The hexagons are sewn by hand and then machine sewn to the blue background. In this picture she's embroidering white hexagons.
2a the finished quilt
3a a finished quilt square