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The Free Spirit of Massachusetts

“You must give me the quilt!” June Forte exclaimed.

On September 11, 2001, I was at work in the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts. A coworker’s husband called to say that a plane had flown into the Twin Towers in New York City.

Crowded into the little audiovisual office of the Library, we watched the TV in dumbstruck disbelief as the second plane crashed. Then we heard of the attack on the Pentagon and the aborted attack on the White House. It was too awful to comprehend. After a couple of hours, the Town offices were closed and we were sent home to try to understand what had happened.

And as hard as we tried, many of us just couldn’t understand the loss of life and the agony that many families were experiencing. I felt helpless. Giving money to the Red Cross and donating blood just didn’t seem to be enough.

One day, my friend Sandra Burgess asked me if I would help her make a quilt to be donated to the surviving families of victims of the Twin Towers disaster. I began to laugh – Sandra is an experienced quilter and we had often joked at how inept I am. I can’t sew a lick. “But you can do this,” she asserted, “I designed this quilt for people like you.”

What Sandra had designed is called “A Trip Around the World” quilt which consists of concentric diamond patterns made of three reds, three whites and three blues. There would be 911 squares to the whole quilt. The center block was to have an American flag. She told me that all I would have to do is sew a quarter inch seam. “You can do that, can’t you?” she asked. The challenge had been tossed at me.

We enlisted my daughter, Emily’s help, and we set about creating a quilt kit: First Emily labeled all of the squares on graph paper with one inch squares so that we would know what color each square would be. Then the three of us took turns entering the pattern into a spreadsheet.

We made a pilgrimage to Greenfield, Massachusetts, to “the big fabric place” and we had a wonderful time picking out the fabrics. Did you know that sometimes you have to look at a fabric from 10 feet away to actually see what is the main color?

Then Sandra took over the really hard part. She cut over 700 squares (three and a half inches square) and began stacking rows of squares. She put two rows of squares in the correct order into a baggie along with a “key” for those two rows. Then she parceled out the rows with instructions on how to piece the squares. Eleven of us sewed rows and then Sandra attached them all together, adding a border and very beautiful corner squares. That is how the “9-11 Quilt” was born and it will join nearly 3,000 other quilts which are being donated to families in New York City.

Now back to the original question: Could I sew a quarter inch seam? Well, yes I could. But when Chris said to me one day at work, “How’s it going?” I replied, “Great!” and held up my half of a row. Looking down, I saw that I had sewn half of it backwards. I became very proficient at stitch ripping! When the quilt was done, the twelfth contributor was Timna Tarr who donated the machine quilting of gorgeous stars. And the quilt was stunning!

And I thought, “I never knew I could be a part of something so gorgeous and so satisfying. I can do that!” It was then that I decided that I wanted to make a quilt and send a hug to a survivor of the Pentagon hit – it would be my way of sending a hug to someone who has more courage than I. If I had been in that terrible blast, I’m not sure that I could go back to work in that same building as many people have.

So we used Sandra’s pattern but made it a double bed sized (rather than king sized) quilt. I had a hard time cutting the squares but persevered and only nicked myself once with the rotary cutter. Six of us sewed, including my daughter, my mother, and my long-time friend who lives in Japan. Sewing became almost a meditation exercise for me. Meanwhile I was trying to find a recipient for the quilt, but was having no success.

Luckily, my neighbor’s daughter visited and I was showing her the in-progress quilt top. She works at the Pentagon and when she returned to D.C., she gave me the phone number for June Forte, Public Relations Officer for the Pentagon. After explaining my search, June told me that she was putting together an exhibit of quilts that had been donated to the Pentagon and she asked if I would like to put my quilt into the exhibit. “Oh, I don’t think so,” I replied. I reminded June that this was my first quilt and a very humble effort. (You see, I know that some of those blocks are cut a hair too small!) June asked me where I lived and that is when she exclaimed, “You must give me the quilt!” The exhibit was set to open on September 2, 2002 in Lowell, Massachusetts in the American Textile Museum. And, June said, my quilt would be the only one from Massachusetts in the exhibit because she did not have one from our state.

June agreed to find a recipient for the quilt after the exhibit closed. But she gave me one more task: I needed to name the quilt. Laurie at work said immediately, “Free Spirit!” So The Free Spirit of Massachusetts was born and I hope someone will love it as much as we do. I know it’s a warm quilt because I had it in my lap for many days while I hand stitched the binding on it. I just hope they can feel the comfort that we sewed into it.

Tina Swift (a business manager for a public librar

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