Fundraiser supports Iraq War quilt project

In a week or so, Islanders will have a chance to buy raffle tickets for a quilt, though not the quilt they’re used to vying for at the Strawberry Festival each year. This quilt to be raffled, a colorful creation made by 10 Island women, is intended to help raise funds for more quilts — quilts that will go to the wounded men and women returning from Iraq.

The women behind it are supporters of American Hero Quilts, started in 2004 by Islander Sue Nebeker and still based in her Maury Island home. Since its creation, the project’s volunteers have sent or delivered more than 1,600 quilts to soldiers injured in Iraq.

It is an enormous undertaking and one that costs about $1,500 a month, according to quilt project volunteer Margaret Bickel. People locally and across the country have donated time, supplies and money to the project, but more money is still needed, she said.

This summer Bickel had a brainstorm, according to fellow quilter Annie Miksch. Bickel, a hairdresser at Vashon Community Care Center and an avid quilter who has sewn nearly 20 quilts for the heroes project, thought they could raise money for the project by doing what they all know how to do so well — sew a quilt. She had a pattern in mind for it, beautiful and labor-intensive, and suggested to Miksch that some of the Island’s quilters might be willing to make a block for the quilt, and then they could raffle it off.

“Quilt raffles as a fundraising tool have been done forever, probably dating back to the pioneer days,” Miksch said.

In keeping with that tradition, the work of the project itself and the fact that the Island has considerable quilting talent, the quilters — ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s —  got sewing, and the quilt is now finished. Organizers hope that the raffle will begin at the Holly Daze bazaar at the high school on Dec. 1 and will continue at various venues around town until the drawing on April 15. Raffle tickets are $2 each. Organizers hope to raise $5,000 with their sale, according to Bickel.

The quilt, not at all in the patriotic theme of the American Heroes quilts, is in the appliqué style of quilting, where the quilter sews smaller pieces of fabric onto a larger piece to create an image.

“The whole goal is not to see the stitches,” Miksch said of the time-consuming technique, which requires different skills than other quilting methods.

“We’re a bunch of Luddites,” she joked about the women, who sewed the blocks for the quilt, noting that this type of appliqué can only be done by hand.

Miksch, who quilts in the ferry line, figures her block took her about 30 hours. Some blocks would take less than that, some more, she said, but with 10 quilters involved, there are hundreds of hours put into this quilt.

Miksch connected the blocks with 360 one-and-a-half inch triangles, in a process called sashing, and Bickel put the border on it and squared it up to prepare it for machine quilting, a complex, exacting  process, Miksch said, since the material is woven and can stretch with handling.

Then Nebeker machine-quilted the layers with a free hand design, a skill, Miksh noted, that gives the quilt shape and movement and can tie the whole design together.

“It just sparkles,” Miksh said of the finished product.

The proceeds from the raffle will be put to good use, according to Nebeker.

The project’s mission is to get a quilt to every wounded service man or women from Washington, wherever he or she is being cared for. 

Recently a rehabilitation facility has opened at Fort Lewis in Tacoma and will house 600 to 800 wounded soldiers for up to six months, Nebeker said.

“We are going to try to get a quilt to every soldier there,” she said.

Nebeker also sends quilts to the families of service men and women who commit suicide when they return. A year ago, Nebeker said she had mailed 75 of those; that number is now at 150.

The project also sends quilts to children whose mom or dad is killed in the line of duty.

“I don’t keep track of that number,” Nebeker said. “I can’t stand it.”

Miksch noted that the injuries service men and women are returning home with are severe, in part because of advances in medical care that save lives that previously would not have been saved. Many undergo long rehabilitation periods, often far from family and with few personal possessions.

Miksch hopes Islanders support the raffle, not just for the quilt they might win, but for the larger meaning behind the quilts given to the wounded.

“I was a flight attendant during the Vietnam War and watched service men return to New York,” she said. “I saw how they were treated, and it was shameful. I still feel that you can oppose a conflict but not oppose those who feel called to serve.”

This is a different time and a different war, and people can make different choices, she said. The floral quilt to be raffled and the red, white and blue quilts of the American Hero Quilt project — whether made on a sewing machine in someone’s home or on a lap in an early morning ferry line — are part of that choice.

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