Syracuse University quilting class builds community within, outside classroom
“Oohs” and “aahs” rippled across Hendricks Chapel’s Noble Room on a recent Monday evening as Candy Crider, facilitator for the Hendricks Chapel Quilters, unfolded the brightly colored, student-created, “learn-to-sew” patchwork quilt.
Pieced together from the students’ beginner blocks, the finished quilt is destined to enfold a wounded soldier or grieving family member through the national Quilts of Valor Foundation project, which distributes handmade quilts from across the country to U.S. servicemen, servicewomen and families who are affected by war.
The students are enrolled in the interdisciplinary class “Quilts and Community,” a collaboration of the Soling Program in SU’s College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Anthropology in the Maxwell School and the Reneé Crown University Honors Program.
Taught during the fall semester by Professor Susan Wadley, associate dean in The College of Arts and Sciences, and Melonie Unger of the Hendricks Chapel Quilters, the course explores the historical and contemporary roles of quilts and quilting communities in the United States and elsewhere.
In addition to the class discussions, readings and research, students work with volunteers from the Hendricks Chapel Quilters guild to create crib-sized quilts, which are donated to local hospitals, fire departments and law enforcement agencies to comfort children during times of stress.
The learn-to-sew quilt was the first project the students completed as a way to learn to plan and make a quilt. They made enough blocks to create two quilts for the foundation, which marks the first time the Chapel Quilters have sent items to the Quilts of Valor project. Hendricks Chapel Quilters is a group of students, staff, faculty and community members, who meet each Monday evening during the academic year to sew and share.
“We love this class,” comments senior Kate Gieser, a history major in SU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s our home-away-from-home class. The Chapel Quilters make us feel at home; quilting brings you close to home.”
“Quilts and Community” attracts a diverse array of students, most of whom have few or no sewing skills. “I only do what they tell me to do,” says Carey Stuart, a junior biochemistry major and honors student. “This course is completely outside of my major,” he says. “I never envisioned myself making a quilt and I don’t know anyone who has ever made a quilt. But, I knew Dean Wadley and I wanted to take a course with her.”
Because quilting is inherently a social activity, class members are divided into five small groups, or “quilting communities,” for the length of the semester. Each group is paired with a Chapel quilter, who guides the group toward its goal of completing a crib-sized quilt.
One recent Monday, the students in Stuart’s group discovered the block pattern they were trying to achieve was not working as anticipated. “I pinned it wrong,” laments Tracy Chin, a fifth-year architecture major in SU’s School of Architecture, as she and part-time student Cindy Barrie, administrative specialist in the Chancellor’s Office, carefully removed the stitching that held the strips of blocks together. Stuart, Chin and Barrie then worked with Judy O’Rourke, director of undergraduate studies and a Chapel quilter, to rearrange the blocks to achieve the desired effect. By the end of the evening, they were back on track.
In addition to immersing students in the Chapel quilting community, the class had the effect of facilitating a long-distance quilting community between sophomore Claire Haynack, who lives in Akron, Ohio, and her 70-year-old grandmother, an avid quilter who lives in Michigan. Haynack, an illustration major in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, knits, crochets and does needlework, but has never quilted. She’s spent the semester comparing notes via e-mail with her grandmother, who has been putting the finishing touches on a quilt of her own.
“When I was in high school, my grandmother asked me to save all of my old T-shirts, blue jeans and other favorite clothes,” Haynack says. “I gave her a trash bag full of stuff. My Christmas present from her this year will be a quilt she has created from all of my memories. I can’t describe how special this will be. I’m so excited.”