Layers of giving

250 quilters piece together support for students studying textiles

Stephanie Bailey - 22 January 2018

Kathy Strawson

By organizing quilt raffles and garage sales, Kathy Strawson and her artisan friends have supported 29 UAlberta students.

On the way home from the hospital after having both breasts removed to prevent the spread of cancer, Marg MacKinnon told her sister Kathy Strawson there was one stop she needed to make. It wasn't at the pharmacy or even the grocery store. It was at her quilting bee.

Connecting the Dots

  • The Cause: The Edmonton and District Quilters Guild wants to inspire future generations of artisans
  • The Gift: Four endowed scholarships in textiles funded from craft sales, raffles and workshops
  • The Impact: Culture is preserved, and students build careers and confidence in the value of their work

Through small acts of kindness, her quilting friends helped MacKinnon through months of intensive cancer treatment. They would check in regularly and pick her up for weekly meetings. They pieced together a scrapbook of well wishes, project photos and the odd skein of thread to comfort her when she was too ill to attend. Now on the other side of her harrowing experience, MacKinnon's first priority was to drop by to thank them in person.

Just as members of the quilting community rally around each other in times of need, they also work together to help make a long-term difference for UAlberta students. The Edmonton and District Quilters Guild has endowed four scholarships in the Department of Human Ecology to encourage students working in the field of textiles, ranging from apparel and costume design to quilting. To date, 29 undergraduate and graduate students have benefited from the guild's generosity.

"We want to show these students that there's a community out there that sees the value in their chosen field of study," says Strawson, who is the president of the guild. The study of textiles reveals valuable information about our social and cultural history, she says. Without student research in the preservation and technique of handicrafts like sewing and quilting, the connection to this past could be lost forever.

"Their work will enrich lives," she says.

Put to good use

Like patches of a quilt, individual quilters have been coming together since the 19th century to form communities of support.

At a recent quilting bee, Strawson and some of her fellow guild members took turns sharing their latest projects - a Peter Rabbit quilt for a new granddaughter, rug-hooked Santa-shaped trivets - as they laughed and caught up over cups of coffee. As a sympathy card for one member circulated, another member read aloud a heartfelt message of thanks from people who received donated quilts after losing their homes in the B.C. wildfires.

It's hard to keep track of all the causes the group supports through quilting. Giving back, it seems, is woven into the very fabric of this community.

"The tradition of quilting is utilitarian: reduce, reuse, recycle. No scrap is ever wasted," says Strawson. "Members of the guild donate quilts to causes that matter to them because they want them to be put to use, for others to benefit."

Even though they give to charities across the city, fostering the next generation of artisans is one cause that stitches the 250-member community together.

The guild's UAlberta scholarships encourage students to explore their interests in clothing and textiles, whether that is going abroad to conduct hands-on research in costume design or working in museums to help conserve artifacts. Students are invited to share their work at guild meetings, where they are welcomed into the community that supported them.

Scholarship recipient Robyn Stobbs volunteered with UAlberta's renowned Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection while she was still an undergraduate. An avid quilter, Stobbs helped clean and prepare the collection's newly acquired quilts for display, and co-curated an exhibition to showcase their rich history. She is now pursuing a PhD in material culture and library and information studies, and teaches apparel design and quilting to the UAlberta and Edmonton communities.

The guild raises funds for the scholarships through small community events like quilt raffles and garage sales. Members contribute to these events in their own way - donating a quilt, buying raffle tickets or even willing the guild the contents of their sewing studio, which can raise up to $4,000.

As president of the guild, Strawson is usually at the helm of these events. She also contributes by selling donated quilting supplies, such as thread boxes and kilt pins, from the trunk of her car.

"I don't have a lot of money to throw at this, but I have time, ingenuity and skill," she says. "And I can translate that to help someone else find their passion."