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She Left Behind An Unfinished Quilt. Now Strangers Are Stitching It Together.

Embroiderer Shannon Downey recruited more than 30 people to help her finish a project started by a 99-year-old woman who had passed away.
A "massive" unfinished quilt has brought together more than 30 strangers who are completing a 99-year-old's woman's work.
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A "massive" unfinished quilt has brought together more than 30 strangers who are completing a 99-year-old's woman's work.

Quilting is not a project you just pick up and finish in a couple hours.

It involves choosing fabrics, cutting, piecing, layering, marking, the actual quilting, and binding. There are different styles of quilting (by hand, by machine, free-motion, longarm); techniques (applique, block and patchwork, English paper piecing, trapunto) and types (Amish, Hawaiian, traditional blocks).

So when Shannon Downey, founder of Badass Cross Stitch, found an unfinished quilt at an estate sale in Chicago, she knew it would be a bit of an undertaking. What she didn’t realize was just how much of a “massive fucking undertaking” (her words, not ours) it would be.

HuffPost Canada has reached out to Downey for comment.

Downey, a director of development at Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago, wrote about her quilting journey in a Twitter thread on Oct. 23. In it, she describes coming upon a “massive quilting project that was just begun ... I sat on the floor and almost cried bc I knew I had to buy it and finish it.”

Downey learned that the previous owner of the fabric was a woman named Rita Smith who passed away when she was 99.

It felt so personal and intimate seeing the way she had left it. As soon as I saw the pieces I knew I had to complete it but I knew it was bigger than anything I had ever done before,” she told BBC News.

The discovery spurred Downey to finish the quilt, but she needed help, so she asked for embroidery volunteers on Instagram to help her finish the project, and within one day had more than 1,000 replies.

As Downey was preparing to mail out the squares to her volunteers, who would embroider U.S. states using Smith’s quilt as a style guide, she discovered that Smith had already stitched two states.

Not only did her team of volunteers begin working on their squares, they also researched Smith and discovered her picture in her high school yearbook, as well as her maiden name.

Although they originally thought Smith was Canadian, it turns out she was born in Michigan. After posting her thread, Downey and her volunteers connected with Smith’s son, who told them a bit about his mother’s origins. The quilt Smith left behind was actually more than 20 years old.

“He lives in the [Chicago] area and told me his mother was born in Michigan and worked as a school nurse all her life,” Downey told BBC News.

“He was really excited to learn about the joy people were finding in completing his mother’s work,” she said of Smith’s son.

Downey created the hashtag #Ritasquilt on Instagram so her volunteers could post photos of their hexagons (also known as hexies), which are made using a process called English paper piecing.

Take a look at their beautiful work:

Downey said that once her stitchers are finished their embroidery, 30 quilters are on standby to “handle the quilting phase of the project.”

“Humans are amazing. Community can be built anywhere,” she tweeted.

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