Friday, May 25, 2007

KINGSTON — When Linda Heminway started the My Brother's Keepers quilt group in 1999, all her materials fit in one oversized tote bag.

"Now," she said, "we have a walk-in closet the church gives us to store stuff. Fabric mates and reproduces."

Heminway and her group will tie off their 300th quilt this month. The group, which makes Ugly Quilts for homeless people, has expanded from four volunteers to about 15 regular members, and from a tote bag to a closet stuffed with fabric. But their original purpose remains the same: they have a heart for the homeless.

A Pennsylvania woman named Flo Wheateley made the first Ugly Quilt in the early 1990s. She had been taking her son into New York City for chemotherapy treatments, and one day a homeless man helped her son to walk. "It haunted her, and she needed to do something for the homeless," Heminway said. Wheateley started the Ugly Quilt movement, making scrap quilts that could also be used as sleeping bags, and delivering them to the homeless.

Heminway, a woman of strong faith, believes that God led her to the Ugly Quilts. She was already a quilter when she walked into a pharmacy, bought a copy of "Family Circle" ("a magazine I never pick up"), and saw an article on Wheateley. She made Ugly Quilts on her own.

When she moved to New Hampshire, she sought out the First Congregational Church in Kingston, and the first sermon she heard challenged her to start an Ugly Quilt group in the area.

While the group meets in the First Congregational Church and receives a small stipend from the church, it is non-denominational, according to Heminway. But eight years later, the quilts are still going out.

The quilts are made of scrap fabrics and machine-quilted. A quilt is like a "sandwich," Heminway said, with the pieced top, a layer of batting, and an underside. The Ugly Quilts have a strip of Velcro around the edges, so they can be closed and used as a sleeping bag.

The bags are rolled and placed in used pillowcases. She and her quilters hunt out used neckties at yard sales, and these are used to sling the bag over one's shoulder like a backpack. A homeless person can use the pillowcase to hold their belongings, and the whole thing packs easily, she said, demonstrating how it fits over one's shoulders.

What goes into a quilt top is the quilter's choice. Heminway showed off one top that featured shiny red brocade next to denim, another one with a panel, "Butterflies of America," and another one made of old cotton sweaters. If an old shirt still has a pocket, the quilters leave it on, she said — it's a good place for the recipient to tuck small items.

"We are the ultimate recyclers," Heminway added with a grin.

The group expanded its efforts to children with cancer. They make smaller quilts, a little prettier, without the batting in between. They sew a fleece batting instead, and have made 66 so far. Member Della Boswell showed off a children's quilt she made, with autumn leaves in each square.

The members are a mixture of young, middle-aged and older women. Some people can't sew, but they cut fabric or deliver quilts to homeless shelters. Some people sew but can't get to meetings, so they make quilt tops at home for the members to tie. Some people are "snowbirds," and one woman richochets between three homes. "Think of all the thimbles you'd need," a member cracked.

Heminway doesn't know who the recipients are, and she doesn't care. The work is what matters, according to her. When longtime member Debbie Barber moves to Arizona this summer, she'll take Quilt No. 300 with her and start a group there.

Heminway still has the tote bag from her first meetings, and the Family Circle that sparked the idea. And though the group is not sponsored by a religious organization, she'll continue to sew a Bible verse into each Ugly Quilt. The verse, from Job 11:18, reads, "You will be secure, because there is hope; you will look about you, and take your rest in safety." The group is not seeking fabric donations at this time, but is in need of members, donations of quilt batting and donations of Velcro.

From left, Linda Heminway, Debbie Barber and Della Boswell show off the 300th quilt their group, My Brother's Keepers, has made for the homeless. The group has also made 66 quilts for children undergoing chemotherapy since it organized in 1999.Kathleen D. Bailey photo / SMG

For more information or to donate, call Heminway at 382-2329 or

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