Josh Ginn spends most of his time thinking about computers — bits and bytes and all the complexities of digital innovation. But a few weeks ago, the Iowa State University senior in computer science picked up a simple needle and some blue thread to stitch a few tidy lines onto a quilt at Reliable Street, a newish gallery and workspace in northwest Ames.
A half-dozen others joined him around the table, chatting as they sewed.
“It calms the brain,” Ginn said. “It allows you to be open for different kinds of conversation.”
Turns out, that’s exactly what the Ames artist Catherine Reinhart hoped would happen when she started the project last year with a grant from the Iowa Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. She salvaged a well-worn quilt from her childhood and is touring it across Iowa, inviting folks to add their own handiwork during what she calls “Collective Mending Sessions.”
It’s a throwback to a traditional quilting bee but for the modern era, when parts of our social fabric seem to be ripping apart. All are welcome. No experience required.
“Success relies on collaboration,” Reinhart said.
She had wanted to repair the old quilt for a while. “But I thought, this is going to take me 20 years,” she said. “I can’t do it alone.”
Instead of simply outsourcing the work, she has asked people to add their own creativity. She invites them to stitch however they want to, with whatever colors they like. She encourages them to teach new techniques and write about the experience in a community notebook.
The sessions draw all kinds of people, of all ages. In Ames, one woman patched up a threadbare teddy bear she’d brought from home and talked about childhood memories. A preschooler played with some toys Reinhart provided to make the place more fun for kids — and more accessible for parents without daycare.
For Reinhart, the process is just as important as the final product — just as it was for generations of quilters before her.
Countless diaries dating back to America’s colonial days suggest that collaborative quilting gave people, especially women, an opportunity to socialize. Quilting bees became especially popular during the late 1800s, when the country was changing amid migration, urbanization and widespread industrialization.
“Americans felt separated from their neighbors and communities and alienated from their work as their lives shifted from agricultural to industrial,” according to research posted online by the International Quilt Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “They craved what they perceived as a simpler way of life.”
During the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, women dressed in colonial costumes and enacted living-history exhibits, including quilting parties. Fueled by nostalgia, collaborative quilting shifted from a utilitarian tradition into a social and even political one.
During the women’s suffrage movement, “quilting bees became a safe space for women to gather and share information,” said Jennifer Drinkwater, a community arts specialist at Iowa State University.
The tradition revived during the back-to-the-land movement in the 1960s and ’70s and then again during the current DIY movement, when do-it-yourself enthusiasts have rediscovered the benefits of collaborative arts and crafts. Studies show they improve everything from mental health to community engagement.
“All this stuff our grandmas knew intuitively is being proven with research,” Drinkwater said.
During one of the “Collective Mending Sessions” in Lamoni, a Graceland University student let off steam during finals week by adding his own statement in bright red yarn: “STICK IT TO THE MAN.”
Reinhart plans to organize “Collective Mending Sessions” in a few more cities, including Osceola in February. She had originally planned to spend a month at each site but has stretched out the schedule.
“When you mend, are you ever really done?” she said. “Community is built over time.”
— Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs