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NEA News

NEA Retired Educators Use Quilting Talents To Make Life-Saving Masks

While social distancing, NEA-Retired quilters turn their craft into a mission - and a way to relax during a trying time.
Published: 04/21/2020

Retired educator Cherry Schwartz made masks to help health care workers.

Many ties bind educators together, and for some NEA-Retired members, those ties may well be the threads of a quilt. When NEA Today asked NEA-Retired members for stories about their quilting practices, we received dozens of responses.

And it’s no wonder. Quilting is a craft with a long and storied tradition—and it’s been tied to activism throughout history. Quilts displayed in windows and on clotheslines along the Underground Railroad offered patterned clues for those escaping slavery. And the acres-long National AIDS Memorial Quilt helped raise awareness about the disease.

In keeping with this tradtion, many NEA-Retired quilters turned their craft into a mission to help health care workers during this spring’s coronavirus pandemic.

Crafting for a Cause

Though group quilting circles closed as people maintained social distance, quilters kept quilting. And many, like Cherry Schwartz, a retired English language learner teacher from Minnesota, found a renewed sense of purpose.

“My two groups of quilters hadn’t met for weeks, and I was really missing them. But then I received an email from Allina Health [based in Minneapolis] that there was a need for more face masks,” she says. “It included a pattern for the masks and an excellent video.”

Schwartz quickly emailed her quilting friends. And in only a couple of weeks, they made 150 masks for health care facilities. “Making masks was a project we could all do during this time of crisis,” she says. “It is a wonderful feeling to know that in a small way, we have made someone’s life a little easier.”

Star Ann Kloberdanz, a retired second-grade teacher and literacy coach from Iowa, had a quilting retreat scheduled for late March, where she planned to meet with friends from across the country. But as the pandemic unfolded, they canceled.

“We do have a Facebook page and are actively posting projects we would have brought to [the] retreat,” she says. “So we’re connected in some way … while we make masks for our local health care providers.”

Shelter in the Storm

The act of quilting also brings calm and comfort during an unsettling time. “It’s the thread that draws us together and keeps us healthy and whole,” says Debbie Koehnen of Quincy, Wash.

While social distancing, Paula Mueller, a retired educator from Illinois who winters in Arizona, where she is active with the Arizona Education Association Retired, took the opportunity to complete projects she’d put off for a long time.

“I found some quilt tops I did a while ago while rifling through a drawer. They brought back some great feelings, and so I decided that completing them just for me would bring me great comfort,” she says.

A Close-Knit Community

After retiring in Illinois as a music educator, Marilyn Lillibridge says quilting and piecing projects have become her creative outlet and a way to de-stress. She’s also found a way to stay connected through an event held this spring by an Illinois quilt shop—an online show called “Quilting in the Valley.” “I am thrilled … to see what others are creating during this ‘stay home’ time in Illinois,” Lillibridge says.

Like educators, quilters are driven by service to others. Quilters have long donated their creations for use by hospital patients, and they continue to donate masks for use by hospital staff, says Joy Branham, a retired elementary teacher from Tennessee. Quilting is an act of love and an expression of art and creativity, because no two quilts are the same.

“I consider myself a quilt artist who carries on the tradition … that has been passed down in my family from at least my great-great-grandmother in the early 1800’s. I’m a keeper of the flame,” she says.

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.