Quilts for a cause

Oct 26, 2018 | 10 comments |

I don’t sew, knit, crochet, embroider or do any of the other handicrafts at which women on both sides of my family tree excelled.

In junior high home economics, sewing was painful for both me and my long-suffering mother. Mom made many of her own clothes and was renowned for her knitting, but she’d been blessed with a daughter, me, who struggled to sew a straight seam and to whom sewing patterns were as incomprehensible as geometry.

But fast forward more years than I want to admit, and I now spend one Saturday morning a month volunteering my time (and dubious skills) with my small-town branch of Victoria’s Quilts Canada (VQC), an organization that makes quilts to comfort Canadians with cancer.

As with many things in my life, the path to this kind of voluntary work was far from linear.

Thanks to the beautiful quilts made by my mom’s great-aunts, quilts were part of my life from an early age, but I didn’t know how they were made. Quilts feature in some of my published books too, but to help set a scene rather than being integral to plot. 

However, this spring, when the book I’m currently working on was in its early stages, the heroine’s mother became a quilter. As such, I needed to learn about quilting to ensure I referenced details correctly in fiction.

Part serendipity, part living in a small town, I met the president of the local branch of VQC and she invited me to attend a quilting ‘bee’ to help with book research.

After attending that session, I decided to return to the monthly bees, not as ‘author me,’ but as a woman with family and friends touched by cancer who wanted to do something, if only in a small way, to help.

When I expressed doubts about what I could contribute, one of the quilters (whose pragmatic manner reminded me of my late mom) said: “You can pin, can’t you?”

Yes, I can and while that comment has gone into my book, the time I spend pinning quilt tops to batting and backing to make a “quilt sandwich” is teaching me as much about life as quilting.

Although some men quilt, and indeed the sewing circle in my book has a male member, quilting bees have historically given women opportunities to talk together about their lives, families and communities, as well as bigger world issues.

Through quilting I’m part of a community of women spanning generations and geographies. The conversations over the quilt tables—about husbands, children, grandchildren, jobs, health issues and so much more—encourage me, a writer who lives much of the time inside her head, to look outwards at both the world and my life in fresh ways. 

And since I’m part of a community where my mother’s family roots date to 1830, maybe it wasn’t surprising I’d meet a quilter who knew my late mom and shared precious memories of her as a girl.

Several of the VQC women have offered to teach me to quilt, but I don’t think I or they are ready for that particular challenge!

Although I’m not a quilter, with each pin I anchor into fabric, I’m remembering and honouring loved ones whose lives were impacted by cancer…my parents, my auntie Margaret, my cousin Beth, my grandmothers, my friend Katie and more. 

As for my fiction? I’ve tried to get the quilting details right but when the time comes I now have women I can ask to read for accuracy.

I’ve also called the hero’s dog in that book Honeybell after a quilt pattern. For a writer, a man with a dog named Honeybell offers rich possibilities!


  1. Anne Kinch

    I enjoyed you blog, Jen, and appreciated the reference to your Auntie Margaret & cousin Beth. I’m looking forward to your next book!!!

    • Jen Gilroy

      Thank you, Anne. I’m glad you appreciated the references to those two special people. Both are still in my heart and I remember them with love. Thanks for your interest in my next book too. It should be out next year but is a book before the ‘quilt book’ I referenced in this post!

  2. Maggie Blackbird

    This was a great blog post. I’m like you. I didn’t even take home ec with my friends. I learned how to play the clarinet while they were learning to sew. I think it’s wonderful what you’re doing. I’m a big believer in giving one’s time to worthy causes. It’s how my mom raised me. Enjoy your time at the quilting party!

    • Jen Gilroy

      Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog, Maggie. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Home Ec wasn’t optional at my school…unfortunately! I enjoyed choir and orchestra separately, though! Like you, I believe in volunteering when I can as my mom did before me. Like your mom, that was important to my mom too.

  3. Jennifer Wilck

    Now you’re making me want to join a quilting bee! I love what you’re getting from this group of people and I hope you continue to enjoy it.

    • Jen Gilroy

      Thank you, Jennifer. I’d read about quilting ‘bees’ but hadn’t attended one until recently. They’re great fun!

  4. Susanna Bavin

    How wonderful to share a craft with others. It is lovely to know that your fellow quilters accept into their midst a person who can “only” pin. The quilting group is clearly an integral part of your local community and to think that it dates back so far makes it even more special.

    May I also say I love the thought of people getting together to make quilts especially for people living with cancer. It reminds me of when a dear person in my life was battling cancer and a pen-friend whom I had never met in person made a quilt for him. I still have that quilt now and it reminds me of both of them.

    • Jen Gilroy

      What a special memory and a special quilt, Susanna. Thanks for sharing that here.

      My quilting group is very welcoming. There are several of us who aren’t quilters so I’m not alone! Other people iron, manage the administration of quilt requests, etc. so we all do our bit.

      As always, thanks for your support and commenting on my blog. xx

  5. Heidi Vanstone

    Good for you for exploring something a little out your comfort zone. Alas, I did not inherit any “crafty” skills from my very capable women relatives. In fact, I managed to jam and/or render inoperable, ALL the sewing machines in my Gr. 8 Home Economics class. Mrs. Rutherford, my long-suffering teacher, must have ever despaired of me sewing a straight stitch!

    • Jen Gilroy

      Thank you, Heidi. We are much the same in our lack of ‘crafty’ skills! I’m honoured to share some of the same ‘very capable women relatives’ with you, though, and know that they passed other strengths to us both.


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