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Stamford Bethel AME Church Members Weave History Into Quilt Project

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church shared a cherished portion of its history on Feb. 28 when it unveiled a generational quilt that was more than a year in the making.

Church member Valerie Cooper, owner of Picture That Art Consultants in Stamford, donated delivery, framing and installation services for the quilt. She also had workers to add a ledge to one of the church’s walls sufficient enough to bear the weight of the substantial quilt.

According to church quilter Annie Patterson, “Generational Quilt: A Women’s Project” was launched in early 2014 when Associate Pastor Mary Spell “presented her vision of it” to female church members. “We decided to do the project and she sort of made me the chairperson of it,” Patterson said. “All the women could bring the piece of fabric they wanted to bring.”

Lacking a pattern as a guide, Patterson had to figure out a strategy for putting the quilt together.

“I make old country quilts,” said Patterson, who’s been attending Bethel AME since 1979. “I don’t go by patterns or anything. Working with that many people I figured I’d try to keep it simple.”

Church members were asked to submit names of present and past congregants for inclusion in the quilt. Patterson’s daughter, Melissa, typed the names and printed them on inkjet-printable fabric. Next, ribbons of various colors were placed around the names.

Then, “the ladies took the names and sewed them on the (5-inch blocks) of fabric. It went on and on. We collected a lot of names,” she added. Church members paid $5 for each name submitted to the quilters. “It ended up being a $3,000 quilt,” Patterson said.

Once all of the blocks were completed, said Patterson, “my biggest job in the group was to sew it together with” her Brother sewing machine. “I think we ended up with a quilt that’s 11 feet long and 43 inches high (minus the batting and the lining).”

Quilts like the one at Bethel AME have been a part of the African American culture for centuries.

“Most African American families possess quilts that have been passed down from one generation to the next as wedding gifts, or as family heirlooms, to married children and grandchildren by parents and grandparents,” said George Mintz, former Bethel church historian and president of the Bridgeport NAACP.

“Women would collect, in old pillowcases, recycled clothing that was torn and tattered and stitch them together to make bedcovers to keep themselves and their children warm in unheated shacks that lacked running water, indoor plumbing and electricity.

“Quilts (also) played a major role in the Underground Railroad and were displayed on clothesline or in windows with coded messages for runaway slaves traveling north to freedom,” Mintz said. “Quilt making was also used as a social gathering, where women in the community, when not working in the fields, would gather around the kitchen table or a makeshift table in the yard to make community quilts.”

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