North Pittsburgh Quilters Guild helps stitch together memories

| Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

She is known as the “Queen of UFOs” — not unidentified flying objects, but rather “UnFinished Objects.”

Vivian Benton, 66, of Ross Township has been quilting for 20 years and has won more than 30 ribbons for her creations. She once made a pale green, 48-inch-square Asian-fabric quilt adorned with hand-appliquéd Asian flowers that sold for $3,500.

Still, her friends and other quilters in the North Pittsburgh Quilters Guild affectionately tease her about all the projects she starts but never finishes.

“I have 125 finished quilts at home. I have another 29 that will be finished once I bind the edges. Then I have 141 UFOs sitting in stacked bins throughout my closet,” said Benton, a communications and publications project manager at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Quilting is more than sewing colorful patches of fabric and batting.

It is an addiction, according to members of the North Pittsburgh Quilters Guild, a local organization that meets monthly at the Kearns Spirituality Center, located on the campus of the Sisters of Divine Providence in McCandless.

The 32-year-old guild's main goal is to further the quilting skills and knowledge of its approximately 100 members, who range in age from early 20s to late 80s and live throughout Pittburgh's northern suburbs.

“We meet every month. We offer workshops and lectures by nationally known quilters. We sponsor a quilt show every other year. And we perform community-service projects like quilting pillowcases for nursing homes or placemats for North Hills Community Outreach. This year, we're making patriotic quilts to be sent to servicemen and women through Quilts of Valor,” said the guild's president, Donna Martin of Ross Township.

“We also laugh a lot and have lots of fun together,” added Cheryl Kirchner, 66, of McCandless.

While quilters share a common love for their craft, their reasons for quilting and the ways in which they discovered the art are as varied as, well, patchwork.

For Marilyn MacArthur of Richland Township, quilting provides a connection to her son, who died of AIDS in 1991 at the age of 31.

“I learned to quilt so I could contribute panels to the national AIDS Memorial Quilt, and I got hooked,” she said.

She mostly makes quilted wall hangings now, but the connection to her son still is there.

Peggy White, 61, of Shaler Township has sewn more than 100 quilts by hand and finds the hobby to be therapeutic. As a sixth-grade teacher, she said, she used quilting to “quiet all those harried voices” after a long day in the classroom. Now retired, she continues to quilt three or four hours a day.

Many quilters are selfless. They meticulously work on a project only to give it away.

When Kirchner had kidney cancer several years ago, she saw quilting as a way to leave something behind. One of her projects was a flannel quilt she made for her sister.

“She told me, ‘I have a piece of you every day. I look at the quilt, and you're here with me,'” Kirchner said.

What is the most meaningful project Deb Thompson, 59, of Allison Park ever made? “A pair of brown calico leg warmers I quilted for my father to keep him warm during his chemotherapy treatments,” she said.

One of the few remaining original members of the North Pittsburgh Quilters Guild is Dee Carioto, 82, of Ross Township. Her 30 years of quilting offer quite a few interesting threads — such as the quilting vacation she took to a dude ranch in Montana.

“We quilted every morning and rode horses every afternoon,” she said.

And, there's the national award she won for her quilted postcards — yes, postcards!

Her favorite was a 6-inch-by-4-inch scene she sewed of a bird standing between a birdhouse and a bird's nest trying to decide which one to choose.

The guild's only male member is Ralph Blosat, a computer-science professional from McCandless who loves quilting because it provides him with a creative outlet.

“Initially, I felt I was venturing into a woman's world, so to speak,” said Blosat, recalling the first time he attended a quilters guild meeting. “But when I brought in a dahlia quilt I'd made for my niece, I received all this applause. I felt like I fit right in.”

Collectively, the guild's biggest UFO is exposing the masses to the joys of quilting. It is an ongoing project and a true labor of love for its members.

At the guild's Dec. 3 meeting, baskets of quilting supplies and a variety of quilted crafts were auctioned off to members and guests to raise money for the guild's upcoming quilt show, which will be held on April 25 to 27 at the Ross Township Municipal Center. It will feature nearly 100 quilts submitted by artisans from as far away as central Pennsylvania.

“The cost of putting on a show like this can be as high as $8,000,” said Kirchner, noting expenses that include hiring judges and buying white gloves to handle the quilts.

“The best thing we can do is encourage someone who is new at quilting to submit something to the show,” she said.

“Often, people think their stuff isn't good enough to submit. But by entering a show, they can get feedback from a judge. Better yet, they can win. Then they're sold on quilting for life — just like us.”

Laurie Rees is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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