Constable: When Mount Prospect woman's unfinished quilt was discovered, 1,000 people worldwide helped finish it
A spiritual closer for the fabric afterlife, Shannon Downey strolls through a Mount Prospect estate sale, looking to bring a heavenly finish to a venture left in limbo.
"Whenever I find an unfinished embroidery project, I buy it and finish it, because there's no way that soul is resting with an unfinished project left behind," says Downey, 41, who works as director of development at Advancing Justice Chicago, a not-for-profit social justice group. Downey provides peace by plucking pillows from purgatory and completing the unfinished embroidery as the deceased had planned.
But an odd plastic tub in a bedroom at the Mount Prospect estate sale leads to something far greater than she had ever imagined.
She had just purchased a piece of a finished embroidered map of the United States done by Rita Smith, a Mount Prospect crafter who died in August at age 99. "It was framed and on the wall. It had a $5 price tag," Downey says. "It was perfect stitching."
Liking that, she was urged to peek into the fabric bin in the bedroom.
"I opened it up and discovered it was a massive quilting project that was just begun," says Downey, an embroiderer who doesn't quilt but has built a large network of fabric crafters of all kinds on social media. "I sat on the floor and almost cried because I knew I had to buy it and finish it."
Every detail of the quilt -- a massive map of the United States with squares for all 50 states -- was planned by quilter Rita, who died before she could finish it. Downey, who has more than 125,000 followers on her badasscrossstitch Instagram account and another 28,000 on Twitter, reached out for help to finish #ritasquilt.
"Within 24 hours, we had over 1,000 volunteers," Downey says, noting she had responses from as far away as the United Kingdom and Australia. Since Rita already had embroidered the patches for Alaska and Georgia, Downey mailed out squares for the other 48 states and 50 stars to volunteers across the country and two in Canada. The crafters finished that work and mailed them back.
Saturday, at Wishcraft Workshop in Chicago, Downey gathered three dozen local volunteers to stitch together those squares. The suburban connection to Rita caught her eye, says Andrea Bonefas, who also lives in Mount Prospect. Bonefas, 50, was taught as a girl how to sew by her mother, Millie Paul, and took up quilting after college.
Sewing together patches for Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and New Hampshire at a table with women she just met, Bonefas laughs as if they are all old friends. "Sewing is kind of solitary," Bonefas says. "So it's good to get together sometimes."
With the patches sewn together, the next step is using a large sewing machine in a process called longarm quilting to put together the finished quilt top, the batting in the middle and the backing. The finished quilt will debut Dec. 21 at Woman Made Gallery, 2150 S. Canalport Ave., Chicago. From there, it will go on exhibit March 7 in The National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky.
The concept of using social media to bring strangers together in person for a good cause captures attention. Roaming around the room to check on progress and chat, Downey has to make time for media interviews, including with crews from "The Kelly Clarkson Show" and the BBC.
"I knew it would work because this is how crafters work. This is how women work," Downey says. "That's a cooler story. That's my contribution to something that is bigger than me."
The women chow down on cookies with frosting that spells out #ritasquilt as they talk about what they've accomplished.
"I think this entire project is about honoring Rita. But it's bigger than Rita. It's about community and women coming together," a beaming Downey says. "It makes me want to dance."