Four unlikely things converged in my living room a few weeks ago: women who sew, flannel blankets, remarkable stories and collected wisdom.
“Stories happen to those who tell them,” a mentor once told me.
“No matter how much you sew and give away, you always have more fabric,” my mother used to say.
“We walk by faith, not by sight,” the Bible says.
And my own aphorism: “You discover your calling as you see what needs to be done, and do it.”
For me, all this means taking the single lighted step, opening the door, turning the corner — without insisting on a map for the entire journey.
In my newspaper column in January I wrote about my obsession with fabric and my overflowing stash, even though it meant the whole community would know how crazy I was.
Taking that risk introduced me to a new sisterhood — women who write, call or pull me aside at speaking events to confide that they are just like me. We giggle together in full understanding and talk about sewing, cottons, scraps, quilts, and always our shocking stash.
A 77-year-old woman from Cottage Grove named Edith Chastain emailed and said she makes weighted blankets for children with autism, and she would take any fabric pieces over a yard in size that I’d want to donate.
I asked more questions. These blankets are sewn in a grid, and each square contains a measured amount of both fluffy Fiberfill and heavy plastic beads. Something about that combination of warmth and weight helps special-needs children sleep better.
“I would love to donate to your cause,” I told her. From baskets and drawers I gathered two paper sacks of colorful fabrics, all appropriate for children. For such a worthy purpose, it was easy to bid the fabric goodbye.
Edith arranged to pick up the fabric on a Thursday morning. She arrived with a friend named Carrie who helps her sew, and also Carrie’s mother, Donna, from Alaska. The three of them pulled the folded fabric out of the sacks, one by one, with due reverence, admiring each. I told Edith not to feel obligated to take pieces that wouldn’t work for her, but she was thrilled with all of them.
The women showed me how the blankets are made. Two rectangles of fabric the size of a crib quilt are sewn together around the edges and then marked off in 6-inch squares with chalk. Little by little, the squares are stitched on three sides, filled with fiberfill and beads, and sewn securely shut.
Edith draped a finished blanket over me as I sat in a chair. A full 10 pounds, its heaviness wrapped me in a strangely comforting sensation. “I am not a special-needs child,” I told them, “but this could put me right to sleep.”
These women have made more than 100 blankets and distributed them through a Facebook group called Pay it Forward Cottage Grove. Sixty more families are in line waiting for one. If they can, the families pay for the materials, but all the work is volunteered.
“I hear so many testimonials, and that’s what keeps me going,” Edith said. “One mom told me that her 5-year-old slept through the night for the first time ever when he got his blanket.”
“That is exactly the kind of thing my mom would do,” I told Edith. “She was always sewing flannel quilts for babies, and she would just love you and what you’re doing.”
“How did you get involved with this project?” I asked Carrie.
“I saw a post of Edith’s on the Facebook page,” Carrie said, “and I wanted a blanket for my granddaughter. So I contacted Edith and she said, ‘Well, there’s one person ahead of you. You’ll have to wait a few weeks.’ So I decided to go help her, and I’ve been helping her ever since. My friends said, ‘Isn’t it weird, going to this lady’s place when you don’t even know her?’ But it hasn’t been weird for one minute. She’s one of these people that comes into your life and ….” She paused, unable to quite explain the connection.
I knew exactly what she meant. If you have that intimacy of generous hearts, a common passion, and a shared calling to create and give, the rest is insignificant.
“I help Edith probably 25 hours a week now,” Carrie said. “And when we’re done sewing for the day, I take the blankets home and wash and dry them before they go out.”
We discussed blankets and sewing and the joy of giving. I didn’t realize that another story waited just around the corner as I turned to Donna, who had sat quietly smiling through our conversation, and asked where she was from, exactly. I didn’t want her to feel left out, and Alaska makes me curious.
“Wrangell. Have you heard of it? It’s an island on the panhandle,” Donna said. “It’s 26 miles long, with about 12 miles of paved road, and it’s closer to Seattle than Anchorage. We’re part of the world’s second largest rainforest.”
“What took you there?” I asked.
“We grew up there. Our family’s been there forever.”
Then Donna and Carrie, Tlingit mother and daughter, told stories of totems, beadwork, the community longhouse, and growing up on the island, where people worked in either logging or fishing.
Their description of life on that lush, isolated island converged with our original topic of sewing, leading to a story as heartwarming as one of Edith’s weighted blankets.
When Donna was young, a family from Oregon had come to the island to work as commercial fishermen, but they were desperately poor — so poor that the father and two sons had only one pair of shoes among them, and whoever needed them least that day went without, even in the snow and cold. Sometimes the second-grade boy clomped around in these men’s shoes with his little stick legs.
They were also too proud to accept gifts, which was incomprehensible to the people on the island, who took care of each other and had always shared what was needed.
The family had two daughters who were Donna’s friends. Their mom sewed feed-sack dresses for them by hand.
One day Donna knew exactly what she needed to do. She had wandered around the back rooms of the Presbyterian church, and in a closet in an upstairs Sunday school room, Donna had seen a sewing machine.
She told her mom about the sewing machine and asked if she could have it. Her mother sent her to the pastor’s wife. The pastor’s wife had no idea the machine even existed. “I’ll have to ask around,” she said.
“No, I need it now!” Donna insisted.
Finally, seeing Donna’s persistence, the pastor’s wife said yes.
The machine was almost too heavy to carry, but Donna lugged it to her friends’ home on the fishing boat.
The woman accepted the fortuitous offering and developed a little sewing business. People would bring pants and other things to mend, and she also would cut patterns from paper sacks and sew dresses. It gave her a dignified way to help support her family.
At the end of that year, the family went back to Oregon. Donna didn’t know what became of the sewing machine or the friends. Only the story remained.
That is how it works.
Sharing about my silly fabric obsession exposed me to new friends and a worthy recipient for my extra material. The fabric I bought at a garage sale in 2005 and never turned into a dress for my daughter will now help an anxious child sleep better at night. A fascinating tale showed up in my living room, many miles away and years later, connected by a thread of sewing, generosity and doing what needs to be done, right now, whether it makes sense or not.
A calling, a story, and strange, miraculous connections are just around a corner that we cannot yet see, waiting for each of us to take a single step forward in faith.