SPRINGSTEIN — With practised moves, Mary Auger secures a stitch with a double overhand knot so quickly that her hands are a blur.
Dubbed "Mary’s knot" by other members of the sewing group at Springstein Mennonite Church, this technique is the final step in constructing single-sized patchwork blankets for distribution overseas by the Mennonite Central Committee.
"It takes me 15 minutes to tie a blanket," explains Auger, 74.
Every Wednesday, Auger and a dozen or so other women spend five hours in the church hall making comforters for the international relief and development agency, enjoying each other’s company as they apply creative skills to the practical task of keeping people warm.
"We do it because we like being together," says Charleswood resident Emmy Wiebe, who drives about 15 minutes to the rural church west of Winnipeg to join her fellow blanket makers.
"We like working together and being useful."
The group plans to demonstrate its blanket-making techniques to church friends and neighbours Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon at Springstein Mennonite Church, as part of the Great Winter Warm-up, sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee.
"We’re taking it more as an educational event, so people can see the whole process," explains Leona Hildebrand, 53.
Held in 13 locations across Manitoba and many more across Canada and the United States, the Great Winter Warm-up celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Christian aid organization, founded by Mennonites in 1920 to help hungry people, including fellow Mennonites in the former Soviet Union.
A larger event runs 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at North Kildonan Mennonite Brethren Church (1315 Gateway Rd.), where 350 volunteers expect to complete about 300 comforters in one day.
Organizers hope to collect a record 6,500 handmade comforters across Canada that day, with more collected at events across the United States.
"That’s a pretty hefty target for any non-profit to do in one day," says Allison Zacharias, spokesperson for Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba.
More than blankets, but not quite the elaborate quilts Mennonites traditionally are known for, these comforters feature bright patchwork, a flannel backing, puffy polyester filling — all kept together by knots stitched in a grid about 20 centimetres apart.
Last year, the organization shipped 63,841 handmade comforters to disaster zones or refugee camps in places such as Jordan, Iraq, Ukraine, Syria, Haiti, Zambia and Somalia, providing comfort to people in need as well as evidence people in North America are concerned about their welfare, says Zacharias.
"Somebody in North America cares enough to make this... It’s a message of hope."
The knowledge the blankets make a difference in people’s lives keeps the Springstein group motivated to make more during its weekly Wednesday meetings, held from September to April. Members construct about 250 blankets a year from a combination of donated fabric and materials purchased with funds raised through church dinners and bake sales.
The group started sewing activities about four decades ago, when church member Hilda Wiebe took home fabric scraps from the thrift store instead of watching them get dumped into the garbage.
"A little voice said take it home and do something with it," says Wiebe, 86, of the impetus for the group which started with six women and now includes about a dozen ranging in age from 53 to 91.
Members of the group take home fabric, mostly vintage polyester double-knit sourced from thrift stores, to cut into squares and rectangles and then sew the patches into tops that measure about 150 by 203 centimetres.
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"We try to make a variety (of designs), colourful and not so colourful ones," Bev Martens, 56, says of the design esthetic.
During their weekly meetings, group members work in pairs at several stations, taking a patchwork top to a completed comforter in about an hour.
Before a blanket gets folded up to join the pile headed for the MCC offices in Winnipeg, group members take a moment to review their handiwork, and then turn their attention to the next one.
"We take pride in our work and we admire each one we make," says Emmy Wiebe, 70.
After completing about 10 comforters each Wednesday, the volunteers tidy up their workspace, rolling their metal shelves of fabric and other supplies back into a church storage room — ready for another week of making blankets and sending warm wishes to needy people far from Springstein.
Brenda Suderman Faith reporter
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.
Representatives of various Mennonite groups meet in Indiana in July 1920 to form a central committee to help people in need. Two years later, the committee sends food and farm equipment to Mennonites in southern Russia.
During the Second World War, MCC provides aid in Europe, and extends its relief efforts after the war to assist 15,000 refugees in relocating to North and South America.
The organization begins operating a portable meat canner in 1946, an operation which now provides a half-million cans annually to hungry people around the world.
Mennonite Central Committee creates other aid organizations, such as Ten Thousand Villages, a network of fair trade craft stores (1946), Canadian Foodgrains Bank (1974), as well as the thrift shop movement (1972).
In 1979, MCC becomes the first private agency to sign a sponsorship agreement with the Canadian government, resulting in the resettlement of 4,000 refugees from Southeast Asia to Canada.
After the massive 2004 tsunami in Asia and Africa, MCC provides $20 million in aid over five years.
In the last decade, MCC assists refugees in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, and resettles 1,700 refugees in 2016 with the help of partners.
In 2018-19, the organization shipped 63,841 handmade blankets to Jordan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Korea, Ukraine, Iraq, Zambia, Syria, Somalia, Lebanon, Haiti, Burkina Faso, Canada, and the U.S.