February 20, 2020

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Patchwork blankets provide comfort to people worldwide

Church members' work distributed by Mennonite Central Committee

Two of the three women who started the quilting circle over 40 years ago, Trudy Rempel, left, and Hilda Wiebe.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Two of the three women who started the quilting circle over 40 years ago, Trudy Rempel, left, and Hilda Wiebe.

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.

The women from Springstein Mennonite Church are holding a drive to make and collect 6,500 blankets in one day.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The women from Springstein Mennonite Church are holding a drive to make and collect 6,500 blankets in one day.

"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.

Mary Auger putting ties into each panel to keep them together on Wednesday.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Mary Auger putting ties into each panel to keep them together on Wednesday.

"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.

MCC quilting Circle at Springstein Mennonite Church making quilts for Mennonite Central Committee in advance of their 100th year celebration.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

MCC quilting Circle at Springstein Mennonite Church making quilts for Mennonite Central Committee in advance of their 100th year celebration.

"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.

"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. 

faith@freepress.mb.ca

Brenda Suderman

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.

Read full biography

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