A MISSISSIPPI QUILTING GUILD IS BRIGHTENING THE LIVES OF FAMILIES WITH VERY ILL AND PREMATURE BABIES.
WRITTEN BY Rachel A. Ishee
PHOTOGRAPHED BY Joe Worthem
There’s nothing more precious than a newborn baby, but for babies born before 37 weeks, and their parents, the journey to strong and healthy can be a long, scary one. The Piecemakers Quilt Guild, an Oxford-based quilting club made up of about three dozen members, is dedicated to making the lives of families with preemies a little brighter.
The Piecemakers started using their fabric scraps in a rewarding way about a year ago, when guild president Deborah Robinson learned of a member of her church whose baby was in the neonatal intensive care unit at Tupelo North Mississippi Medical Center Women’s Hospital. The mother had asked the church if anyone could donate quilts for the babies and their families. Robinson had several quilts already made, so she contacted the hospital to see if they would accept them. The answer was yes — and the Piecemakers have been supplying the NICU with handmade pieces of art ever since.
“It helps to bring some color and happiness to the environment,” Robinson said. “You see these quilts, and they make you happy.”
NMMC in Tupelo draws patients from surrounding areas. Its level-three NICU provides care for infants born as micropreemies weighing less than 1,000 grams, and babies born at term who are critically ill. Christy Whitley is a perinatal social worker at the facility.
“Seeing the beautiful, handmade quilts when entering the NICU helps provide a home-away-from-home feeling for our families,” Whitley said. “The NICU can be a very intimidating atmosphere. Seeing that someone else cares about your baby and the difficult journey families experience lessens the emotional burden of a NICU hospitalization.”
The quilts not only add some fun color and patterns to an otherwise sterile environment but also help make the babies more comfortable.
“The idea is to make them the size of the incubator and have it fit over the top of the incubator to prevent so much light from seeping through onto the baby,” Piecemakers founder Ann O’Dell, pictured at left, said.
Exposure to bright hospital lights can be harsh on their underdeveloped eyes.
“The neonatal setting is purposefully quiet and often dark, to simulate a mother’s womb,” Whitley said. “Premature infants or infants born ill require limited stimulation. These quilts help tremendously to provide developmentally appropriate care.”
Great time and care goes into making each one of these quilts, and the recipient is always on the mind of the quilter even though they will never meet.
“We’re careful about the kind of fabric that we use because, of course, this quilt goes home with the baby when it leaves the hospital, so we don’t want to use cheap flannel that will come apart,” O’Dell said. “Our guild members are showing a lot of creativity when putting together these quilts and some of the designs are just so precious. People will use fabric that has a theme on it like pictures of comic book characters or fantasy characters.”
It generally takes a quilter a couple of days to make a 30-inch by 40-inch quilt for the babies, depending on how complicated the design is. And the hours of work that go into each quilt do not go unappreciated — the recipients cherish these pieces of kindness.
“I’ve heard comments from families that have received quilts when their babies were in the NICU unit, and most of the comments are about how special those quilts are to them,” Robinson said. “When you make a quilt for somebody, you make it for the sake of giving it to them. It’s their choice to do with it what they’d like, but I always say a quilt is made to be used.”
Robinson estimates that the guild has made around 40 quilts for the NICU. With 30-40 babies getting care there each month, it’s difficult to keep up with the demand, but that doesn’t stop the guild from trying their best to make sure every baby gets its own quilt.
“We make as many as we can,” O’Dell said. “We are adding members all of the time, so maybe at some point we will be able to.”
“We’ve talked about trying to partner up with other guilds to help out,” Robinson said.
Making baby quilts isn’t the only project the Piecemakers have taken on. The guild picks several organizations each year to benefit from their work.
“We’ve made quilts for children who end up in foster care, and we’ve made wheelchair quilts for a retirement community,” Robinson said. “For Christmas last year I did several wheelchair quilts. Some of those people are there by themselves, and they don’t really have family. I just thought that I’d try to spread a little love and let some of these people know that strangers are thinking about them.”
The quilts are not only warming hearts and people in north Mississippi — some have even made their way to countries around the world.
“When Habitat for Humanity was active in the area, we saw to it that every family that was given a house had a quilt,” O’Dell said. “As groups from Oxford travel to other countries to install water purification systems, we send a quilt for them to hang in their facility.”
As for the name, Piecemakers Quilt Guild, the founding members chose it nearly three decades ago to reflect the tranquility that comes along with constructing a quilt for someone.
“A great majority of the group liked the name ‘Piecemakers’ with its sort of play on words,” O’Dell said. “We feel that we are ‘peacemakers’ too, because piecing a quilt is a very satisfying kind of thing, and sharing information, ideas, instructions about quiltmaking, and even sharing the quilt itself, we think is also a peaceful kind of thing.”