Tears of joy and relief flowed Saturday as more than 100 ardent quilters gathered at a Baton Rouge church to pick up donated sewing machines and supplies to replace materials lost in August's floods.
By 8 a.m., quilters were already lining the walkway to Highland Presbyterian Church for a quilting project dubbed Bridge Over Troubled Waters. It was organized to help south Louisiana quilters whose homes had flooded return to practicing a craft that’s a passion for many.
They arrived armed with push wagons and canvas totes, ready to pick up 90 donated sewing machines and choose from thousands of yards of donated fabric, thread, patterns and notions. The free shopping day was the culmination of a months-long effort by local quilters JoPaula Lantier and Renee Hoeprich to uplift the quilting community and return flooded quilters to their craft.
The project began out of a late night instant messaging conversation and a need to do something good, Hoeprich said. Both women had helped salvage quilts and fabric from friends’ homes in the days following the flood, but both felt more needed to be done, she said.
Through conversations with Denise Taylor, owner of Mes Amis Quilt Shop in New Orleans and a Katrina survivor, Lantier and Hoeprich conceived of the Bridge Over Troubled Waters drive. Neither knew what they were getting into, but they knew going on faith that it was going to work, Hoeprich said.
Donations and public interest skyrocketed from the moment the first collection bin was distributed in mid-September. Collection bins were placed in quilt shops from Shreveport to Slidell, and each week Lantier would receive calls that overflowing donation bins were awaiting pick-up, she said.
The donations packed three mini storage units and spilled over into Lantier and Hoeprich’s sewing and dining rooms.
“We thought we’d give everybody some fabric and maybe a few people would get sewing machines,” Lantier said. “We ended up with 90 sewing machines and 10,000 yards of fabric. We had no idea it would be this overwhelming of a response.”
Collections began trickling in from Missouri, California, Arizona, Pennsylvania and a handful of other states as word spread through sewing circles across the country. It was very touching, Lantier said, especially at a time when many in Louisiana felt forgotten by the national news.
As the donations poured in, Lantier began collecting the names of flooded quilters from local shops and quilting guilds, eventually mailing out 146 letters inviting women to participate in the giveaway day.
Debbi Kelly, a quilter in Denham Springs, said she sat and cried when she learned of what Lantier and Hoeprich were doing. The 59-year-old said she was humbled by the compassion of Lantier, Hoeprich and the people who donated, and the countless hours they invested into serving those who had lost so much.
Quilters are some of the most generous people, she said.
“The quilting community to me is a special breed of people,” Kelly said. “If somebody’s in need we’re going to reach out, it’s just what we do.”
Kelly’s home, like many others in the area, was inundated by over 4 feet of water and many of her sewing books and materials were destroyed when water overtook her first floor sewing room, she said. Despite attending the giveaway to shop for herself, she also served as a volunteer, helping women find just the right fabric, notions and books to get back on their feet.
Roberta Wilson, president of The Giving Quilt, Inc., said faces were glowing when women stumbled upon the perfect replacements for tools and materials they thought were gone for good. One woman was beaming when she found a discontinued ruler style she had lost in the flood, her smile lighting up the room, she said.
Most quilters’ families don't understand how important their collections are to them, or what the loss means for women who use quilting as a source of solace, Wilson said. For some this is the first time they've been able to share the loss of their quilting supplies.
Many women’s quilting collections cost a fortune, and without the drive they wouldn't have been able to return to the craft, she said. When Wilson’s sewing room flooded she said she felt like a part of her had been lost forever.
After the drive, she said she felt like she could see the light at the end of the tunnel.