At 95, Willmar resident Velma Swanson says the time is now to retire her faithful sewing machine
Velma Swanson says she didn't think much of it when she started finishing baby quilts for the Daughters of Isabella quilting group at the Church of St. Mary. Now, at age 95, the Willmar woman is retiring from making quilts, having completed 600 q...
Velma Swanson says she didn't think much of it when she started finishing baby quilts for the Daughters of Isabella quilting group at the Church of St. Mary. Now, at age 95, the Willmar woman is retiring from making quilts, having completed 600 quilts given to people in need.
During the first year of quilting, she didn't track the number of quilts she made. The next five years, Swanson made 100 each year. Each quilt is put together by the group, and then delivered to Swanson's home for her to finish -- either machine quilting or tying with yarn -- which takes about six hours of work per quilt.
Swanson and 98-year-old Clara Hickey, also of Willmar, are the senior members of the quilting group, which includes 22 members, each with their own job and specialty in the quilting process. They come from all faiths and all nationalities, Mona Bonham says. Bonham, of Willmar, is another quilter who recruited Swanson to join the group.
Swanson is the only one of the group who made crib-sized quilts, sewing them on a sturdy Elna machine she bought years ago. Now, she's considering giving the machine to the church so that it can be passed on to someone else to use.
"Yesterday was a sad day," Swanson said earlier this month when she finished the last of the quilts. "I retired my sewing machine."
Those last 18 baby quilts sewed by Swanson were taken to Guatemala by an area priest traveling to the church mission there. The mission holds a special place in Velma's heart, as she first visited there 33 years ago and made a total of nine trips, helping wherever she was needed, caring for children, helping women give birth to babies and assisting with medical care.
"Everyone is a missionary," she says, adding that God gave her the fortitude to meet the tremendous needs at the mission. "I could do anything, I was given the strength."
Born in the country north of Olivia, Swanson learned to do handwork by lamplight. She learned the art of dressmaking by asking others who sewed better than she did. She sought out a local retired tailor woman and the winner of Minneapolis style shows for pointers.
"That's where I got my best tailoring lessons," she says.
Nancy Maxwell, Swanson's across-the-street neighbor, sometimes seeks help from Velma with her own quilting challenges as she makes quilts for her grandchildren. The women attend senior citizens events and go to the hair salon together, plus visit often at Swanson's house.
"She's a mother, aunt, sister and friend," Maxwell says. "She's a lot to me."
The quilters are well supported by the community, according to Bonham. They use donations of material, yarn, sewing machines and the funds from quilt raffles to continue stitching and tying new quilts for those in need of warmth.
"We've been very well supported," she said. "God takes care of us in lots of little pieces."
The quilt-makers don't stop with just quilts: They also have made hanging baskets for walkers and wheelchairs, lap robes for nursing home residents, and flannel and fleece cuddle wraps for infants and babies.
The group meets from 9 a.m. to noon Wednesdays at St. Mary's. They make between three and five quilts per week and some of the women also work on the projects at home. Over the past six years, the group has made about 3,000 quilts.
The quilts have gone to the residents of the Willmar Regional Treatment Center, women and children served by the Crisis Pregnancy Center, battered women and people who stop by the church who need blankets and other basic essentials.
The ladies practice "learn as you go" quilting, Bonham says. Each one brings unique sewing skills that they share with the others. They all are rewarded with the friendship and camaraderie that comes from working together to meet the needs of others.
The quilters find a special reward when someone treasures a quilt made by the group. "We see people with tears in their eyes, clinging to the quilt," Bonham says. "It's worth every time we pricked our fingers and drew blood."