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Uptown, Edgewater, Rogers Park

A Lifelong Quilter Died Before Completing Gorgeous U.S. Map Project. Now, Hundreds Of Chicago Crafters Are Finishing Job To Honor Her

More than 1,000 people have volunteered to help embroiderer Shannon Downey finish the quilt in honor of Rita Smith.

Rita Smith (right) died before being able to finish a large, detailed quilt, so embroiderer Shannon Downey has enlisted volunteers to help finish the blanket.
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CHICAGO — A Rogers Park woman has brought together dozens of volunteers to finish a large, extremely detailed quilt left behind by a woman who died earlier this year.

Shannon Downey, who has been stitching since she was a kid and is known for mixing embroidery with activism, stumbled upon the unfinished quilt in September but has gained more attention for it this week after writing about it on Twitter.

Thousands of people have shared Downey’s story of coming across the quilt, learning about the woman who was making it and enlisting volunteers to finish it and honor the memory of its maker.

Downey frequently goes to estate sales to find vintage and antique textiles, and in early September she went to a home in suburban Mount Prospect for a sale. She walked in and quickly came across an embroidered map of the United States framed and hung on the wall.

The map was in “perfect shape” and just $5, so Downey bought it. That’s when the cashier mentioned, “Oh, there’s a box of fabric in that bedroom if you’re looking for stitching stuff.”

Downey went to the room to investigate and found a Tupperware container full of plans and materials for a quilt the homeowner had never been able to complete.

“I have an annoying habit of having to purchase and finish unfinished projects if I think that the person has passed on … but usually I’m just buying a half-done pillow that needs half an hour’s worth of stitching and then it’s done,” Downey said. “But this one was massive and it just felt really significant for some reason. And so I bought it.”

The quilt was supposed to fit a queen-sized bed and would feature a map of the United States surrounded by hexagons representing the individual states. Each hexagon would have an outline of the state, the state flower and bird and stitched writing noting when the state entered the union.

The quilt was also supposed to feature 50 stars, one for each state, and be bordered in a red, white and blue quote.

Once Downey started going through the plans, she realized the quilt would be an enormous undertaking — one that would take her years to finish alone, especially since she doesn’t know how to quilt.

So Downey shared her story of the quilt on Instagram, thinking a few people would be interested and would help her. Maybe she’d get enough people to each do a state and star or two, she hoped.

Instead, more than 1,000 people volunteered to help within 24 hours of the Instagram post going up.

“Which was amazing and wildly overwhelming,” Downey said.

Another 30 quilters in Chicago also reached out saying they’d help put together the pieces once the embroidery was done.

With so many people trying to help, Downey built spreadsheets and got contact and mailing information for the volunteers to keep everything organized. She also decided she wouldn’t embroider any of the state hexagons so more volunteers would be able to join in.

Downey’s sizable audience on social media didn’t just stop at volunteering, though. They also started to look for more information about Rita Smith, the woman who had planned to make the quilt before her death.

What they found brought even more meaning to the project: Smith was a Mount Prospect woman who had once been a nurse and recently died at 99 years old.

Downey was able to connect with Smith’s son, William Smith, who said he was surprised at the attention — but confirmed his mother had been a “monster crafter.” She’d frequently reupholstered furniture and was constantly sewing and stitching.

But William Smith suspects his mother hadn’t been able to work on the quilt in 15 or 20 years, as she’d dedicated the last years of her life to caring for her husband.

“It was just really cool to learn a little bit more about her as a person and to be able to share that with the group” of volunteers, Downey said. “We’ve become very close to her through our studying of her embroidery and the research we’ve done, so it was neat to get some additional context and know that she was a lovely human who was deeply loved.”

Downey shipped out the plans to her volunteers, and in doing so she realized Rita Smith had actually finished hexagons for two of the states. She wept at seeing her fellow embroiderer’s work.

Those states will be incorporated into the quilt, and the volunteers are studying Smith’s stitching style so they can mimic it in tribute to her.

“She’s a really talented stitcher,” Downey said. “Everyone feels incredible pressure to up their game.”

One characteristic of Smith’s work: She “clearly loved” French knots, which are hit-or-miss among other stitchers because they’re quite challenging, Downey said. But every volunteer is going to try to incorporate at least one French knot in each hexagon or star, and some people are even filling in their stars entirely with French knots in honor of Smith.

“It’s really neat and special to see the different ways people are incorporating that into their pieces,” Downey said.

Everyone is supposed to send back their finished stitchwork by Nov. 15. Then, Downey will move on to quilting. She thinks the project will require four or five “sewing bees” where everyone will work together over several hours.

Downey first thought she’d also have to embroider the map of the United States that goes at the center of the quilt — but she’s realized she can instead use the framed map she bought at Smith’s home. That will be another way she can incorporate Smith’s work into the project and honor her, she said.

“… Now Rita’s hand will be in the center,” Downey said. “Her presence is going to be seen throughout [the quilt], which is really, really neat.”

And while normally Downey gives away the work she finishes from estate sales, she has special plans for Smith’s quilt.

“We’ve sort of collectively agreed that we’d love for it to go to a quilting museum for their collection so Rita’s work … and the work of all these people can sort of be a testament to community and [how] social media can actually be used for good and how we can come together around something and work together to create something really special out of it,” Downey said.

Those interested in following Downey’s and the volunteers’ work can search the hashtag #RitasQuilt on Instagram.

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