George Holtz poses for a portrait with his Quilt of Valor in his Bloomingdale, Illinois, home on June 1, 2019. Credit: Emily McTavish

A sewing machine whirrs and an iron pumps out steam. A small band of women sorts a pile of donated fabrics into reds, whites, blues, and golds of varying shades, removing pinks, greens, and purples. Then this group, joined by an occasional man on ironing duty, will sew the patriotic fabrics into quilts for American veterans and service members at monthly Quilts of Valor sew-ins at the National Veterans Art Museum in Portage Park.

Morgan Holtz, the founder of the Chicago group, discovered Quilts of Valor (QOV) on Facebook in early 2018 and requested a quilt for her father, George. George had joined the air force in 1962 at age 19, and during the Vietnam war he served as a mechanic based in South Korea.

George’s quilt—made of muted creams, blues, and reds in a Roman Stripes pattern—was a surprise for him a year after he suffered a stroke and lost most of his mobility and speech. Holtz has been his primary caretaker with help from her brother and a certified nursing assistant.

Their situation is different from that of other families, Holtz says, but being part of QOV has deepened her pride in her father’s service and her gratitude for other veterans.

“Many of these veterans feel alone, and to have strangers reach out and thank them is powerful,” Holtz says.

While researching QOV, Holtz found the nearest chapter was in suburban Aurora, which inspired her to form a city group in March 2018; they began sewing at the museum in August.

The organization, though, has been around for more than 15 years. Catherine Roberts of Seaford, Delaware, started QOV after her son was deployed to Iraq in 2003. She wanted to give thanks and honor service members with handmade quilts. A soldier who had lost his leg in Iraq and was recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, received the first quilt.

Since then, more than 200,000 quilts have been donated in all 50 states. The organization’s reach has extended to Canada, the UK, and Australia.

The Chicago group currently has about ten members “crafting with a purpose,” Holtz says. They meet monthly, traveling from various parts of the city to the museum, where they set up sewing machines and cutting boards among the exhibits.

In May the quilters focused on creating kits of ironed precut fabrics to make quilt blocks of a pattern called Ohio Stars. The kits will go to quilters who may pass through during a sew-in or who don’t have time to meet at the museum.

This year, Holtz says, the Chicago chapter has made a dozen quilt tops to be finished by other Illinois members with long-arm sewing machines.

Some of the Chicago women who joined the group have made direct connections with service members. Renee Stuedemann found the monthly sew-ins after volunteering with the organization from home for five years.

“I figured this was perfect for me because I like doing the piecing,” Stuedemann says. “And of course, I love supporting veterans while doing something I love.”

Seeing the veterans react to the quilts can be quite moving. Stuedemann herself became choked up as she presented a quilt to army veteran Charles E. Thomas, a fellow member of Pilgrim Lutheran Church in North Center, earlier this spring.

During his 16 years in the service, Thomas was sent on tours in Iraq and Kuwait. He often thinks of the other servicemen and -women before him.

“Sometimes I wish I could go wake those World War I veterans up and tell them what they missed,” he says.

Holtz said her next project is to start another chapter in the Elmhurst area, accessible to the quilters between Chicago and Aurora.

“It’s fun to see everyone collaborating, and I think that’s why people are coming back,” Holtz says. “It’s as much about the purpose of doing the quilt as it is being in the community that enjoys the craft.”   v

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the Chicago Quilts of Valor group formed in August 2018. They actually formed in March.