Needle art for the greater good

Posted Oct. 08, 2008, at 4:57 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 5:55 a.m.

Editor’s note: The names used in this story are not the real names of the women interviewed, in compliance with Maine Department of Corrections regulations pertaining to issues of confidentiality.

BANGOR, Maine — The sewing machines at the Women’s Reentry Center hummed as the women fashioned quilts, with volunteer Liane Giambalvo of Hampden on hand to offer help and guidance where needed. But it was clear that Barbara, Phyllis, Paula and Rita knew their way around the perimeters of the blankets they were fashioning.

The reentry center is a program of the Maine Department of Corrections and operated through a contract with Volunteers of America Northern New England.

Residents in the program must have served at least 120 days of their sentence and have approximately one year left to serve. Program residents previously were inmates of the Women’s Center in Windham, sentenced for nonviolent crimes. Now they are at the Women’s Re-entry Center in Bangor, which is designed to help them make the transition from state correctional facili-ties to their home communities.

Barbara, who has been a resident of the center for six months, showed off a quilt done in shades of lively pink and appliqued with ballerinas. She also displayed a charming toy dog she made for her daughter.

With needle and thread in hand, she sat down at a table with Phyllis, who was working at a sewing machine, fashioning a quilt destined for the Linus Project, an organization that provides “security blankets” to children in crisis.

“This is my fourth one in a month,” Phyllis said with pride. She was working on the backing for the quilt, a recycled sheet with stains on it. She cut squares and rectangles of fabric to match the quilt top and machine-appliqued the shapes over the discolored areas, creating a folk art effect. Another of her ideas was to stitch a band of lace on the dull-colored fabric backing of another quilt to “liven it up.”

Barbara worked at hand sewing a butterfly applique on a backpack to cover the name of its former owner who left it behind. She said she enjoys sewing and hopes “to pass on what I learn” when new residents come to the Women’s Re-entry Center.

Such clever ways of making do with the materials at hand is a hallmark of the creativity the women bring to their projects, Giambalvo said. Virtually all of the materials the women have to work with are donated, so selection and quality is limited.

“What they do is amazing,” she said. “Stitching together creates camaraderie.” Giambalvo is applying for grants to aid in purchasing materials for the center’s quilting and needlework program.

Recently, the DMC company donated 100 skeins of embroidery floss and a half-dozen cones of crochet cotton, which pleased women like Paula, who enjoy doing cross stitch and crocheting.

Paula was working on a knit doll for a project that gives them to children of AIDS victims in Africa. Paula, an expert crocheter, developed a pattern of her own for crocheting the dolls. She, and some of the other women, also crochet caps for premature babies and for patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Paula will leave the center soon to return to her home community. To celebrate that impending event, she is making a quilt of 576 squares.

“I only need to cut 25 more squares,” she said. And, of course, sew them all together. She also has crocheted 12 afghans and made the same number of quilts for the Linus Project. “The nice thing is,” she said, “that people donate the materials for us to do this, then we turn around and make something and donate it to a place that needs it.”

Rita was at a machine making a quilt, too. She began quilting about a month ago. Before that she knew nothing about sewing and had never even used a sewing machine. Now she looks forward to handing on what she knows to her daughter.

“I surprise myself,” she said. “There’s always a method to my madness.” Her quilt was composed of batik fabric squares in shades of vivid pink — the second one she has made.

Ruth, who recently took up crocheting, has devised patterns for small, meticulously made drawstring bags. A beach bag, larger than the other bags, worked in white with narrow stripes of purple and dark pink, looked as if it could stroll confidently, slung over the shoulder of any fashionista, down the main drag of any city in the United States.

Ruth also is crocheting an afghan of four panels. The pre-dominant color is black, with two diagonal stripes of hot pink and purple. “I always take out my mistakes,” she said.

“Most of the women [sewing and doing needlework] did not realize they had any talent,” said the center’s program director, Cynthia Reid. “They make things to send home and to donate, and that gives them confidence in other areas of their lives. We have so much hope for this program.”

Reid said the Women’s Re-entry Center partners with community agencies to provide therapeutic and educational activities for the 36 residents.

Some of the residents are already partially out in the community going to college, earning GEDs or serving as volunteers at events such as the American Folk Festival. Residents also participate in a service dog training program.

Donations of fabric, thread, yarn and related items and im-plements for the sewing pro-gram at the center are needed.

Reid also would like to ex-pand the volunteer base at the center.

“We have people who would like to develop a special inter-est or talent, and we are looking for volunteers with a skill to share,” Reid said. Call her at 561-5027 for more information about donating materials or volunteering at the Women’s Reentry Center.

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