Piece by piece, Lexmark quilters give back to veterans, grow their networks

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By Scott Shive

The first thing to know about the Quilts of Valor sewing circle at Lexmark: They are a diverse crew. All are based in Lexington; they are mostly women and a few men and represent a range of ages and ranks; current employees and at least one who recently retired; and far-flung departments from annuities marketing to development, global services to facilities.

The second thing — and this is important if you sit in on a meeting: They get very excited about quilting stuff. Sewing machines and their various bells and whistles; fabric and its sundry variations; gadgets and gizmos designed to make each of the thousand steps in crafting a quilt easier. The talk is pleasantly ceaseless.

The third thing? They are committed to their mission to say thank-you to U.S. military veterans by making them quilts. They say they willingly give up a little of their free time, craftsmanship, energy and needle-pricked fingers to the men and women who gave up a lot, sometimes not so willingly, to ensure Americans have time that’s free.

The concept for Quilts of Valor and its chapters is simple: Volunteers create handmade quilts to give to veterans of the armed services as a way of showing appreciation for their service.

“We’re growing a great team, who all love to make beautiful things and giving back to the community,” says the Lexmark’s quilting circle’s founder and “ringleader,” Linda Hollembaek, vice president and general manager, Global Services Operations. “We’re having great fun learning from each other and expanding our networks.”

It formed only in February but already the group, officially dubbed the Patriotic Patchworkers, is currently in the early stages of its fourth quilt (a pattern called “Fourth of July”).

Their first quilt — a lovely geometric pattern called “patriotic rail fence” in reds, whites and blues — was officially awarded July 2, two days before the U.S. Independence Day holiday, to Charles G. Williamson, a 91-year-old World War II veteran from Lexington (pictured below).

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The awarding took place in a small ceremony at Lexmark’s global headquarters and was attended by Williamson’s family and friends, members of the Lexmark quilters, and a local honor guard.

Part of a national organization

The Patchworkers are an official chapter of the the U.S. non-profit organization Quilts of Valor Foundation. The group was founded in 2003 by Catherine Roberts, mother of a U.S. Army soldier deployed in the war in Iraq. Roberts says she was inspired by a dream in which a soldier home from war, wracked by the demons of combat, was comforted when he was wrapped in a handmade quilt. The group awarded its first quilt later that year. Through word of mouth, Quilts of Valor grew, forming local chapters in all 50 U.S. states and expanding its mission “to cover servicemembers and veterans touched by war with comforting and healing Quilts of Valor.”

In 13 years, it has awarded nearly 140,000 quilts to veterans and servicemembers across the country and at American military installations worldwide.

Quick growth

Just like Quilts of Valor grew by word of mouth so did Patriotic Patchworkers. Hollembaek, Julie Knight and Susan Macke, all longtime sewists, started taking quilting classes about two years ago. Early this year, Hollembaek attended a Quilts of Valor gifting ceremony; she suggested to her Lexmark sewing pals that they should do a quilt for the program. Each of them told someone else they knew to be interested in sewing.

Quickly, the Patchworkers’ roster had grown to nearly a dozen people.

It’s not surprising that quilting might appeal to Lexmarkers; after all, it’s essentially a kind of fabric engineering. Plus, “it’s a little bit addictive,” Knight says.

The group is organized tightly and loosely at the same time. QOV dictates standards for size, fabric quality, construction techniques and color, but beyond that it’s up to local governance.

The Patchworkers pick a quilt pattern as a group, then “we just split it up,” they say.

Growing the circle, the VALORR Diversity Network Group for veterans and their supporters at Lexmark in Lexington is currently having a fabric donation drive.

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Everyone is welcome

The Patchworkers are experienced sewists, but all are growing in their skills and networks.  

“We share a lot,” says Linda Jennings, who estimates she’s quilted for two decades and sewed for even longer. “I’ve been quilting for years, and I still learn stuff.”

“I get to meet people that I wouldn’t normally get to see,” Knight said, mentioning the oft-heard sentiment that it’s Lexmark’s people that make this such a great place to work. “It’s the people at Lexmark that matter. This is just one more extension and layer to that.”

Then there’s the charitable aspect.

Of the veterans and servicemembers receiving quilts, Jennings said, “This is a chance to show our appreciation for the sacrifices they made.”