Reproduced in its entirety on the WWQP with permission of the author
Vicki Fallon sat on the family room floor of a home in Stafford County's Park Ridge subdivision last weekend. The Medford, N.J., resident studied various scenes of Americana--a crab from Maryland, a New York skyline, an Alaskan Eskimo and an ear of corn from Nebraska.
There were 50 of them--quilt blocks pieced together from colorful fabrics into 12-inch squares.
Fallon is one of 50 women, one from each state of the nation, who agreed to create 50 such blocks each. For Fallon, that meant about 200 hours of ross-stitch and sewing.
Fallon and a handful of the other quilters among the 50 had gathered in Teresa Drummond's home for a weekend of sewing and friendship.
As she flipped from one block to the next, Fallon changed expressions as if she'd just opened a box and found inside the gift she'd always wanted.
When she got to South Carolina's block, which included a hand-painted egret in the center of the square, Fallon gasped.
"I can't believe she spent so much time on these."
That's when Rena Tolbert of Dover, Del., chimed in.
"This is so exciting," she said. "It's like having a baby."
Wendy Smith from Eaglesville, Pa., agreed. "It's like having a baby, except it takes a lot longer--three years."
No one knows more about the years of nervous anticipation associated with the project that brought these women together than Teresa Drummond.
It's her baby.
"I saw an ad in a magazine where a woman wanted to do a 50-state exchan ge, so I contacted her," Drummond said. "Her idea was that you would make her a block from your state, and she would send you one back."
Under such an exchange, only the organizer would end up with a 50-state quilt. All that the contributors would have is one block from the organizer.
"What would you do with that single block?" Drummond remembers asking herself at the time. She knew there had to be a better way. A few days later, she had come up with a plan that would enable each contributor to get a whole quilt.
In July of 1995, Drummond started placing her own ads in quilting magazines. She sought a quilter from each state who was willing to make 50 squares epresenting her place of residence.
Word began to get out among quilters.
Janet Nelson of Bellevue, Wash., saw a handwritten message about the project in the margin of a quilt-shop newsletter. She responded, but was concerned about the project's legitimacy.
"I was very hesitant about 'biting' the request for sending 50 blocks for someone I didn't know," Nelson said. "It takes a very long time to make 50 blocks, and it costs money, too."
Drummond's response convinced Nelson it was worth the effort and the investment, so Nelson signed on as Washington state's representative for the project.
But responses were coming slowly. Frustrated, Drummond turned to technology. A friend placed an ad about the project on a Web site for quilters. The site contained information for people who were interested in block exchanges or in trying to locate specific fabrics.
Drummond even considered bagging the whole project at one time. That's when she sought help from Wendy Smith, who had signed on as Pennsylvania's representative.
The two had originally met through a quilting magazine pen-pal program and had eventually become close friends.
Drummond and Smith began to mail letters to quilting guilds asking for participants. Drummond even called some guilds, producing participants from Montana and Utah.
Betty John of Layton, Utah, was excited when she heard about the project. She didn't even offer the opportunity to participate in the exchange to her quilting guild. John volunteered to represent her state on the spot.
Drummond wanted to enlist people who actually lived in the states they would represent, and that slowed the process of finding participants.
Finally, when Smith signed up with an online service, a whole new world was opened up to her. When she discovered an abundance of chat rooms and Web sites for quilters, the responses started rolling in.
Quilters like Judy Mandziara of Clinton Township, Mich., began to e-mail Smith.
"I don't even know your first name ... I saw your notice on the Internet and I'm verifying that I am interested in this exchange," Mandziara wrote via e-mail.
She sent out fabric swatches and strict guidelines to everyone involved in the project.
"We wanted to make sure everyone was doing the same quality of work," Drummond said. "We didn't want some people to be using $17-a-yard designer fabrics, while others were using only department-store calicoes."
Each quilter was asked to complete a history form, a document that served two purposes. First, Drummond wanted to be sure that quilters were committed to seeing the project through to the end. She thought that asking them to provide information about themselves, their quilting backgrounds and the squares they planned to create would serve that purpose.
Also, she wanted to gather information for a book she is trying to publish about organizing a 50-state block exchange.
Nothing about the process was easy or speedy. As Drummond noted, "the exchange took longer than what we perceived, because we would not set the deadline dates until all history forms were returned, and that did take much longer than we thought."
At one point, Drummond came up with the idea of having each quilter create one additional block to use for a charity fund-raising project. Then, she heard about a quilting contest at a nationally known quilt show in Paducah, Ky.
What's two more blocks, she thought, when you're already making so many?
Quilters were asked to make these additional blocks in red, white and blue, rather than in the mauves and greens that were used for their other blocks.
They took a vote by e-mail to determine how they would use the charity quilt. Knowing that breast cancer was a universal concern among women, the quilters decided any money they'd raise from the quilt would go to help find a cure for the disease.
All 50 women were invited to Stafford to help sew together the blocks to form the top sides of the two red, white and blue quilts.
Joyce Neyers of Minnesota wasn't able to attend the Stafford quilting bee, but volunteered to sew on the batting and backing to the tops to transform them to actual quilts.
The quilters still have to figure out a way to use the quilt as a fund-raising vehicle. Drummond has contacted Oprah Winfrey and Rosie O'Donnell, hoping that exposure on a national talk show would be the ticket. So far, neither has responded.
Other ideas ensued. Kathryn Burch of Coppell, Texas, suggested that every one contribute a recipe, and the idea for a "Nifty Fifty" cookbook was born.
Those who came to Stafford last weekend took their cookbooks home with them. The others will receive theirs with their blocks.
Vicki Fallon volunteered to type all of the history forms, so they could be compiled in a book. That way, everyone would have a history of the quilt blocks and information about the creators.
As could be expected with a project of this magnitude, there were some setbacks along the way.
Earlier this year, for example, two participants backed out. That's when Stafford Piecemakers quilting guild members Linda McNeil, Jane McGovern and Heather Ronk stepped in.
Using a pattern from "The United States Patchwork Pattern Book," they completed the Alabama squares. Pat Fitzpatrick, another guild member, made blocks representing Missouri, using a pattern from the same book.
"I was determined that each participant would end up with 50 blocks," Drummond said. "I'm thankful people from my guild were willing to step in on such short notice."
Pam Crosby, another guild member, helped out by maintaining a Web site that displayed pictures of sample quilt blocks that participants had mailed Drummond. The Web site served as inspiration to others involved in the project.
"I was floored with the beautiful blocks and how everything is coming together," Denise Branshaw of Cordova, Alaska wrote. The Web site provided her with the opportunity to see what other participants were doing even before she received her quilt blocks.
The blocks pictured on the Web site even drew a response from Australia. "Amazing. Absolutely amazing. I'm lost for words. This is a fabulous achievement. You all deserve a standing ovation," wrote Melbourne resident Carolyn Robertson.
Life offered its share of challenges along the way, as well. Participants experienced engagements, marriages, divorces, births and major moves. And one participant, Kay Jones of Troy Mont., died of cancer. Her quilting guild took over the production of her squares.
For some, the scope of the project was daunting.
Throughout the process, Drummond and the other quilters offered encourage ment through postcards and e-mail.
Frustrated that her blocks weren't turning out perfectly, Barbara Bruser of Covington, Ky., at one point sent a long e-mail to Drummond.
"I almost burned the blocks, faking an accident, and getting out of the exchange," Bruser wrote.
When the blocks arrived, Drummond e-mailed back, "Your blocks have ar rived. They are wonderful!"
Myers, one of the first to sign up for the exchange, was eager to put faces with names of the friends she had made through correspondence during the quilt project.
After serving as pen pals for several years, these women already knew one another. But seeing each other strengthened their bond. Parting company on Sunday wasn't easy.
As John said goodbye, tears began to well in her eyes. "This has been so fun. I've really enjoyed getting to know everyone."
When Rena Tolbert returned to her home in Delaware, she e-mailed Drummond a note of thanks.
"The weekend was what I expected and so much more. It is a memory that I will have for the rest of my life, and I cannot begin to thank you enough for all that you did," Tolbert wrote. "What started off as an ad in a magazine and on the Internet grew into something that will never again be duplicated."
For Drummond, the completion of the 50-state project means that perhaps quilting won't consume quite as much time in her schedule. A mother of four, her days ar e crammed with working part time, serving as a Girl Scout leader and teaching piano, quilting, macramé and crocheting lessons.
But, Drummond was quick to point out, the departures did not mark the end of the block exchange or the Nifty Fifty Quilters.
Once each woman has all her blocks, she still has to assemble them into a quilt.
To help themselves keep in touch, the women have planned quarterly quilt block exchanges that will take them through another three years.
They've planned a reunion for 2001, when they'll figure out their next project and take a look at each other's completed 50-state quilts.
Like their quilt blocks, these women are diverse. But through their love of quilting, they pieced together lasting friendships.
©1998 The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va.
You can view the quilt blocks and get more information about this project by visiting the 50 State Block Exchange websites
Nifty Fifty Charity Quilt:
Nifty Fifty History: