Most people go to estate sales in hopes of finding a hidden gem of antique furniture or jewelry – for a bargain price. Shannon Downey goes for the unfinished stitching projects.
“I feel like their soul can’t possibly rest with an unfinished piece of art out there,” Downey told CNN.
It was at an estate sale in a Chicago suburb in early September that Downey, who considers stitching her life’s work, discovered Rita Smith’s creations.
“I walked into this house and there was this truly beautiful, completed, hand-embroidered, professionally-framed map of the US,” Downey said.
“I spent 10 minutes just devouring it.”
Seeing her fascination with the map, the woman overseeing the estate sale told Downey to check out a box the bedroom.
“I opened it up and discovered it was a massive quilting project that was just begun. Every bit of the project mapped out and in this plastic tub,” Downey said on Twitter.
“I sat on the floor and almost cried because I knew I had to buy it and finish it.”
“A massive … undertaking”
The project was a huge, queen-size quilt made up of 100 hexagon pieces – 50 of them embroidered with a design for every US state and 50 stars.
“While I embroider, I don’t quilt,” Downey admitted.
That’s where the internet came in.
“I thought I would put it on Instagram and try to see if people would help me finish it,” Downey said.
“Within 24 hours I had over 1,000 volunteers!”
After the names were taken, a spreadsheet was made, and mailing addresses were collected. Just a little more than a month after Downey paid $6 for the massive quilt, she was ready to send out all 100 hex pieces to her volunteers for embroidery.
“I stood there and put three stamps on every envelope,” Downey recalled.
“I was in the post office for probably two hours.”
“A ferocious crafter”
While Downey waited for her helpers to finish their assignments, her volunteers wanted to learn more about the woman who began this project so long ago. Through genealogy websites, the stitches found Rita’s husband, his obituary, and eventually her son.
“I spoke to her son and he was telling me that she was a ferocious crafter and would do upholstery, crochet, stitching… sort of everything,” Downey said.
“Eventually, she stopped to take care of her ailing husband,” Downey said the son told her.
Given the timeline of Rita’s life, the son told Downey that it’s likely the quilt was in limbo for more than 20 years.
“It’s gonna be a thing”
Once the designs are all stitched and the hexagons are returned to Downey, they will be assembled into the completed quilt. She’s given her volunteers a deadline of November 15.
From there, the pieces will be assembled and quilted into a finished product.
“We’ve got some 38 Chicago quilters lined up to handle the quilting phase of the project once we get all of the hand-stitched pieces back,” Downey said.
If everything goes according to plan, the quilt should be ready by the end of January.
“We all agreed we would love to see it in a quilting museum where the public can see it,” she said.
In the meantime, Downey – and everyone else – can follow the progress of the quilt by searching for the #RitasQuilt hashtag.
“An incredible community has sprung up around this,” she said.