Sisterhood of Scraps by Elisabeth Tully


Over the past few weeks, I have spent long afternoons sorting, washing, starching, pressing and organizing the extensive fabric collection of Leonilla (Lee) Horsey, a woman I never met who died in 2013. During the many hours spent in intimate contact with the artifacts of her lifelong passion, a strange thing happened. I went from being somewhat resentful to have been saddled with a tedious responsibility to forming a profound and affectionate connection with a fellow quilter.

It began while I was driving to South Carolina and received a call from someone I didn’t know. She told me her car was full of books and fabric belonging to Lee Horsey and that someone had suggested that I could go through them and determine which fabric the Olde Kent Quilters Guild members could use to make charity quilts for needy children and elders. “Sure,” I said. “Drop them by, my son will let you in.”

I had almost forgotten this interaction until over a week later when I returned to find twelve large boxes that completely obscured my dining room. Not since I was “Cookie Captain” for my daughter’s Girl Scout troop, had so many boxes been in my house. I was immediately overwhelmed and ignored them for several days. Then I gingerly began to open the boxes.

There is a saying among quilters, “She who dies with the most fabric wins.” Lee has to be in contention for a prize. Her enormous collection contained some contemporary fabric and recent books, but most were datable back to the seventies when quilt cloth was harder to come by, and the patterns were more traditional. The quilting books included some that I remember from my first incarnation as a quilter during that decade—before children and life intervened, and I gave up quilting for many years.

In taking inventory, I found that like many creative quilters, for whom fabric is a palette, Lee was impeccable in the care of her stash. She had washed, starched, pressed, and folded each piece, before carefully arranging them in the boxes. But in storage for five years after her passing, the material became musty and needed to be refreshed. Which is where I came in. This is not a job for the faint of heart; fabric care is a labor of love.

As is the case with an archeological dig, you can learn a lot about a person by examining the tools of their trade or craft. Lee had a serious side and possessed a quantity of fabric in muted and dark tones. But there was also a playful side that came through in her selection of whimsical cloth suitable for children. Like many ‘fabricaholics,’ she was ecumenical in her tastes. Besides quilting cotton, her collection included fake fur, bright yellow polar fleece, cotton knits, upholstery fabric and even five yards of beautiful Thai silk. As I held each piece, I found myself wondering what plans and dreams she had harbored for each new cloth she purchased. Quilters are by nature optimistic, feeling it is never too late to get one more piece of material, even if you don’t have a specific plan for it at the moment. Through quilting, a quilter is immortalized both by the projects she completes during her life and by those fabrics left in her reserve when she is gone.

Like most of us, Lee had her share of UFOs (UnFinished Objects). I wondered what kept her from putting the final touches on an adorable baby quilt? Why did she cut out thousands of perfect triangles? Who were the intended recipients of two unfinished aprons made of colorful orange fabric? What was she planning to do with all the coordinating Christmas prints?

Many of the fabrics were small pieces remaining from prior projects. I would love to have seen some of them and would have been delighted to find ‘my’ scraps represented in her creations. As I completed my work, my connection with Lee grew until it became almost spiritual. Is it a coincidence that I live right around the corner from Horsey Lane? I wanted to know more about who she had been. Networking with my quilting sisters, I discovered Lee’s obituary. I was not surprised to learn that she had been a remarkable woman. I was delighted to find that she had been a founding member of the Olde Kent Quilters Guild.

Now that her fabrics have been returned to pristine condition, the current members of that same guild will cut and piece them into dozens of small quilts. As part of the guild’s Deborah’s Angels charity quilt initiative, these are donated to sick and needy children and individuals in hospice care. I am confident that Lee would be pleased to see her beloved collection repurposed in this way. Quilters are, after all, the ultimate recyclers. If there is an afterlife, Lee must be looking down on our labors with a big smile on her face. Five years after she left this earth, she is still making a difference in the lives of many people she never met.

Elisabeth Tully retired in 2015 and moved to Chestertown, where she lives in the historic district less than two blocks from her oldest son and daughter-in-law and 4 of her 11 grandchildren. She loves the vibrancy of her adopted town, has more friends than she has had at any time since high school, and is delighted to be able to walk everywhere she needs to go. She is an avid cyclist, a Olde Kent Quilters Guild and a Trustee of the Kent County Public Library.

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