Rita Smith died well before her name was heard by Shannon Downey. Yet death has not prevented the 99-year-old from reaching the heart of this stranger.
In search of antique and vintage textiles, Shannon has a passion for embroidery and frequent estate sales. So this year she was amazed to find a treasure trove waiting for her when she visited Rita’s home in Mount Prospect, Illinois.
A stunning U.S. embroidered map was hanging on a wall, showing off every state flower. Shannon loved it and bought it before anybody else could. But the next thing she found brought her to tears.
Rita had started a gigantic quilting project that required stitching designs of all 50 states, but she’d only had time to finish two of them.
There were at least a hundred pieces of prepped fabric left in a box, just waiting to be completed, and Shannon found herself deeply moved by them. “It felt so personal and intimate seeing the way she had left it,” she told BBC. “As soon as I saw the pieces, I knew I had to complete it, but I knew it was bigger than anything I had ever done before.”
She bought all of the pieces from the sale, but she still faced an enormous obstacle. “While I embroider, I don’t quilt,” she explained. “So I asked my Instagram community if people would help me finish it.”
What happened next blew her mind! People from all over the country immediately volunteered. In just one day, she had over 1,000 strangers offer to help with the 100 individual hexagons that needed to be worked on.
She collected addresses and started sending pieces out. Now these faithful volunteers are sharing their progress on Instagram by using the hashtag #ritasquilt.
Several people have been wondering about Rita and her life throughout this period. And they started to research and discover the maiden name of Rita and a snapshot of the school yearbook! To learn more, Shannon was even able to find and contact the son of Rita.
“He lives in the area and told me his mother was born in Michigan and worked as a school nurse all her life,” Shannon said. “He said she loved to undertake big craft projects, some [of] which would last for years.”
Everyone has to complete their pieces by November 15 and bring them back to Shannon. Once that happens, the pieces will be stitched together by a group of 30 quilters coordinated in Chicago. A local quilting studio even promised to work in their room!
Shannon will donate it to a quilting museum when the project is completed. Once there, it’s going to be a testament to community power— and the vision of Rita!
It’s so beautiful to watch Rita’s legacy live on through so many strangers. We can’t wait to see the incredible quilt when it’s finished!