Kris Kissinger shows off her finished quilt top from her improv quilt class. The squares are arranged after piecing and the layout can dramatically affect the final look. (Photo by Hannah Flor/KFSK)

A group of women in Petersburg have been getting together to quilt for nearly four decades. In early September, they brought a beloved member of their group back to town to teach classes. That reunion led to reflections on the way that quilting can stretch brains, build community, and heal. 

The Holy Cross House of the Petersburg Lutheran Church is a high-ceilinged room with skylights. On a recent Friday afternoon unfinished quilts covered the walls, squares stuck to fuzzy fabric so that quilters could play with designs.

A small group of women were crowded around a quilt-in-progress, offering both compliments and blunt critiques. The piece belonged to Kris Kissinger. She couldn’t decide what her final quilt should look like. She’s been quilting for about 40 years and is used to knowing where she’s going with a project. But this was improv quilting.

With traditional quilting, the design is established before you start. With improv quilting, the design is built as you go. Melissa Carraway was teaching the class. She said that since the process is so different from traditional quilting, it can be kind of scary for some people.

“But once you get the hang of it, it’s very freeing,” she said.

Carraway lived and quilted in Petersburg for decades. Now she comes back every year to teach classes. The classes are put on by Petersburg’s Raincountry Quilters. Years ago, the group organized into a guild and set some goals for themselves. They wanted to support the craft of quilting, to encourage one another, and to engage in community service.

One of the ways they fulfill the community service part of their mission is by participating in the nationwide Quilts of Valor program. Each year, they sew patriotic quilts for veterans in Petersburg, which they present during a Veteran’s Day ceremony. A few years ago they started including high school students in the project. During the school’s annual day of service, the group sets up a classroom and teaches students, and sometimes even coaches and teachers, to sew. Raincountry Quilter Sue Flint worked with a student who was making a quilt for her grandpa. 

“Well, he was a veteran. He didn’t live in Petersburg, but they just took it Down South to him,” she said. “And it’s – it’s an emotional thing.” 

Bringing quilting to high school students and others is part of the mission of the Raincountry Quilters. Flint said the group would love to help younger folks discover the craft.

“Our youngest member has kids in college right now, so we’re mostly pretty gray haired,” she said. “We have one high school student taking a class on Saturday, and we’re excited about that.” 

Carraway and Flint urged those who are curious not to be intimidated by the size of a full quilt. They said smaller projects like placemats or table runners are a good place to start. 

“Baby quilts are a great idea,” said Carraway. Flint added, laughing, “Yeah, babies don’t care – they just like them!”  

Carraway said quilting is a way to connect with others in the community. 

“The sharing with other people, people that you didn’t normally come in contact with on a daily basis, but you share a common interest – it gives you much more of a feeling of belonging, which is important to everyone,” she said.

And she says that lots of her students and customers joke that quilting is cheaper than therapy. 

“You do get to reflect on things and people that you care about when you’re sewing,” she said. “So yeah, it’s a very healing process for me. And for many others, I think.” 

Back at the Holy Cross House, Kris Kissinger still hadn’t settled on a final configuration for her quilt. But she said she really likes improv quilting. That surprised her. 

“Oh yeah, I’ll do it again,” she said, chuckling. “It was good. It’s good for old brains to learn new things!” 

Members of the Raincountry Quilters plan to continue organizing yearly classes and learning new ways of doing the time-honored craft. 

The Raincountry Quilters will have their annual Petersburg quilt show at the end of October.