Intergenerational Quilters Connect a Community
Many hands, young and old, come together to stitch with Peace by Piece
(Editor's Note: PBS will air the premiere of QUILTS, a new episode of the Peabody-Award winning series Craft in America, on Friday, December 27, 2019. Check local listings for details.)
It’s Friday afternoon at Senior Court, a public housing complex in Norwalk, Conn. The large and sunny community room is full of two dozen quilters, hard at work designing patterns, cutting fabric, running sewing machines and handstitching.
There’s plenty of laughter and conversation as well among the quilters, who range in age from 5 to 90. Those symbiotic benefits are at the heart of Peace by Piece, an intergenerational, after-school community art program which brings older adults and youth together each week to create quilts.
“Young participants are mentored by the elders in the room, and the children provide companionship to our seniors,” says Lizzy Rockwell, 58, a picture book author and illustrator, teacher and founder of Peace by Piece. “Everyone is gaining math, design and handcrafting skills, expressing themselves creatively, and experiencing the soothing benefits inherent in needlecrafts.”
Learning the Art of Quilting
Rockwell began quilting as an adolescent in the 1970s, learning from books alongside her mother and sister. “For several years, we had a quilt frame set up in our living room where my sister and I would sit and stitch with friends after school,” Rockwell says.
On her own, in adulthood, Rockwell made three bed-sized quilts for her home. “I adore the first full-size quilt I made,” she says. “It’s an improvisational patchwork; I cut out each shape with scissors and sewed it together on my vintage Singer 99K."
"I sat down at the table, put in a couple of stitches and really enjoyed it, and I've been doing it ever since."
“I remember the thrill of creating that abstract composition, making a patch, then another and another, and arranging them together,” Rockwell continues. “It was a very organic and intuitive process, like abstract painting or collage, which I love to do as well. But the fact that it would be a functional object that brought warmth and beauty to my home made it even more meaningful and symbolic.”
A Communal Family
Rockwell came up with the idea for Peace by Piece in 2008. “I had been teaching art in after-school programs, and most of my work addressed the needs of children growing up in low-income households, sometimes in unsafe neighborhoods, and some of them processing trauma,” she says. “I saw the power of art to soothe, empower and socially connect my students.”
Recalling quilting with her sister and friends and what a calm, shareable activity it was — describing quilt piecing as emotional peace — Rockwell proposed Peace by Piece, where hands were busy and minds free to converse.
Rockwell received a grant for Peace by Piece from the Norwalk Children’s Foundation and was able to secure the location at Senior Court, where many of the program’s older participants live. “It even has a laundry room where we can prewash our fabrics,” Rockwell says.
Viola Sears, 90, has been involved with Peace by Piece since its beginning. “I sat down at the table, put in a couple of stitches and really enjoyed it, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” she says.
Sears’ mother was a quilter, religiously saving old clothes and scraps until she had enough for a quilt. “She had an old-fashioned sewing machine that you pedal — no hand stitches — and she’d make pretty, warm quilts,” Sears says. “Me? I’m all hand-sewing. I’m not a designer like these kids are. They create so many different styles I could never dream of.”
For Sears and other Peace by Piece participants, it’s the community aspect that keeps them coming.
“I’m a people lover,” Sears says. “I love laughing and talking with everyone, especially the kids. We’ve got little ones and big ones and in-between ones. They love to sew and put things together. So as long as God gives me the strength and I can still move these old fingers, I’ll be there every Friday.”
Developing Self-Esteem and Skills in Youth
Peace by Piece assistant teacher, Anna Veccia, helps the youth with their individual projects. “If I’m working with small children, I do the more complicated parts such as machine work,” she says. “I also teach various sewing skills and how to properly use a sewing machine.”
The children design all their own pieces, creating art from fabric. “Peace by Piece allows them to be creative and learn from each other and the ladies as well,” Veccia says. “The program fosters self-esteem and gives them skills they can take with them throughout life.”
Emilsa Yanes started going to Peace by Piece at age 15. “I was going through some bullying, and a family friend thought it might be good for me,” Yanes says. “It did help. I made six pillows of various sizes, but the best part was meeting a community I didn’t know about: the older citizens of Norwalk. It’s amazing how easily you can connect with them. They love to talk to you and tell stories about the past.”
Now 24 and a college student, Yanes still attends Peace by Piece each Friday. “I have a crazy bond with the kids there as well as the older ladies,” she says. “I’m working on a green pillow now, and am getting my younger brother involved as well.”
The youth also learn another important skill at Peace by Piece: patience. “It takes time to do these things . . . it’s not ‘quick quick quick,’” says Fran Paris, 64, a participant who is a self-taught quilter.
"And whenever we have the chance, we take our quilt frame to public places and invite people to sit and stitch with us," Rockwell says.
“I enjoy the whole process of quilting— cutting out, figuring it out, sewing and seeing the outcome,” Paris says. “My 11-year-old grandson, Maurice, started coming to Peace by Piece with me three years ago, and last year he got a sewing machine for Christmas. He’s learning a skill he’ll always have.”
Taking Collaborative Quilts Into the Community
Quilts made by Piece by Piece youth and adults are designed for personal use, given as gifts or used for fundraising. Six large and colorful collaborative quilts have been completed for public installation at Norwalk Community College, Stepping Stones Museum for Children, Norwalk Public Library, South Norwalk Branch Library and Newfield Library in Bridgeport, Conn.
“We display three Peace by Piece quilts, and my personal favorite is the 'love letters' quilt,” says Vicki Oatis, librarian at Norwalk Public Library. “The word 'love' is repeated over and over again and can be viewed no matter which direction it hangs. The fabric art patches were created in answer to the question, ‘What do you love?’”
Oatis says that library visitors comment on the beauty of the quilts, and love knowing they were a community project. “And whenever we have the chance, we take our quilt frame to public places and invite people to sit and stitch with us,” Rockwell says. “For the ladies and kids acting as ambassadors at the frame, this is a powerful experience.”
Inspiration for a Book
Rockwell has written and illustrated a children’s book based on Peace by Piece entitled The All-Together Quilt, set to be published by Random House in 2020. “Kids need stories about connecting with their community and making friends in surprising places,” Rockwell says.
“I also set a challenge for myself to actually sew together the quilt they make in the book,” she says. “The Peace by Piece ladies helped me. The jacket of the book features an image of one of them, my dear friend Ernestine Cobb, quilting with kids on the frame.”