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nifty fifty quilters of america
Fabric of a Nation

History of the Nifty Fifty Quilters 50 State Block Swaps
Originally Published May 1, 1998, in the Free Lance-Star,
Fredericksburg, Virginia Reproduced in its entirety
with permission of the author
By WENDY LaRUE The Free Lance-Star

Vicki Fallon sat on the family room floor of a home in Stafford County's Park Ridge subdivision last
weekend. The Medford, N.J., resident studied various scenes of Americana--a crab from Maryland, a
New York skyline, an Alaskan Eskimo and an ear of corn from Nebraska. There were 50 of them--quilt
blocks pieced together from colorful fabrics into 12-inch squares. Fallon is one of 50 women, one from
each state of the nation, who agreed to create 50 such blocks each. For Fallon, that meant about 200 hours
of ross-stitch and sewing. Fallon and a handful of the other quilters among the 50 had gathered in Teresa
Drummond's home for a weekend of sewing and friendship.

As she flipped from one block to the next, Fallon changed expressions as if she'd just opened a box and
found inside the gift she'd always wanted. When she got to South Carolina's block, which included a
hand-painted egret in the center of the square, Fallon gasped. "I can't believe she spent so much time on
these." That's when Rena Tolbert of Dover, Del., chimed in. "This is so exciting," she said. "It's like having a
baby."  Wendy Smith from Eaglesville, Pa., agreed. "It's like having a baby, except it takes a lot
longer--three years."

No one knows more about the years of nervous anticipation associated with the project that brought these
women together than Teresa Drummond  It's her baby.


It all started with an idea and an ad in a quilting magazine. Drummond, 37, who's been quilting for seven
years, wanted to exchange quilt blocks so she'd have a 50-block quilt, with a block from each state. She
began looking for ads soliciting participants for such exchanges. "I saw an ad in a magazine where a woman
wanted to do a 50-state exchan ge, so I contacted her," Drummond said. "Her idea was that you would
make her a block from your state, and she would send you one back."

Under such an exchange, only the organizer would end up with a 50-state quilt. All that the contributors
would have is one block from the organizer. "What would you do with that single block?" Drummond
remembers asking herself at the time. She knew there had to be a better way. A few days later, she had
come up with a plan that would enable each contributor to get a whole quilt.

In July of 1995, Drummond started placing her own ads in quilting magazines. She sought a quilter from
each state who was willing to make 50 squares epresenting her place of residence. Word began to get out
among quilters. Janet Nelson of Bellevue, Wash., saw a handwritten message about the project in the
margin of a quilt-shop newsletter. She responded, but was concerned about the project's legitimacy.
"I was very hesitant about 'biting' the request for sending 50 blocks for someone I didn't know," Nelson
said. "It takes a very long time to make 50 blocks, and it costs money, too."  Drummond's response
convinced Nelson it was worth the effort and the investment, so Nelson signed on as Washington state's
representative for the project.

But responses were coming slowly. Frustrated, Drummond turned to technology. A friend placed an ad
about the project on a Web site for quilters. The site contained information for people who were interested
in block exchanges or in trying to locate specific fabrics. Drummond even considered bagging the whole
project at one time. That's when she sought help from Wendy Smith, who had signed on as Pennsylvania's

The two had originally met through a quilting magazine pen-pal program and had eventually become close
friends. Drummond and Smith began to mail letters to quilting guilds asking for participants. Drummond even
called some guilds, producing participants from Montana and Utah.

Betty John of Layton, Utah, was excited when she heard about the project. She didn't even offer the
opportunity to participate in the exchange to her quilting guild. John volunteered to represent her state on the
spot. Drummond wanted to enlist people who actually lived in the states they would represent, and that
slowed the process of finding participants. Finally, when Smith signed up with an online service, a whole
new world was opened up to her. When she discovered an abundance of chat rooms and Web sites for
quilters, the responses started rolling in.

Quilters like Judy Mandziara of Clinton Township, Mich., began to e-mail Smith. "I don't even know your
first name ... I saw your notice on the Internet and I'm verifying that I am interested in this exchange,"
Mandziara wrote via e-mail.


Finally, in October of 1996, Drummond had 50 participants lined up. The project could get under way. She
sent out fabric swatches and strict guidelines to everyone involved in the project. "We wanted to make sure
everyone was doing the same quality of work," Drummond said. "We didn't want some people to be using
$17-a-yard designer fabrics, while others were using only department-store calicoes."

Each quilter was asked to complete a history form, a document that served two purposes. First, Drummond
wanted to be sure that quilters were committed to seeing the project through to the end. She thought that
asking them to provide information about themselves, their quilting backgrounds and the squares they
planned to create would serve that purpose. Also, she wanted to gather information for a book she is trying
to publish about organizing a 50-state block exchange.

Nothing about the process was easy or speedy. As Drummond noted, "the exchange took longer than what
we perceived, because we would not set the deadline dates until all history forms were returned, and that
did take much longer than we thought."


The project continued to evolve even as each participant began working on her 50 blocks. At one point,
Drummond came up with the idea of having each quilter create one additional block to use for a charity
fund-raising project. Then, she heard about a quilting contest at a nationally known quilt show in Paducah,
Ky. What's two more blocks, she thought, when you're already making so many?

Quilters were asked to make these additional blocks in red, white and blue, rather than in the mauves and
greens that were used for their other blocks. They took a vote by e-mail to determine how they would use
the charity quilt. Knowing that breast cancer was a universal concern among women, the quilters decided
any money they'd raise from the quilt would go to help find a cure for the disease.

All 50 women were invited to Stafford to help sew together the blocks to form the top sides of the two red,
white and blue quilts. Joyce Neyers of Minnesota wasn't able to attend the Stafford quilting bee, but
volunteered to sew on the batting and backing to the tops to transform them to actual quilts.

The quilters still have to figure out a way to use the quilt as a fund-raising vehicle. Drummond has contacted
Oprah Winfrey and Rosie O'Donnell, hoping that exposure on a national talk show would be the ticket. So
far, neither has responded.

Other ideas ensued. Kathryn Burch of Coppell, Texas, suggested that every one contribute a recipe, and
the idea for a "Nifty Fifty" cookbook was born. Those who came to Stafford last weekend took their
cookbooks home with them. The others will receive theirs with their blocks.

Vicki Fallon volunteered to type all of the history forms, so they could be compiled in a book. That way,
everyone would have a history of the quilt blocks and information about the creators.

As could be expected with a project of this magnitude, there were some setbacks along the way.
Earlier this year, for example, two participants backed out. That's when Stafford Piecemakers quilting guild
members Linda McNeil, Jane McGovern and Heather Ronk stepped in. Using a pattern from "The United
States Patchwork Pattern Book," they completed the Alabama squares. Pat Fitzpatrick, another guild
member, made blocks representing Missouri, using a pattern from the same book.
"I was determined that each participant would end up with 50 blocks," Drummond said. "I'm thankful
people from my guild were willing to step in on such short notice."

Pam Crosby, another guild member, helped out by maintaining a Web site that displayed pictures of sample
quilt blocks that participants had mailed Drummond. The Web site served as inspiration to others involved
in the project.

"I was floored with the beautiful blocks and how everything is coming together," Denise Branshaw of
Cordova, Alaska wrote. The Web site provided her with the opportunity to see what other participants
were doing even before she received her quilt blocks.

The blocks pictured on the Web site even drew a response from Australia. "Amazing. Absolutely amazing.
I'm lost for words. This is a fabulous achievement. You all deserve a standing ovation," wrote Melbourne
resident Carolyn Robertson.

Life offered its share of challenges along the way, as well. Participants experienced engagements, marriages,
divorces, births and major moves. And one participant, Kay Jones of Troy Mont., died of cancer. Her
quilting guild took over the production of her squares.

For some, the scope of the project was daunting. Throughout the process, Drummond and the other quilters
offered encourage ment through postcards and e-mail. Frustrated that her blocks weren't turning out
perfectly, Barbara Bruser of Covington, Ky., at one point sent a long e-mail to Drummond. "I almost
burned the blocks, faking an accident, and getting out of the exchange," Bruser wrote. When the blocks
arrived, Drummond e-mailed back, "Your blocks have arrived. They are wonderful!"


Finally, last Friday the pieces began to fall into place. A handful of the Nifty Fifty Quilters--including some
who traveled great distances like Pam Millwood from Maryville, Tenn.; Jeri Bordine from Elk City, Okla.;
and Betty John from Utah. Susan Myers from Atlanta, Ga., couldn't imagine missing the weekend of
culminating activities for the Nifty Fifty's project. "I had to come," she said. "I couldn't have stayed at home
knowing that these other women were here together." Myers, one of the first to sign up for the exchange,
was eager to put faces with names of the friends she had made through correspondence during the quilt

After serving as pen pals for several years, these women already knew one another. But seeing each other
strengthened their bond. Parting company on Sunday wasn't easy. As John said goodbye, tears began to
well in her eyes. "This has been so fun. I've really enjoyed getting to know everyone." When Rena Tolbert
returned to her home in Delaware, she e-mailed Drummond a note of thanks.
"The weekend was what I expected and so much more. It is a memory that I will have for the rest of my life,
and I cannot begin to thank you enough for all that you did," Tolbert wrote. "What started off as an ad in a
magazine and on the Internet grew into something that will never again be duplicated."

For Drummond, the completion of the 50-state project means that perhaps quilting won't consume quite as
much time in her schedule. A mother of four, her days are crammed with working part time, serving as a Girl
Scout leader and teaching piano, quilting, macramé and crocheting lessons. But, Drummond was quick to
point out, the departures did not mark the end of the block exchange or the Nifty Fifty Quilters. Once each
woman has all her blocks, she still has to assemble them into a quilt.
To help themselves keep in touch, the women have planned quarterly quilt block exchanges that will take
them through another three years.

They've planned a reunion for 2001, when they'll figure out their next project and take a look at each other's
completed 50-state quilts. Like their quilt blocks, these women are diverse. But through their love of
quilting, they pieced together lasting friendships.

©1998 The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va.
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