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Posted February 9, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Quilt project brings Louisa May Alcott's story to life in fabric

Roberta Collett, left, of Woodstock, and Barb Lambert, of Wardensville, W.Va., look over the patchwork blocks they've made from Louise May Alcott quilt design patterns at the Quilter's Cabin inside Shenandoah Sew and Vac in Woodstock. The Shenandoah County Parks and Recreation Department is sponsoring classes for those interested in quilting. Rich Cooley/Daily

Collett works
Collett works on a quilt block. Rich Cooley/Daily

Roberta Collett and Barb Lambert
Roberta Collett, left, of Woodstock, and Barb Lambert, of Wardensville, W.Va., look over the patchwork blocks they've made from Louise May Alcott quilt design patterns at the Quilter's Cab in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

design block
Design block for a quilt. Rich Cooley/Daily

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By Natalie Austin -- Daily Staff Writer

WOODSTOCK -- With a sewing machine humming in the background, women scurried about the small quilt shop, looking at colorful fabric blocks that tell the story of beloved American author Louisa May Alcott and her family.

The author of "Little Women" had an intellectually rich but impoverished past, and later wrote to put food on the table while growing up in New England.

A philosopher and teacher, her father educated her and made some money doing lectures. She made trips to Ralph Waldo Emerson's library and spent time with Henry David Thoreau.

Women's rights were forever in the forefront -- she was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Mass. She helped in the underground railroad to smuggle slaves and treated injured soldiers in a Civil War hospital.

As the women flipped through the quilt blocks -- or cameos -- Alcott and her family came to life in strips of cloth that had been meticulously cut, telling her story with scissors rather than a pen.

In all, nine blocks will have to be completed for the colorful 73-by-93-inch quilt, some containing tiny, intricate quilts themselves, advancing the author's life and that of her family.

"This is a lot of work, but it's also a lot of fun," says instructor Barb Lambert, manager of the Quilter's Cabin, located in Shenandoah Sew and Vac in Woodstock.

The quilt is based on a book, "Louisa May Alcott: Quilts of Her Life, Her Work, Her Heart," by Terry Clothier Thompson (Kansas City Star Books, 2008). Creating the quilt, though, is part of the Shenandoah County Parks and Recreation Department's series of winter quilting classes. With a focus on senior activities, Teresa Funkhouser, recreation services coordinator, says she has been pleased at the response. Younger participants also are showing an interest in creation of these fabric heirlooms.

"Most classes have filled fairly quickly, and I have been really pleased," she says, surveying the colorful blocks that lined a table before her.

All of the women working on the initial blocks prior to the Feb. 16 introductory class were Alcott fans. Quilter Roberta Collett, of Woodstock, rattled off a list of the movie versions of "Little Women" that she has on DVD.

"I thought she was a very interesting person. Her family was poor and lived off the compassion of friends," says Collett.

Robertson also had a true Alcott fan's knowledge of the author, who was 22 when she wrote her first book, "Flower Fables." Another milestone was the book "Hospital Sketches," written in 1863 and based on letters she wrote to her family while working as a nurse in Washington during the Civil War." "Little Women" was written when she was 35, from Orchard House, the Alcott family home. The book, written in 1868, was based on Alcott and her sisters, coming of age in Civil War New England.

"She worked during the Civil War at a hospital taking care of patients and made quilts for the soldiers," says Robertson, pointing out the block that illustrates that scene.

The nine octagonal blocks are 23 1/2 inches across, each referring to a milestone in the Alcott family.

The first deals with Alcott's supporting her family by writing, with its subject "Little Women." When she died in 1888, two days after her father, she had penned more than 30 books and collections of stories.

Block two represents Alcott attending a women's rights lecture with her parents, followed by a block showing a hand casting a vote. Many of the blocks feature hands and arms, as if Alcott is sewing the pieces of her life together herself.

"Safe House," is the title of the fourth block, which shows an African-American woman amid a copse of apple trees. The next is "Orchard House," the family home.

Block six is "Keep your eyes on the North Star and watch out for Slave Catchers," representing her family's role in the underground railroad.

"Making Quilts for Soldiers," follows, a colorful block in which Alcott used her domestic skills to help in the war effort. Block eight, "I cannot fight, but I can nurse" represents her assisting in the care of soldiers at Washington's Union Hotel Hospital.

The final block is self explanatory, "Union Forever -- Heartsease."

During the course of the class, quilters will work on a block a month, says Lambert. In getting ready for the start of the course, it was obvious a bond among the women was forming -- a bond that wasn't made just through stitches in fabric but through remembering the life of a strong woman in a period of history when it was tough to be so.

Lining the walls of the store are quilts many of the women have created.

Most quilts are done to commemorate family milestones, says veteran quilter Mary Carlton, of Woodstock, such as 50th wedding anniversary quilts for parents.

In terms of the Alcott family quilts, the women offered their life events that would make telling blocks, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. A hunter and his trophies and travel as missionaries were others.

"Each of us here would have totally different type quilts," says Connie Broy, of Toms Brook.

In difficult economic times, quilting, or anything handmade, seems to see a resurgence, says Funkhouser.

Robertson did a checkerboard for one grandson, flannel for another. Her goal, she says is to make one for each member of her family.

Round robin quilting, in which quilt pieces are mailed and completed by each recipient, broadens a quilting "family." In one case, the geographic scope of one quilt reached from Texas to the Netherlands. The Internet increases the number in the quilting family exponentially. Strangers do their part and send it on to the next person, who adds a block, based on instructions that began with one quilter's vision.

Alcott's quilt will be a challenge, says Lambert, adding that class participants can take the blocks home to work on them if they wish.

"Or, they can sit around here and share," she says, smiling.

An introduction to the 10-month Louisa May Alcott quilt project will be given Feb. 18. Work on block one will begin March 18. Deadline for registration is Feb. 16. Call the Shenandoah County Parks and Recreation Department at 984-3030 to register and for more information.

Contact Natalie Austin at naustin@nvdaily.com

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