The majority of churches in the Midwest have quilting circles that get together and create beautiful works of art. At St. Joseph Catholic Church in Milford, they have one of those kind of clubs, but they also have a quilting group that makes a completely different kind of quilt.
They make ugly quilts.
The quilts they make have one single purpose: To help keep homeless people warm. Kids who don’t have a warm bed to sleep in. Women who don’t have a place to call home. Men who sleep outside. When it comes to these quilts, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for the homeless who receive these blankets these ‘ugly’ quilts are truly beautiful.
St. Joseph’s Ugly Quilt Quilters or the My Brothers’ Keeper Quilt Club was started by longtime Milford resident Marlene Nelsen in 1996. She was inspired by an article she read about a woman named Flo Wheatley who made a zipperless quilt/sleeping bag hybrid to give to the homeless to help them keep warm.
Nelsen had been a quilter for years and had a bunch of extra fabric that she wanted to use up. She decided that making quilts for the homeless seemed like the perfect way to put that material to good use.
“Sometimes the good Lord has a way of throwing it in your lap and you have to go with it,” Nelsen said. “So, I put a challenge into the bulletin to recruit some help and originally we thought it would be great if we could do 100 quilts.”
That was thousands of quilts and almost 20 years ago.
The Ugly Quilt Quilters are close to making their newest goal — 10,000 quilts made and donated to homeless shelters and charities. They were only 355 quilts away from reaching that truly commendable goal at the time of our interview.
“I just wanted to get rid of my heap of left-over material. I never thought we’d actually get to 10,000 quilts,” Nelsen said. “It’s amazing.”
The group completes around 500 ugly quilts every year and has donated them to the Fort Dodge Salvation Army, a shelter in Des Moines, a mission in Sioux City and a school in Des Moines. They have also sent them as far away as Kansas City, Minneapolis and Tennessee.
They make zipperless quilt/sleeping bags in two sizes — adult and kids. Each quilt consists of three layers. They make the outside layer out of whatever materials they have that are the toughest and the inside layer is often softer materials. Nelsen, with the help of her sisters, makes the top and bottom layers of the quilts. The warmth comes from the middle layer of the quilts, which can come from blankets, old bed spreads, mattress pads — basically anything the group can get its hands on.
“We always pray to God to help give these some extra warmth since we have to keep them on the lighter side. They can’t weigh a ton because people have to carry them,” Nelsen said.
After the three layers are tied, Nelsen takes the collection home to finish them up. She sews on donated men’s neckties to use as straps for the adult quilts and ribbons for the quilts for the kids.
Inside the quilts for the adults, they include old prayer books and some toiletry items. In the quilts for the kids they include a story book and stuffed animal as well as a warm, crocheted headband. The headbands are crocheted by hand by 100-year-old Hilda Huelsbeck. According to Nelsen, it is a task that the centenarian looks forward to completing every day.
The Ugly Quilt Quilters get together on the second Thursday of the month at 2 p.m. and work for a couple of hours either in pairs or single-handedly to tie the quilts. They share jokes and stories as they tie quilts. Some of the quilters have lots of experience quilting, others have none.
“If you can tie your shoe you can tie a quilt,” Nelsen said.
The group welcomes newcomers at any skill level with open arms, and while the group is made up of men and women who attend St. Joseph’s, any one is welcome.
“We get donations from everyone and the group is always looking for more hands. It doesn’t have to be Catholic fabric or Catholic knots,” Nelsen joked as the group of quilters joined in the laughter.
And while Nelsen spearheads the group at St. Joseph’s and does the lion’s share of the behind-the-scenes work, she insists on turning the spotlight on others.
Nelsen gives the credit to the group’s completion of almost 10,000 quilts to God and to the dedication of her fellow club members.
“Through the whole thing, it’s not me, it’s the good Lord,” Nelsen said. “I can’t take the credit for anything — it’s not about me — it’s about helping people. Whenever we needed anything — material, a sewing machine, blankets — I prayed and He always came through.”
“It’s all about love and affection with a purpose and the group of people who come together to help do that. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares if they get the credit,” Nelsen said.
So what’s the plan for the group once they reach their goal of 10,000 quilts?
Nelsen hopes to step back from the leadership role that she has played and hand over the mantle to someone else.
But in general, Nelsen said: “We’ll keep going until we run out of materials or simply can’t do it anymore.”
Donate your time or materials
Are you interested in donating your time or some materials to help out with this awesome cause? Simply contact Marlene Nelsen at 712-338-4637 or 209 Okoboji Ave., Milford, IA. 51351 for more information on just how you can help.
Do it yourself. Download a copy of the pattern to make your very own My Brother’s Keeper or Ugly Quilt. Check out nwestiowa.com/okoboji_magazine/okoboji_freebies/