As It Happens

Strangers stitch together unfinished quilt — and history of the woman who left it behind

Shannon Downey discovered a massive unfinished quilting project at an estate sale so she enlisted the help of hundreds of strangers on social media to help her complete it.

Hundreds of people are helping Shannon Downey finish a giant quilting project she found at an estate sale

Rita Smith's high school yearbook photo. In August, Smith died at the age of 99 and left behind an unfinished quilting project that hundreds of people have now collaborated to finish. (Submitted by Shannon Downey)
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Transcript

It was the embroidery that first caught Shannon Downey's eye — but the Tupperware container that nearly made her cry.

In September, Downey was at a Chicago estate sale when she spotted some beautiful needlework. It was an embroidered map of America, with each state perfectly stitched.

As an embroiderer herself, Downey was intrigued. Moments later, she stumbled on a Tupperware container. Inside, she found a massive unfinished quilting project with a similar motif to the embroidered map.

Despite not knowing how to quilt, Downey bought the unfinished project — and decided right there and then that she would try to complete it.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Downey about how she found a community online to help her not only stitch the massive quilt together, but also piece together a history of the woman who left it behind.

Here is part of their conversation.

What was it about this unfinished project that made you decide to take it on?

I had walked into the house and seen the beautiful completed embroidered map on the wall and spent about 10 minutes just sort of really examining everything that she had done. I had fallen in love with her stitching.

Then, when they directed me into the bedroom, they thought they were directing me to just some stitching materials. When I went in and I opened the Tupperware container and I saw what it was, I just sort of sat down and thought, "Oh my goodness, I have to do this."

Wow. Big? It's a big project? 

It's massive. That's why I almost started crying, because it was just like, "Oh no, this is going to take forever. But I have to do it."

Oh my gosh. And this is the project of Rita Smith, who died last August at the age of 99. This is the estate auction you were at, and this was her project?

Yeah, it was. I talked to her son and he thought that that particular project had probably been sitting around the house for about 20 years.

She had stopped doing major crafting projects because she was taking full-time care of her husband, who was ill.

But she was able to get New Jersey done.

She was able to get New Jersey. She actually got three states done.

When I started unpacking it to mail all the pieces out, I realized that there were two states that were completed and New Jersey had been started. So she did Alaska and Georgia.

Downey says when she found the Tupperware box containing the unfinished quilting project, she knew she had to find a way to finish it. (Submitted by Shannon Downey)

Alright, when you say that you found these as you were getting things ready to mail out, you have to tell us the story behind that. What did you conclude about this project?

That it was way too big for me. That it would take me years and years and years.

So I thought, well, I bet I can get some people to help me with this if I ask on Instagram.

And so, I went on Instagram that night and I just showed pictures and sort of said, "You guys, like, I can't do this by myself. But there is no way that Rita is resting in peace knowing that this craft project is out there uncompleted. So, who wants to help me stitch some states?"

Within 24 hours, I had a thousand volunteers offering to help me stitch it.

And the stitching, maybe just describe a bit more about what it is. It's quite beautiful with these state flowers, aren't they? 

Yeah. So the quilt is made up of hexagons. So it's each state outline, the state bird, and the state flower, along with the year it was brought into the union, and the order in which it was brought into the union.

And then there are 50 stars, one for every state that make up this quilt. And then like a giant U.S. map right in the middle.

This is the embroidery part of it. But this is a quilt, so what has to happen after you get these pieces back?

Well, I'm learning all about that, which is a lot of fun. I'm going to have a whole new skill set by the end of this activity.

There is a quilting studio in Chicago and they have volunteered their space and all their machines and their people to help us. Because when it comes back, we have to hand-stitch all the pieces into hexagon shapes and then, you know, bind them together.

Downey enlisted the help of hundreds of strangers on social media to help her complete the unfinished quilting project. (Submitted by Shannon Downey)

Why does this matter so much to you?

As a crafter, and as a maker, and as a woman, you know how much goes into something that is handmade. But historically, and currently, there is very little respect or admiration for the amount of work that goes into creating a piece of art when it's made in fibre or by women.

And so when I found this, and I thought of this woman who had lived 99 years and had been making her entire life ... and then going in and seeing this uncompleted project — I had to finish it.

You're doing this for Rita.

I'm doing this for Rita.

Downey says it looks like Rita Smith had finished the Georgia and Alaska sections of the quilt before she put the project aside. (Submitted by Shannon Downey)

Where does it go when it's finished?

The National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky, has asked us if they can debut it.

Wow. 

Yeah, we're excited. The hard part is going to be instead of stitching the map of the U.S. in the middle of the quilt. I thought, well, Rita already did that. So we should centre Rita in this quilt.

So the hard part is going to be giving up the piece that I bought — because I love it so much — to make that the centrepiece of the quilt.

Would you like to think that someone would do this for you?

Oh, absolutely. I have a list of people who are responsible for finishing any projects that I don't finish in the event of my untimely death.

Because you just feel that someone's project should not be left unfinished.

I do feel that way.


Written by Morgan Passi and John McGill. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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