With her children grown and gone, but not yet having little ones of their own, Barbara "B.J." Rieck found herself with no one to make quilts for.
"And I certainly wasn't going to stop quilting. Once you get the bug, you can't stop."
So it was lucky for all involved in 2005 when Rieck, 57, stumbled upon the non-profit Quilts for Kids, a Bucks County-based group that creates and delivers lap-size quilts for hospitalized children.
Since its birth in 2000, the group has donated tens of thousands of quilts, and spawned 50 satellite chapters in the United States and international chapters in the Caribbean, Canada, and New Zealand, says founder Linda Arye.
"This gives me a chance to work with children's fabrics again, which I love," Rieck said Sunday as she sat sewing with 25 to 30 other Quilts for Kids volunteers inside the Quilting Circle, a Bensalem retail shop that donates its space for these monthly gatherings. Four such gatherings are held each month in this region alone.
The hour-long drive from her Pipersville home is worth every gallon of gas, she said.
"When we deliver the quilts to the hospitals, it's just heartbreaking. You look into the eyes of the mothers and think, 'This could be me.' "
Volunteer quilters bring their own machines, thread, creativity, and compassion.
That leaves a need for batting, and new, brightly colored, 100 percent cotton fabric in kid-friendly designs. Initially, the fabric was donated from textile companies that would have otherwise sent seconds, samples, and overruns to landfills.
But increasingly, Arye says, the bulk of the fabric has to be purchased.
"The government did not bail out the textile industry, so most of those companies have gone offshore," she says. And with an estimated six million children in hospitals at any given time, she says, the organization now aims to double its initial output by making 20,000 quilts this year.
"We can't use rayon because it shrinks, or decorator fabrics because they are too heavy, and no used fabric because it may contain allergens that most washing machines cannot remove," Arye says. "And these quilts have to be machine-sewn to withstand many washings."
The group does get some velvets and brocades, particularly from Sunbury Textiles near Harrisburg, and uses them to make wheelchair bags and saddlebags that hang over hospital bed rails and have outside pockets to hold crayons, toys, and journals that young patients can take along to testing and chemotherapy sessions.
Sunbury is an employee-owned company that had to lay off 40 workers last year, Arye says. But because the company charges Quilts for Kids rock-bottom prices to cut and ship fabric, the organization hired one employee back to cut its fabric.
The quilts go to patients from birth to 22 - that's the age range treated in children's hospitals. The finished quilts are about 38 inches by 45 inches.
"Not so large it will get in the way of all the machinery, but not so small they can't cuddle with it," Arye explains.
It costs about $50 to make and ship each quilt, says Arye, 55, who left her full-time job as an interior decorator to devote all her energy to Quilts for Kids.
After taking no salary for seven years, she now gets $22,000 a year for the work, pays a skeleton staff $10 an hour, and uses four of the five bedrooms in her Yardley home for office and storage space. Roughly 70 percent of the money that comes in from donations, she says, goes for purchasing fabric and shipping the quilts across the country.
In fact, it was her work as a designer that sparked the program.
"I walked into the Philadelphia Design Center one day to place an order for a customer, and it was filled with industrial-sized trash bags of fabric," Arye recalls. When she learned the fabric was landfill-bound, Arye says, she felt challenged to think of a better use.
"That day, on my drive up I-95, I thought of it."
Arye's daughter Molly had been hospitalized with a rare virus when she was very young.
She recovered, but "they didn't know what was making her sick, so they took away her teddy bear because they thought that might be contributing to the problem."
"That's when I thought that all this fabric could be turned into quilts and maybe somebody else's child would feel comforted instead of frightened like mine.
"It would make the hospital experience less bad for them."
St. Christopher's Hospital here in Philadelphia was quick to catch on and welcomed donations of quilts.
Barbara Anne McCarty at Cooper University Hospital said the 30 quilts received there in May were much appreciated.
"They made our ill and injured young patients cozy and happy," she said.
And at Head Start of Bucks County, Nancy Snyder said Quilts for Kids donated quilts for homeless children the agency serves.
"Sometimes, especially for those children living in a shelter, this is the only thing that is truly their own," Snyder wrote in a thank-you to the organization's volunteers. "What a gift this is to the child!"
Arye says she'd like to see Quilts for Kids become an intergenerational effort. And it would please her no end to have more survivors of all ages making quilts in order to convey a message of hope.