VA to quilters: Thanks, but please quit quilting

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 21, 2011 - 8:01 AM

Minneapolis VA can't accept any more donated quilts. Blame bedbugs? Or simply a lack of space?

Page Johnson, coordinator of southern Minnesota’s Quilts of Valor.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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Quilts have fallen victim to the war on bugs.

Or to their makers' speedy fingers.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and members of Quilts of Valor can't agree on the explanation, but the Minneapolis VA is no longer accepting the donated, handcrafted quilts that volunteers have been making for wounded soldiers and other vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Twin Cities leaders of the charitable group got the word from the Minneapolis VA earlier this month. They were told the decision was part of a nationwide directive for VA facilities because of an outbreak of bedbugs at a VA homeless shelter in another state. The restriction is expected to last at least six months, they were told.

Page Johnson, the southern Minnesota coordinator for Quilts of Valor, said Wednesday that the VA's concerns are understandable, though she gave just a hint of offense at the suggestion that her group's quilts could be carriers of bedbugs. The fabric is new, the process for making them is clean and there has never been a hint that any of the quilts delivered to the VA were tainted, she said.

"We're dealing with new fabrics, people take this very seriously, everything is kept clean, there is no contact where it would get something like that," Johnson said. "Bedbugs come from humans using the quilts and they are not used, they are new. I can assure you we are not using these things and giving away used items."

Here's where the fog of war extends to quilting.

The VA says the new ban has nothing to do with bedbugs -- the real issue is the generosity and efficiency of the quilting volunteers. The VA has simply run out of room for the stuff.

In an April 6 letter addressed to "knitters, crocheters, quilters and seamstresses," Katharina Ryan, the director of the Voluntary/Community Resource Center of the Minneapolis VA, described the problem.

"Thanks to your skill, talents and dedication to helping our hospitalized veterans of the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, we have an overabundant supply of lap robes, quilts, blankets, neck pillows, armrest pillows, heart pillows, slippers and laundry bags," she wrote. "We are unable to accept any of these items until further notice."

While the reason for the embargo may be in question, the productivity of Quilts of Valor isn't. The quilts come from quilters sewing the tops together in their basements and spare bedrooms or in sewing clubs or shops like Fabric Town and the Quilting Page. One group gathers the first Friday of every month for a couple of hours at Fabric Town in Apple Valley.

The operation rivals anything in the military. The quilts are put together using donated fabric with backing, batting and binding and a label listing the quilter and her hometown. (Participants are overwhelmingly -- if not exclusively -- women.) The quilts are then brought for "longarm" quilting (stitching the layers together with commercial-grade sewing machines) before they are returned to Quilt of Valor local leaders, who sort and distribute them.

In 2009, the Upper Midwest Chapter of the Quilts of Valor distributed 1,399 quilts. In 2010 it was 1,881. Since its genesis in a sewing room in Seaford, Del., in 2004, the group has distributed more than 37,000 quilts nationwide.

'Good way ... to give back'

"It's hard work but it's been a really good way to do something you love and to give back to people who have given so much," said Marcia Stevens, who started a Brainerd Quilts of Valor group in 2005.

VA spokesman Ralph Heussner said he has seen the Minneapolis supply room packed with donated items. While bedbugs are always a concern, the real issue is making a dent in the oversupply. Once supplies dwindle, quilts will be accepted again.

"We really do appreciate all the work they do," he said.

VA qualms or not, there's no quit in the quilters.

They are still in the business of giving quilts to Guard and Reserve soldiers with three or more deployments. One recipient, a helicopter pilot, had seven deployments under his belt. County veterans service officers have asked for quilts. Grandmas even call in with requests. Minneapolis police recently distributed quilts to homeless vets on the streets. The Minnesota Veterans Homes, which operate independently of the federal VA system, also continue to accept donations, although quilts and fabrics of all kinds are inspected and may be laundered if there are concerns, said Minnesota Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Anna Long.

"The fact is we can't make enough quilts to cover all the wounded; we can't even come close," Johnson said.

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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