Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly said Karen Downer lives in Ooltewah. She is an Apison resident. Updated Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, at 7:45 p.m.
Karen Downer, of Apison, says you only have to present one quilt to one United States veteran to get hooked on the feeling.
"Sometimes you put a quilt around someone and they cry," Downer says. "Some are so grateful they can't speak. It makes you want to go out and do it some more."
Downer, 64, a retired public-sector engineer, is a regional coordinator for a nationwide group called Quilts of Valor, which was formed in 2004 by the mother of a serviceman in Seaford, Delaware. Catherine Roberts' son Nathanael had been deployed in the Iraq war and she conceived of the quilt-making network to provide "tangible reminders of appreciation and gratitude to service members," according to the nonprofit group's literature.
Downer helps quilt-makers from Trenton, Georgia, to Maryville, Tennessee, assemble and distribute about 300 quilts a year to veterans and active-duty service people who have been "touched by war." She devotes about 60 hours a week to the effort, including many hours actually piecing together quilts.
"I've always liked sewing and this is a good way to sew a lot," she says.
Each quilt can take from 40 to 200 hours from start to finish, Downer says. Most go through a multistep process. There are volunteers who make the individual squares, while others apply the batting, backing and binding. A few are made by individual quilt-makers working alone, but most are done assembly-line style.
Most of the design themes are patriotic, although some veterans prefer more generic designs.
"Some prefer to leave the [war] memories behind," Downer says.
Three hundred quilts a year sounds like a lot, Downer says, until you consider that there are 18.2 million living veterans in the United States. So far, the Quilts of Valor organization has awarded about a quarter of a million quilts nationally.
Symbolically, awarding a quilt to a veteran is almost like giving him or her a group hug, say members of the quilting group. Plus, quilt-making has often been linked to patriotic causes.
"Quilts have so much history," Downer says. "During the Civil War women used them as fundraisers for the soldiers."
Downer says many of the quilts awarded locally go to Vietnam War-era veterans who seem doubly appreciative.
"Vietnam was the war of my generation," she says. "Some of them hear for the first times in their lives, 'Thanks for doing that."'
Downer says the awards are often done in small groups of four to six veterans. The quilts are presented by draping them around the recipient's shoulders, like a superhero's cape, she says.
"We tell them they are not to be folded and put away," she said. "We tell them to use it."
Those interested in joining a quilt-sewing circle can locate a group at the Quilts of Valor website, QOVF.org. Groups meet at quilt shops, churches, community rooms and homes, according to the organization. The website can also be used to nominate a veteran for a quilt.
Locally, there are Quilts of Valor sewing groups in Sand Mountain, Georgia, Dayton, Athens, Cleveland and Maryville, Tennessee, and Chattanooga, says Downer, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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