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Quilted with stitches of love

Smithfield’s Angel Quilters have blessed nearly 1,000 people with warmth, comfort and creativity.

Over the past three years, the volunteer group, which is based at Trinity United Methodist Church and includes church members as well as people not directly connected to the congregation, has stitched together a strong network of community backers and organizations that support the group’s mission to provide a quilt for kids in need in or around Smithfield or Isle of Wight County.

Now anyone in the community has an opportunity to see and acquire one of the group’s quilts. The Arts Center @ 319 on Main Street in downtown Smithfield has about 35 quilts on exhibit through the end of February. The quilts are also for sale.

The art exhibit emerged from an earlier partnership, Julie Hopkins, one of the quilting group’s leaders, explained. Angel Quilters was selling face masks through the visitors center and she started talking with Sheila Gwaltney, the arts center’s director, who liked the idea.

“We thought, January and February would be a great time to do this,’ Gwaltney said. “Art enriches our lives in so many ways, but quilts are special,” she said.

The exhibit — “Baby It’s Cold Outside” — seems aptly named for the season, a perfect time to appreciate the beauty, craftsmanship and heart behind the creation of quilts with bright colors and scenes of spring and summer.

As of last week, “we’ve actually sold nine quilts out of here, but when we did this we really didn’t think we would sell them so fast.,” Hopkins said. “We wanted people to come into the art center and enjoy our quilts. But obviously they’re enjoying them by taking them home.”

As group member Nancy Trudeau explains, Angel Quilters got a serendipitous start through an unintentional social faux pas that everyone involved took very lightheartedly On her first Sunday at Trinity after moving to Virginia from Georgia, Hopkins “chased me down after church because I had sat in ‘her pew,’ and she invited me to lunch.”

During their meal, Trudeau shared that she was a quilter and wanted to connect with other people who shared her craft and passion. Hopkins, in turn, shared that she’d been working on a quilt for her son for several years, and Trudeau agreed to help. Trudeau also shared that she was part of a quilting group in Georgia and wanted to join one here.

“Julie said there wasn’t one in Smithfield and that we should start one,” Trudeau said. After advertising in the church bulletin and the newspaper, 13 people showed up at the first meeting. Now the group is more than 30 strong.

Before the pandemic, the group would sit in a church annex building with sewing machines. Since the pandemic, just a few people gather at a time, and interactions are more logistically oriented — drop-offs and pickups of material and quilts. “We don’t have people coming and staying and sitting and sewing during COVID,” Trudeau said. “But we will again someday, we hope.”

Initially, the group charged everyone $3 to participate to cover the cost of supplies, but word about the organization’s mission and talent got around. Now they receive enough donated materials to provide everything needed to produce the quilts.

Angel Quilters supports many local organizations, including Genieve Shelter, Christian Outreach Program, Court Appointed Special Advocates for kids, the Isle of Wight Rescue Squad and sheriff’s office and All God’s Children camps, just to name a few. They also donate quilts to individual children that the group learns about through the church and community feedback.

Quilts were also on display in the sanctuary at Trinity. Hopkins said they were set to receive a formal blessing before being provided to a recipient. The church has “been very supportive of us,” Trudeau said.

When the group started, they connected with Quilters Dream, which makes quilt batting. “They don’t give it to us for free, but they give us a very good price.” The batting is an essential element of a quilt — t’s the middle layer that makes it puffy.

Angel Quilters makes the tops and backing of the quilt, inserts the batting and then sends the quilt out for longarm work, where the three parts of the quilt are put together on a large machine that’s operated by hand.

Trudeau worked for many years as an architect. She credits a friend in California for introducing her to quilting. “There are a lot of similarities if you look at all these things. There are a lot of squares and rectangles and triangles and stuff, so measuring and cutting and that kind of thing,” she said.

The art league’s gallery is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. For more information about Angel Quilters, visit the group’s Facebook page or Trinity church’s website.