On Thanksgiving 2018, while surrounded by family, 81-year-old Eau Claire resident Barb Bennett cleared her throat and informed her loved ones that she had an important announcement.
All eyes turned toward the family’s matriarch.
“This is my last turkey,” Barb said to those gathered round the table. “I’ve done it for all these years, but now it’s time for some of the younger gals to take over.”
Her grandniece, Julie, jumped at the opportunity.
Barb smiled. “Then you have the roaster,” she said. “And you have the job too.”
The turkey-roasting-torch was passed with little time to spare. Less than 24 hours later, Barb died of a massive heart attack.
She left behind her husband, Larry, their daughter, Karen, and over 3,000 yards of quilting fabric. Though I’d been neighbors with the Bennetts for years, I’d never fully grasped Barb’s commitment to quilting.
Though perhaps “commitment” is the wrong word.
“It’s an obsession,” Barb’s longtime quilting buddy, Alice Weickelt, corrects me. “And Barb, like many quilters, was obsessed.”
While she loved the creativity involved in the process, Barb was equally enamored with the chase for fabric. For years, she and Alice scoured the Midwest in search of the perfect print. Often, Larry accompanied them.
“I think I’ve been in every fabric store within 200 miles in every direction,” Larry recently shared with me. “Barb had a list of every quilt store from here to Rapid City.”
One day, after years of searching, at last Barb found just what she was looking for: a rare, grape-on-the-vine print. Timeless and versatile, the pattern spoke to her, and she used it to create a pair of wall hangings, both of which are still displayed in the Bennett home.
Shortly after Barb’s death, Larry recruited Alice and a few other of Barb’s quilting friends to sort through the thousands of yards of fabric that remained. Much of it was donated to Barb’s various quilting groups, though when Alice stumbled upon her friend’s beloved grape print stashed in a blue bin labeled “Grape Expectations,” she knew she didn’t dare part with it. Looking closer, Alice discovered that Barb had previously cut the fabric into many two-inch squares, alongside a stack of two-by-six-inch rectangles.
Barb had a plan for these pieces, Alice knew, but what was it?
Digging deeper into the bin, Alice found her next clue: a square which read “Warmth from Wisconsin.”
Alice recognized the phrasing immediately; that square was a prerequisite for eligibility in a local quilt competition at Sew Complete sewing and quilting store in Eau Claire.
Alice couldn’t leave Barb’s work incomplete. And so, she reached for her needles and finished the quilt top.
Then Alice was stricken with illness. With the contest deadline looming, she reached out to Dawn Weaver, a mutual friend to both Barb and Alice, to ask for help completing the quilt by stitching the top, batting and backing together.
Dawn, who owns a long arm quilting machine, smiled at the unexpected collaboration.
“Barb’s been gone for 15 months,” Dawn told Alice with a smile, “and she’s still asking for last minute favors.”
Together, the women entered their quilt into the contest.
And they won it.
Even a guy like me, who wouldn’t know a stippling from a meandering stitch, recognizes the beauty of their work. The quilt is, indeed, a marvel: a pastiche of color held together by the grapes interspersed throughout the squares. I saw it for myself during a visit to Sew Complete. It’s remarkable craftwork, to be sure, but it’s all the more beautiful given the story behind its creation. How one pair of hands took over when another pair could not. And how this process then repeated itself for a third time.
As Barb snipped those squares, could she have imagined such an outcome? Who could’ve dreamed that Barb would begin what Alice would continue and what Dawn would eventually complete?
The prize-winning quilt — along with all the quilts entered in the contest — were donated to folks in need. It’s what his wife would’ve wanted, Larry says.
“Barb never made a penny off a quilt,” he tells me. “If people asked to buy one from her, she’d say, ‘I’ll give you one, but you can’t buy it.’”
Over the years, Barb gifted countless quilts to cousins, nephews, nieces, and even folks well beyond the family.
“Barb was always making quilts with an intention of who it was going to,” Alice recalls.
But what Barb might not have intended was the legacy she left behind in the process.
Barb Bennett could’ve dedicated her life to any craft, but she chose quilting. It was the one thing she knew to do to keep people warm on a cold night.
Larry’s a crafter himself, though he’s more birdhouse builder than quiltmaker. But since Barb’s passing, he’s traded in his table saw for a seat at his wife’s former quilting circle at Bethesda Lutheran Church.
“The girls gave me a standing invitation,” Larry says proudly. And so, every Wednesday, he attends.
Taking his place among the quilters, Larry serves as Barb’s proxy. He laughs at the women’s jokes, listens to their stories, and converses, just like Barb used to do.
In return, those quilters do what quilters do best: they make the world feel a little less cold, one stitch at a time.