T-shirt quilt stitched with hope

Marie Kessler of rural Lehigh won’t be walking in Marion County’s Relay for Life, but she’s supporting the American Cancer Society event in the way she knows best.

By designing and creating a quilt.

“They gave me some of the leftover T-shirts from the years before and just said, ‘Design something-come up with a quilt,'” Kessler said.

The front of the first year’s shirt is featured in the middle of the quilt.

“Because it was a brownish color and was the only one that was off colored, I put it in the center and then satellited the other four years in order around it,” she said.

“Then I made a purple four-pointed star radiating from the center and surrounded that with pink.”

Purple is the color for cancer survivors and the official Relay for Life color. Pink signifies breast cancer

“Each one of the shirts had a list of sponsors on the back, and I took that and piano-keyed it along the edges with corner squares that I appliquéd with pink ribbon,” Kessler said.

Asked if she followed a traditional quilt pattern, Kessler just laughed.

“It comes out of my head,” she said. “I don’t do anything traditional. They’re all unique, and I put a modern flair to them and individualize them.”

Kessler said she has designed quite a few T-shirt quilts.

“I get graph paper out and I lay these T-shirts out and I get a feel what the person is or does, and then I start creating from there.”

She said T-shirts are harder to work with than many fabrics.

“You have to stabilize them,” she said. “You have to iron-on this backing so they don’t stretch. Otherwise, they’re a nightmare.”

“These were great because they’d never been worn, never been washed,” she added. “They were ideal to work with.”

Kessler said she pieced the quilt on a regular sewing machine and then machine-quilted the top.

She does machine quilting as a side business in addition to her full-time job at AGCO in Hesston.

“I’ve been running it out of my home for a year and a half,” she said. “I have a machine in my basement.”

She learned to operate a machine quilter when she worked at Ratzlaff Draperies in Goessel.

“I enjoyed sewing so much, and when I got on the quilter, I just loved it,” she said. “It’s such a creative thing, and there are so many outlets for it.”

Kessler said she quilts all kinds of things. She just finished a quilt top for a friend at work.

“He is Lionel train buff and his mother bought him a whole bunch of preprinted fabric,” she said. “He didn’t know what to do with it and he brought it all to me and said ‘create a quilt.'”

Kessler quilts in the evenings and on weekends. She completed the Relay for Life quilt in a “quilting marathon.”

“I got it designed, but I didn’t buy the fabric until the middle of June. I had to wait until after harvest,” she said.

“I had harvested for almost two weeks, and I said, ‘I’ve got to get a sewing fix.’ When I do that, I sew for hours on end.”

Kessler said she is pleased with the end result of her work.

“I had to laugh when I took the quilt into town to Elaine (Jantzen, one of the Relay for Life organizers),” she said. “Her husband was my biology teacher in high school and he said, ‘I just can’t imagine a quilt out of T-shirts that looks good.’

“I laid this out for him and he said, ‘That really looks like a quilt.’ That’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.”

Kessler’s quilt is currently displayed in the window at Nancy’s Fashions in Hillsboro. It will move up the street to Quilts & QuiltRacks July 20.

People can purchase chances to win the quilt. Tickets are $1 for one chance or $5 for six chances. The winner’s name will be drawn at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, July 29, at the Relay for Life at the Tabor College track.

Although she has never walked the Relay for Life herself, Kessler said she wants to do what she can to support cancer survivors and those who have been lost to the disease.

“My aunt had breast cancer and is in remission right now,” she said.

She also has a friend at work who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.

“So it’s kind of a poignant thing for me this year,” Kessler said. “This is my way of contributing, because I can’t walk all night. It is something I can do and I love to do it.”

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