Piecing Quilts, Patching Lives
The Sisters in White is not your ordinary quilting bee. None of its members can so much as ply a needle or cut a thread without guarded supervision, because all of them are serving sentences at the Texas Department of Correction’s Ellen Halbert Substance Abuse Facility in Burnet.
At any given time, the Halbert Unit is a forced way station for as many as 600 women whose lives have come unraveled through crimes related to drug and alcohol addiction. It is not a happy place—it’s a prison after all—and there are not many opportunities for self-expression, creativity or camaraderie. For a lucky few, however, that situation has changed due to the exceptional efforts of a dedicated quilter named Josie Davis.
Josie Davis with lap quilts made by prisoners in her quilting class. Photograph courtesy of Josie Davis.
After Josie and her husband retired to the Texas Hill Country in 1999, she decided to become a Master Sewing Volunteer through a program sponsored by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. Already an expert seamstress and accomplished quiltmaker, Josie signed up to take the professional training offered in exchange for performing 50 hours of volunteer service to the community.
Josie had heard about the Halbert Unit, and proposed the remarkable idea of teaching quilting to the inmates there in order to fulfill her volunteer commitment. Persevering through the maze of red tape necessary to get the project approved, Josie got ready to complete her 50 hours, little realizing she was about to embark on a journey that has instead lasted for thousands of hours and touched hundreds of lives.
The program is now in its ninth year. Josie and her crew of volunteers use materials donated entirely by the community to teach sewing and quilting skills to prisoners who have been hand-picked by the Warden as a reward for good behavior. Some of the women come from families who quilt; others have never sewn in their lives, but all are proud to have been chosen for the group.
Two sessions are held each year. Over an interval of weeks, the participants learn basic skills by making a small individual item such as a pillow top or a lap quilt that they will be allowed to keep or give to their families upon their release. Then, in a subsequent session, they work together on a community service project. For five years, their project was a large quilt donated to CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) as a fundraiser to help children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. More than $12,000 was raised over the five-year period.
CASA was an especially appropriate beneficiary, since many of the women come from troubled childhoods themselves and some even have children of their own who are in foster care. Each quilt is named by the inmates who make it, with titles such as Spring into Sobriety or Recovery Stars reflecting the rehabilitative goal of those involved.
Josie dispenses some gentle advice to her students along with the sewing skills. She tells them that she, too, has an addiction—quilting—and that her “stash” is a hoard of fabric instead of drugs. She reminds them that women have traditionally found comfort in needlework during hard times and she encourages them to turn to piecing and quilting when the larger fabric of their lives starts to fray. Josie prepares a gift bag of fabric, thread, patterns, embroidery floss, and other supplies for each prisoner who completes the program. These are held and presented to the women when their sentences have been served.
Members of the Sisters in White Quilting Bee show off Recovery Stars, one of the five quilts they made as fundraisers for Court Appointed Special Advocates. Photograph courtesy of Josie Davis.
For their part, the inmates learn much more than how to piece a quilt block or combine colors. Self-esteem, teamwork, and pride in accomplishment are just some of the byproducts of the experience. Not a single student has ever dropped out of the program and all have completed a quilt. A sampling of their comments reveals what the opportunity has meant to them: “It feels good to give back to a community that I’ve taken for granted for most of my life”; “This program has taught me to think of other people instead of myself”; “I never thought that I would contribute something so beautiful that was for such a good cause”.
You may well wonder how the Sisters in White Quilting Bee got its name. The prisoners’ uniforms are white, and they refer to one another by the anonymous-yet-friendly term of “sister.” But it was an incident that occurred during one of Josie’s first visits to the prison that prompted her to come up with the title for the group.
Before as well as after each two-hour quilting lesson, every pair of scissors, every pin and every needle has to be counted by a prison guard to ensure that nothing that might be used as a weapon is smuggled in or accidentally left behind. One night, a needle went missing. Josie and her volunteers searched everywhere, but could not find it.
While accusing no one, Josie quietly told the prisoners that the program would be discontinued if the lost item was not recovered. Suddenly, an inmate with a loud voice and an authoritative manner stood up and commanded, “Sisters in white! Sisters in white! Down on the floor! Form a human chain—we’ve got to find that needle!” And sure enough, the needle was found.
Can any of us know the true impact and significance of some good deed we perform or some action we “pay forward?” Perhaps not, but Josie Davis may have a better idea than most. Her inspiring commitment to a group of women destined for the bottom rung of society has already had a measurable ripple effect for good. By teaching them how to piece a quilt, she has also given them tools with which they can piece their lives back together.
Click here to return to top.
Column 125: The Quilt Garden at The North Carolina Arboretum
Column 124: Harriet Powers and Handful’s Mauma
Column 123: Quilters de Mexico
Column 122: An Appliquéd Surprise
Column 121: Matisse’s Fabric Stash
Column 120: Soogan—The Cowboy’s Quilt
Column 119: The Ron Swanson Quilt
Column 118: HClarkdale, Georgia—A Thread of History
Column 117: How WWI Changed the Color of Quilts in the United States
Column 116: Wagga—The Bushman’s Quilt
Column 115: All in the Family
Column 114: The Alabama State Quilt
Column 113: Balloon Quilts of Albuquerque
Column 112: The Family That Quilts Together, Stays Together
Column 111: Two Rivers, Three Sisters
Column 110: Quilters Helping Quilters
Column 109: Community Cookbooks and Fundraiser Quilts—Parallel Histories
Column 108: Quilting to Freedom
Column 107: National Quilting Day
Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
Column 105: A Call for a National Juneteenth Commemorative Quilt
Column 104: Dominoes
Column 103: 1936 Texas Centennial Bluebonnet Quilt
Column 102: Helen Blackstone, A Texas Quilter
Column 101: Montana CattleWomen Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 100: 100th Suzy's Fancy Column!
Column 99: Montana Stockgrowers Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 98: The Tobacco Sack Connection
Column 97: Meet the Sisters Who Are State Fair Quilting Queens
Column 96: The connection between fairs and quilts.
Column 95: Her Mother Pieced Quilts
Column 94: Rebecca Barker’s Quiltscapes
Column 93: The Thread and Thimble Club Mystery
Column 92: The Ballerina Quilter
Column 91: Grandmother's Flower Garden Comes Alive at Texas Quilt Museum
Column 90: Leitmotif for a Lifelong Love Affair
Column 89: Quilting in The Bahamas
Column 88: Joan of Arc: A Quilter's Inspiration
Column 87: Home Demonstration Clubs and Quilting
Column 86: Linzi Upton and the Quilted Yurt
Column 85: A Bounty of Quilts
Column 84: Desert Trader
Column 83: Quilts and the Women’s Liberation Movement
Column 82: Replicating the Past: Reproduction Fabrics for Today’s Quilts
Column 81: Why So Many Quilt Shops in Bozeman, Montana?
Column 80: Southeastern Quilt and Textile Museum
Column 79: 54 Tons of Quilt
Column 78: Ollie Steele Burden’s Quilt Blocks
Column 77: Quilting with AMD
Column 76: Maverick Quilts and Cowgirls
Column 75: The Modern Quilt Guild—Cyberculture Quilting Ramps Up
Column 74: The Membership Quilt—Czech Quilting in Texas
Column 73: Maximum Security Quilts
Column 72: Author: Terri Thayer
Column 71: The Christmas Quilt
Column 70: New Mexico Centennial Quilt
Column 69: Scrub Quilts
Column 68: “Think Pink” Quilt Raises Funds for Rare Cancer Research
Column 67: Righting Old Wrongs.
Column 66: 100 Years, 100 Quilts - More on the Arizona Centennial.
Column 65: Arizona Centennial Quilt Project
Column 64: Capt. John Files Tom’s Family Tree
Column 63: The Fat Quarters
Column 62: Quilt Fiction Author: Clare O’Donohue
Column 61: Louisiana Bicentennial Quilt
Column 60: The Camo Quilt Project.
Column 59: Thread Wit
Column 58: Ralli Quilts
Column 57: Preschool Quilters
Column 56: The Story Quilt
Column 55: Red and Green Quilts
Column 54: On the Trail
Column 53: Quilt Trail Gathering
Column 52: True Confessions: First Quilt
Column 51: Quilted Pages
Column 50: Doll Quilts
Column 49: More Than a Quilt Shop
Column 48: Las Colchas of the Texas-Mexico Border
Column 47: Literary Gifts
Column 46: A Different Way of Seeing
Column 45: Sampling
Column 44: Hen and Chicks
Column 43: A Star Studied Event
Column 42: Shoo Fly Pattern
Column 41: Awareness Quilts
Column 40: Tivaevae
Column 39: UnOILed UnspOILed Coast Quilt Project
Column 38: Katrina Recovery Quilts
Column 37: Quilted Vermont
Column 36: The Labyrinth Quilt—A Meditative Endeavor
See other archived columns here