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Memory Quilts Celebrate the Fabric of Life

Christine Shollenberger weaves old memories into something new and colorful.

On a spring morning in her Elmhurst home, Christine Shollenberger put the finishing touches on a memory quilt she made for Dana Kircher. Kircher and Shollenberger live in the same neighborhood, but they didn’t know each other until Kircher put a bid on—and won—a custom memory quilt by Shollenberger at the Jackson PTA Carnival in February.

“My husband’s father and step-mother live in Albuquerque,” Kircher said. “Every year for 20 years or so they have sent us a Balloon Fiesta T-shirt. It started with my husband, then when I entered the picture, they started sending them to me. And now, we have two kids and so they’ll send ones for the little kids as well.” 

As the collection of the colorful hot air balloon T-shirts grew larger, Kircher decided she wanted to do something with them.

“I thought, why not make a quilt out of it so we can still have the memories and they won’t be in a box in storage?”

So Kircher brought the T-shirts to Shollenberger.

A Fun Challenge

“With the memory quilts, there’s two avenues you can go,” Shollenberger said.

One is the T-shirt quilts, using T-shirts from sporting activities, clubs or travel. The other is a memorial quilt, which involves using favorite clothing from a loved one who has died to make a quilt, throw or wall hanging.

Shollenberger finds out which pieces are her clients' favorites—she works in as many as she can, but sometimes a few need to be left out—and she’ll talk with them about any preferences they may have.

“I’ll ask about colors, or whether there’s a particular room in the house (where) it’s going to be used,” Shollenberger said. “I like working within constraints. I think it actually lets me be more creative. If somebody gives me shirts and one’s lime green and one’s sage green, I think, ‘Ooh, that’s going to be a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge.”

For the hot air balloon quilt, Shollenberger chose to bring out the blues in the designs and contrast it with red.

“Usually the T-shirts are so diverse, you need something to make it look somewhat cohesive,” Shollenberger said.

Kircher gave her free reign.

“I told her, ‘Your eye is better than mine. You have a vision for it,’ " Kircher said. "I let her take over, and I’m really happy with it.”

When Kircher’s step mother-in-law comes to visit Chicago, Kircher will have it ready to surprise her.

“I think she’ll really like it,” Kircher said.

Sewing is Part of Her Natural Fiber

Shollenberger was just 8 years old when she picked up a needle and thread and began hand sewing. By fourth or fifth grade, a neighbor remarked, “I can’t believe when you stitch, you make the tiniest, neatest stitches!” She began sewing purses and doll clothes and selling them to her friends and neighbors in her home town in Pennsylvania.

By the time she was in eighth grade, Shollenberger felt confident enough in her sewing to make her own majorette uniform.

“The district didn’t have enough money to buy them, so they got the patterns and fabric, and they asked the parents or somebody they knew to make the uniforms," she said.

Shollenberger also dabbled in knitting, crocheting, embroidery and crewel.

“Anything to do with fibers, I really liked,” she said.

During her college years, she went through a latch-hooking phase.

 “I even did a custom Harley Davidson one,” she said, laughing.

When she's not busy with her sons, Victor, 14, and Calvin, 11, Shollenberger keeps her sewing machine humming by making memory quilts and other sewn treasures. 

There are many innovative ways to keep memories alive in everyday life instead of storing them away in boxes in the attic, she said.

“I’ve done tree skirts out of little girl’s clothing,” she said, adding that someday she’d like to make an intergenerational tree skirt that incorporates clothing from grandparents, parents and children.

“And it doesn’t always have to be clothing," she said. "Maybe a grandmother had a favorite brooch or key—a key that had some meaning because it opened up a special secret pantry in a grandparent’s house. I could always quilt that right onto the quilt or wall hanging.”

Wrap Yourself in Memories

Wheaton resident Rev. Diane Slocum, associate pastor at Elmhurst Presbyterian Church, commissioned Shollenberger to craft a memory quilt as a surprise for her daughter Megan’s 30th birthday in March. 

“Megan had kept all these shirts in a bin in the basement,” Slocum said. “She decided she wasn’t going to get rid of any of her shirts, because they all had a story. So she asked me if I could have a quilt made out of them.”

The shirts represented Megan’s life, from middle school to college. They included shirts from track, basketball, volleyball and dance team. There were shirts from sorority trips and spring break trips. 

“It’s a story of a period of her life that was really a wonderful time and had a lot of memories for her—and for me,” Slocum said. “As I was looking at all the shirts, I was remembering all those hours I sat in the bleachers and how hard she worked.”

Slocum remembers the night her entire family gathered for Megan's birthday, and she opened the quilt.

“Everyone just kind of gasped,” Slocum said. “No one was expecting it.”

As Slocum’s daughter held the quilt in her hands for the first time, she wept.

“It was a really special thing,” Slocum said. “I told her, ‘This is your life—a big period of your life—that you can just wrap around you.’”

See more of Shollenberger's creations at Busy Bunny Art, or become a fan on Facebook.

Karen Chadra (Editor) May 19, 2011 at 03:05 PM
Emily Moran of The Quilt Studio in Elmhurst also makes memory quilts. Check her out here: www.thequiltstudioofelmhurst.com. We certainly don't want to leave anybody out!

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