by Suzanne Labry
Judge Nancy Curington—
A Quilter’s Story
In January of 2009, Nancy Curington, an Olympia, Washington-based judge, was happily going about the job she’d been doing for decades: hearing cases and writing decisions for Workers’ Compensation-type insurance claims for the Washington State Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals. Then something happened that changed her life in a flash.
She suffered a brain aneurysm that, much like a massive stroke, caused her to have to relearn some of the most basic tasks. She had to retire from the job she loved, and she had to set about rebuilding herself. She was not able to read or watch television and she needed to retrain her brain to accomplish certain motor skills. One of the things that helped her to do that was making quilts.
Nancy Curington with her Felted Wool Baltimore Album quilt“I had always sewn, because my mother, who was a child of the Depression, made sure that her own children acquired what she called ‘practical skills’,” Nancy says. “She required my brother, sister, and me to learn how to mend our own clothes, even to the point of replacing the zippers in our jeans. By the time I was 12, I was sewing some of my own clothes and by the time I graduated from law school, I was tailoring my own suits. I also did needlepoint and I knitted, but eventually I transferred my passion for needlework into quilting. After my aneurysm, a friend would thread my sewing machine for me, and I started sewing scrap quilts for charity. Doing something like that helped rebuild my brain, but it also helped me regain confidence that I could go back to being a productive citizen again.”
In the years since the aneurysm happened, Nancy has reinvented herself as someone known for making beautiful quilts out of felted wool.
“I’m basically a self-taught quilter,” she continues. “I really love Baltimore Album quilts and I took some appliqué classes, but I didn’t have the knack for it. I remember after one class, I told my instructor that it might take me about 400 years to learn to do the precision appliqué required for a Baltimore Album. She teasingly told me that it might take closer to 500 years!
Felted Wool Baltimore Album by Nancy Curington.
Photo courtesy of the artist.
“It was after that realization that I discovered appliquéing with felted wool. Since felted wool appliqué doesn’t require turning under tiny hems, I knew I could do it! Plus, I started making my own felted wool from garments I rescued from thrift shops. My nickname, ‘Scroungella’ comes from my hobby of thrift store shopping. I buy old sweaters, jackets, skirts, pants—any clothing made from wool. I bring the items home and remove buttons, zippers, shoulder padding, and so forth. I wash the garments in hot water, dry them in the dryer on high heat (making sure I clean out the lint trap each time!), and then I cut the pieces into five-inch squares. I finally accumulated so much felted wool that I started selling it in color assortment packs to quilt shops. I call it ‘Nancy’s Rescued Wool’. Now I lead groups in quilting with felted wool at Ruby Street Quiltworks in Tumwater, Washington, which is a suburb of Olympia. It’s really a lot of fun for me!”
Working as a judge was a demanding, high-stress job that Nancy enjoyed. “I used to say that adrenalin was my drug of choice,” she laughs. But when the brain aneurysm put an end to that career, Nancy found a way to get her life back on track. She may rescue the wool, but it is also true that making quilts with that wool has rescued Nancy by helping her recover from a life-altering health event.