by Suzanne Labry
Piecemakers Dedicate Efforts to Help Mohawks
The annual Akwesasne Freedom School Quilt Auction has been in existence for 38 years. For the past 21 of those, a special group has been focused on making a quilt to donate
to the auction.
The Piecemakers originated in New Paltz, New York for the sole purpose of making a quilt to benefit the Akwesasne Freedom School. That has been the Piecemakers’ raison d’être ever since. How such a single-minded group, which has no set membership and no official leadership, has managed to keep going year after year is an unusual story that speaks to the power of motivated individuals to take up a cause and stick with it.
The Piecemakers with “Ode to the Bees,” the group’s 2013 quilt for the Akwesasne Freedom School Quilt Auction. Photo courtesy of Kay Olan.
Christine Krug, who worked as an Adjunct Lecturer at the State University of New York (SUNY) in New Paltz, was moved to activism when she saw a television program that described the poverty, high suicide rates, and early deaths among Native American Indians. Thinking that most Indian reservations were in the Western United States, she asked a local Mohawk man if there was a reservation that she could help. He said that there were native people in the Northeast and he told her about the Akwesasne Freedom School located between the State of New York and Quebec and Ontario in Canada.
Christine wasted no time making good on her commitment to do something to help Native Americans. She met Kay Olan, who also lived in New Paltz at that time and whose mother was born and raised on the Akwesasne reservation. Kay had relatives who attended the Freedom School and she had been involved indirectly with getting donations for the school.
With lots of support from local businesses, residents, and the Ba’hai community of New Paltz, Kay and Christine organized a yard sale to raise money for the Freedom School. The next year they held a yard sale and raffle, then a silent auction, and finally they hit on the idea of starting a group to make a quilt for the school’s annual quilt auction.
The first quilt they donated to the auction in 1997 was a heartfelt effort but all involved agreed that they could do better if they started earlier and found some sewing mentors. And that’s exactly what happened. Experienced and inexperienced quilters joined together and the group grew and organized to the point where they chose a name for themselves—the New Paltz Piecemakers. (Today, it is simply referred to as the Piecemakers since the quilters are now located around the globe.)
Abodes from Around the World, the Piecemakers’ 2012 quilt.
Photo courtesy of Kay Olan.
Each year, they vote to select a theme, block sizes, fabrics, and layouts. "Symbols of Indigenous People From Around The World" was the first theme. A diverse group of men and women of various ages, ethnic backgrounds, and religious affiliations contributed blocks. (In an interesting side note, one of the contributors was Mark Ndesandjo, Barack Obama’s half-brother, who participated in the group for two years.)
Because it was an original design, the group worried that it might not be well accepted at the auction, but when Kay took it to Akwesasne, one of the Mohawk women looked at it and said, “Now that’s what a quilt should be!” It brought a good price and the group felt encouraged to keep going.
Since those early days, the quilt donated each year by the Piecemakers has become one
of the most anticipated of all those in the auction. The Piecemakers’ quilts have raised thousands of dollars for the school. Although the membership of the group has changed over the decades, many who have been involved since the outset still contribute a block each year.
“Christine sends her block from Israel where she is living now,” Kay says. “And so far, this year we’ve received blocks from California, New Jersey, and all over New York State. Some who can’t make a block for whatever reason will donate fabric, backing or batting.”
“The annual process of making the quilt has evolved over the years. Many changes have been made because some quilters have moved away and other quilters have been recruited from far away places,” Kay continues.
Friendship, the Piecemakers’ 2017 quilt.
Photo courtesy of Kay Olan.“Also, we are always trying to think of ways to avoid putting any feelings of stress into the quilt. We want our quilts to be filled with love and friendship. At this point, we usually have a meeting in the fall to vote on a theme, layout, block sizes and a due date for the blocks to be mailed or brought to me. Then, sub-committees select fabric for the sashing, borders, binding, and backing. Sometimes one person bastes; sometimes a committee bastes. The quilt is handed over to each quilter so that they can hand-quilt their own block or have someone hand-quilt the block for them. It used to be that the entire quilt was hand-quilted, but last year and this year, it was decided to machine quilt the sashings and borders and hand-quilt just the block interiors. Someone binds the quilt and very often a handmade label is attached to the back. Sometimes, we sew a sleeve onto the back of the quilt so that it can be hung, if so desired.
“We try to do a booklet to accompany the quilt that lets each quilter describe the
inspiration behind their block. That goes with the quilt when it is sold." In addition to contributing her own block, Kay brings the quilt to Akwesasne each August where she is often asked to tell the story of the Piecemakers to the audience before bidding begins on the Piecemakers’ quilt.
Christine Krug may have had the original idea that led to the formation of the Piecemakers, but it is a group effort that keeps it going. “The ownership of this project comes from all those who participate in it year after year and those consistent ones who make sure it goes from the first to the last step,” she says.
“Kay is the one who has, year after year, made sure this happens! One's ideas only become useful to the community when it becomes the desire of others. This is what brought the Piecemakers into being. It has been a source of abiding joy to see how lovingly the quilt has consistently been received by the people at Akwesasne. I really cannot imagine not being involved in this effort that holds within it the fruits of love and friendship. This quote in particular was the initial inspiration: ‘Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship.’ –Baha’u’llah”