LaWanda Randall makes quilts, but unlike her grandmother, who made them to keep her family warm, quilting for Randall has taken on a special significance as old as quilting bees themselves.
"Grandmother used overcoats. She was, er--quite indifferent about the workmanship," Randall said, laughing. "She would use every part of the coat. When she covered us up at night, we could still put our arms in the sleeves and play in the pockets."
Her grandmother sewed quilts alone in rural Selma, Ala.; Randall quilts with four other women in an apartment in a middle-class, upper Northwest neighborhood. They call themselves the "Unbroken Circle." While working on patchwork and other kinds of quilts, they have discovered they also help each other patch up their lives.
The weekly circle was born last year when the women, who knew each other casually, met at a wedding reception and the conversation turned from the state of the world to the state of their lives. One of them, Ann Chinn, suggested quilting as "occupational therapy."
A couple of days later Chinn, a deputy commissioner of social services for the District, notified the others that she had found a place where they could meet.
Initially, they planned to "take African designs and quilt them from an African-American perspective," said member Yvonne Brooks-Little, a radiation therapy technologist at Georgetown University Hospital.
But the group's work has grown to include original designs. They have completed one queen-size quilt and started two others for an exhibit at Sun Gallery in Northwest Washington.
While they stitch quilts together, the women can, without saying a word, help each other.
"It happened at the third or fourth meeting that one of us came in low and depressed. . . . we didn't talk about it. But by the time she left, she was different," said Mimi Shaw Hayes, a media production consultant.
"She had opened up, and she left here well. That's when we realized that something else, other than quilting, was happening."
"There is a bonding that goes on here," said Randall, a professional storyteller, who said she was the one depressed at that meeting. "Since that time all of us have come here troubled and, without even talking about it, left feeling better."
Another development, they said, was meeting Dorothy Holden on their first excursion to choose fabrics. They later called her for advice, and she gave them a quilting frame.
Chinn, who once took three years to make a quilt by trial and error, is the only member of the group with quilting experience.
"I told my mother I was quilting and she said, 'That's extraordinary!' " said Marita Rivero, vice president and general manager of radio station WPFW-FM.
Hayes remembered their first gathering: "We met in a hot, stuffy studio in the red-light district on Ninth Street, over porno shops. We had a little piece of a fan that we couldn't cut under because it blew bits of material all over the floor. We were drinking beer to keep cool."
Now they meet at the Northwest apartment of Brooks-Little, while children play in a bedroom and a Labrador retriever named Pal curls up under the quilting frame.
At times, the women draw their needles through the air to the same rhythm. They discuss jobs, children and designs. As can happen with old friends, when one speaks another sometimes picks up the thought and finishes the sentence.
The group's name came from a song they were singing one night, and it seemed significant to them because they insist the group will go on forever--through the raising of children and the pressures of jobs.
About the future, Brooks-Little said, "Eventually, we'll do the tops of the quilts and farm out the actual quilting." But, she added, "This has more benefits than money. It allows us to flush out our souls."