In the old river town of Savage, in a corner of the restored 19th-century textile mill turned shopping center, the women gathered at the And Sew It Goes shop spend many productive hours around the quilting table.
They cut and fold and stitch together beautiful quilts. And as quilters always have, they talk about everything, from kids to sex to politics to food. They often laugh.
But on a recent Sunday afternoon, as they fit one square to another, the mood around the quilting table was serious and the quilt scraps were all red, white and blue. The subject of discussion was the mounting death toll in the war in Iraq.
"If this war ended so long ago, how come so many soldiers have died?" shop owner Carolyn Schoenian wondered aloud over the whir of her sewing machine.
The quilters of Savage Mill have joined "Operation Homefront Quilts," a nationwide effort started by a young quilter in Florida named Jessica Porter that aims to send a handmade quilt to every family who has lost a service member in the conflicts in Afghanistan or Iraq.
When then-19-year-old Porter started the project in May 2003, President Bush had just declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
At that point, 138 troops had died there. Porter thought that lap-size quilts would be a fitting tribute to those killed and their families; lovingly made and comforting in themselves.
"They are so beautiful and useful," said Porter, now 20. A quilt is "a visible reminder people care."
But the fighting did not end. And as the death toll continued to rise, by dozens and hundreds, Porter, her mother, Joanne, and their small circle of local friends from the West Pasco Quilt Guild fell increasingly behind. Then news of Operation Homefront Quilts spread, through craft magazines, newspapers and television shows. Quilters all over the country pitched in to help Porter meet her goal.
Employees of G Street Fabrics, a Rockville-based business with four area stores, produced a patchwork quilt of red, white and blue flannel.
"A lady from Vienna, Virginia, sent six quilts from her quilt shop," Porter said.
That was Nancy Preston, owner of Vienna Quilt Shop, who said she was moved to help. "I thought, oh, this poor child, 19 years old doing this all by herself."
Preston chose a half-dozen Amish-made quilts from her shop.
"I just packaged them up," she said. "I just thought, I've got to do this."
The quilters who meet regularly at And Sew It Goes in Savage joined in the project to help Porter.
"It's beautiful that she started this," said Schoenian, stitching away. "It is sad she can't keep up."
As of early this week, the Department of Defense military death toll was approaching 1,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least 500 quilts have been delivered, but for Porter and her network, much work remains.
The volunteers send their finished quilt tops to Porter's home near Florida's Gulf Coast. She then stitches them to a cloth backing with a huge quilting machine that was donated for the project; her home is overflowing with quilts.
When the donated quilts and quilt tops reach the Porters, mother and daughter carefully go through them to match the patterns and designs with the stories of the deceased troops and the lists of survivors they have gleaned from Internet searches of hometown newspapers and casualty information from the Pentagon.
If they know someone joined the service after Sept. 11, 2001, they might finish his or her quilt with special, commemorative fabric. If a baby is listed as a survivor, they might send a small, crib-size quilt. If the family lives in the far north, they will send an especially warm quilt.
For each quilt, the Porters prepare a special machine-embroidered label that says, "In remembrance and gratitude," the service member's name and rank, and "American Hero." A picture of the service member is also photo transferred to the label before it is sewn onto the quilt.
Many of the families who receive the quilts write back in gratitude to Operation Homefront Quilts, Joanne Porter said. "They talk about treasuring the quilts," she said.
One mother wrote to say her young son, who lost his father, sleeps with his quilt every night "because it has got Daddy's picture on it."
In the Montgomery Village section of Gaithersburg, Joe and Rita Rippetoe received a quilt in memory of their son, Army Capt. Russell B. Rippetoe, who was killed April 3, 2003, in a suicide car bombing at a checkpoint 130 miles northwest of Baghdad.
The quilt is made of starry patches in rich reds, blues and golds.
Joe Rippetoe is a retired Army lieutenant colonel and decorated veteran of two tours in Vietnam. He is also the son and grandson of quilters.
"I know how much effort went into it," he said. The quilt is in a room filled with memories of his son, including his dusty boots, medals and photographs. He gently stroked the intricate pattern. "It chokes you up."
At Savage Mill, the quilters around their table might have mixed feelings about the war, but they are united in sympathy for the families who have lost sons and daughters, mothers and fathers.
"I think this war could have been avoided," said Schoenian, working away at her sewing machine. The quilt growing under her fingers featured a star with a patchwork flag in the center.
Nearby, Dawn Stewart was stitching a heart-shaped applique made of flag-patterned fabric.
Her cousin Mandy Guenthur, an Army reservist from Kentucky, is out there somewhere in the fighting.
"She believes very strongly in what she is doing," Stewart said quietly.
Pam Magalee worries about the draft being reinstituted. What would happen to her 16-year-old son, Luke, she wondered.
The quilt she was making is a traditional nine-patch design known as "The Road to Richmond." The design dates to the Civil War. Soldiers from the Union and the Confederacy camped near Savage Mill. Savage itself was a town torn by allegiances. But the women, then as now, gathered for solace and camaraderie, to talk and to quilt, Magalee said.
"They made quilts to raise money for the war effort," she said. "They usually had a cause. It was really kind of a social outlet. Like we are trying to do here."
Then as now, quilting bound people together and created community in the toughest of times.
"I think quilting is such a labor of love," Magalee said. For her and her friends, Operation Homefront Quilts is a case in point.
"To do this for people you don't even know," she said, "it thrills me. It's beautiful."
For more information on Operation Homefront Quilts, go to the Web site www.westpascoquilters.org.