She said it’s a personal code she lives by, and hopes that when she dies, someone will collect any of her unfinished crafting projects and complete them.
So when Downey was at an estate sale last month in the home of a woman who died at age 99, and came across a large plastic bin with an enormous, unfinished embroidery and quilting project that was of a United States map, she sat on the floor and almost cried.
“I knew I had to buy it and finish it,” she said, adding that it would be a huge undertaking and she doesn’t know how to quilt.
The project, which was already begun and had been carefully laid out in the fabric bin, entails embroidering a piece of fabric for each of the 50 states, and 50 separate stars, then turning them into a quilt. The original crafter who started the project was Rita Smith, who died in August at age 99, Downey said.
Once Downey learned Smith’s age, and saw how many other crafting projects she’d completed — “she was a ferocious crafter,” Downey said — she doubled down on completing the massive quilt. Downey is both an avid crafter and also is active in the crafting community.
Downey took to Instagram, asking her fellow crafters for help embroidering the states.
“A short story and request for stitching help,” she began in her post. “You know my love of estate sales and the fact that I cannot handle stumbling upon unfinished projects. I just know that the person who passed can’t possibly rest easy with an unfinished project out there. I buy them and finish them as tribute.”
She explained what she found at the estate sale in the Mount Prospect home of the late Rita Smith, who was “clearly an astounding stitcher with a love for the U.S. and state flowers.”
“Rita had prepped, cut, all the squares and started transferring the designs onto the squares. She started stitching New Jersey. Obviously I bought the whole box. I cannot possibly stitch all this myself with all the rest of my stuff but I’m wondering if we can crowd stitch/crowd finish this project for Rita?!”
It was a public call for people to volunteer to stitch a square. The plan would be that Downey would mail a square to a volunteer, who would then stitch that state and mail it back. Then once she gets them all back, she’d host a quilting party to put them all together.
“Anyone interested in helping me help Rita rest in craft peace?!,” she asked.
The response was overwhelming, she said, with more than 1,000 stitchers offering to help on Instagram.
She picked 100 people — 50 for the states and 50 to each stitch a star — and then she made a spreadsheet to keep track of it all. She went to the post office and mailed out 100 envelopes, asking volunteers to send back the completed embroidery by Nov. 15.
She mailed the envelopes to volunteers across the country. Michelle Anais Beaulieu-Morgan, 41, who works at Yale University, received an envelope at her Connecticut home after seeing Downey’s post on Instagram and volunteering to be part of it.
“Crafting for me is part of my recovery story — I’m about 4.5 years sober,” Beaulieu-Morgan said in an email to The Washington Post. “The slow work of embroidering is really meditative. Also, I think historically embroidery has been under-theorized and certainly not appreciated nearly enough.”
She is about halfway through embroidering her home state, Maine, and said she expects, in total, it to take her about 20 hours to finish.
Chez Knox Kirk, 42, who lives in Birmingham, Ala. and is embroidering Alabama, said she also volunteered through the Instagram post. She estimates it will take her between five and 10 hours to finish her state.
“I love anything that brings people together for a bigger cause,” Kirk, a systems analyst, wrote in an email to The Post. “We are so much more than what divides us. This group is honoring Rita’s life by finishing her project.”
Downey posted her story on Twitter on Wednesday, and it quickly went viral. She said she was really happy with all the support for Smith, whom she learned had a husband who died in 2009, and also a son who is still alive.
One unexpected upside of this experience has been support on social media from her fellow crafters who share her anxiety about failing to finish a project.
She said there are two kinds of crafters: people who love to start projects but don’t finish them, and people who don’t move on until they’ve finished what they’re working on.
“I am a crafter who finishes projects,” Downey said. “I live with this bizarre fear I’ll leave behind a project and be in project purgatory forever.”
She said it’s because she puts so much of herself into each project, the idea of leaving it undone is “heartbreaking.”
Now, she said she’s knows she’s not alone in that idea.
“I did not expect this response,” she said. “Folks are totally willing to throw down and finish things."
Downey, the director of development at a nonprofit, said she hopes to have the quilt completed by December or January, and she’d like to find a home in a quilt museum for it.
“I want it to be somewhere it will be appreciated and a testament to what Rita created,” Downey said. “And also what community can do. This is such a beautiful story of the power of social media for good.”