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A Quilt from Kenya

All summer long I’ve been working on a vibrant quilt. It’s not of my making but I’ve had the great good fortune to be part of the process, and my work on this quilt has given me a hopeful feeling about the creative work of the world and people of goodwill. Here it is, just about finished. I’ve hand quilted it and sometime next year it will be auctioned off for an excellent charity….but here’s the story:

Jon Steiner graduated from Willamette University and taught high school French until his retirement when he began to travel. He spent time in Kenya and here is the rather amazing story of Jon Steiner

He met a young man named Demo from the village of Mahero in western Kenya, and his family. Demo’s mother is called Celestine Anyango Ogesa. Celestine supported her seven children and paid for their school fees by sewing in her one room tailor shop, providing the family’s only tangible income. They have a couple of small fields (maize and beans) a few chickens, and four cows. Celestine walks each morning at dawn to the fields, carrying her “jambe” (an African hoe) to weed the fields, then home and walks a mile to her tailor shop for the day. She is 70. She buys most of her fabric from Uganda as it cheaper there, and the selection is better. Celestine does her sewing on a treadle Singer machine…

When Jon was visiting her shop he noticed “a large cardboard box of scraps and remnants, remains from sewing dresses.” Jon’s mother had been a quilter so he immediately saw not just scraps, but future quilts. Celestine was not aware of the concept of quilt-making, but was interested in using her scraps. She began by sewing together 12″ squares … and was delighted with the result.

In Mahero most people live in one or two room houses made of mud bricks. Traditionally the roofing material was thatched grass.

As the grass becomes harder to find and the thatching technique is fading, people are more and more using corrugated iron for the roof…though Jon says there are still many thatch roof family compounds in evidence. He drew a pattern for Celestine with the houses in mind, and she tackled them, coming up with a series of squares…

Jon’s real, and ongoing, project in the villages hes been drilling a fresh-water well, and fostering education. When he returned to the US this year he brought the two quilt tops Celestine had made, and the stack of hut-shaped squares. He enlisted his friend Carrie Brown to help him find somebody to quilt the tops, and I saw it on Facebook. The plea was for long arm quilters but I felt I would love to take on one of the quilts and quilt it by hand. Jon and Carrie kindly let me choose which I would take, and I took the squares. Carrie and Jon had floated the idea of sashing between each square, but when I got them on the design wall it was clear these all wanted to mashup together in a colorful “village” all their own…

I had to add in a few little strips to even the rows, but just a very few. The back is a Brandon Mably fabric, and I jumped into the quilting, carrying it around with me most of the summer… The Kenyan fabric is of a group called “Fancy Fabric” which is a mass produced product mimicking the more expensive wax resist fabric produced in Europe. The color is much more intense and the patterns and colors have meaning for the African women. Most fabric is sold in 12 yard “pieces” or 6 yard “half pieces” and selvages include the pattern name and number. Both sides of the fabric are coated with the wax or resin in the printing, making the fabric very stiff to work with initially, but with subsequent washing the fabric becomes softer.

Last week I put the binding on, and I have one more tiny section to quilt…

Jon told me the village had only had electricity for about 18 months, but TV’s were everywhere including in Celestine’s two room home. I chose this for the piece to put my initials on…

When all three quilts are finished, Jon and Carrie will sponsor an auction with the proceeds from the sale of the quilts to go towards more well drilling and education in Mahero. (Jon has hopes that Celestine may have another “cottage industry” on her hands with quilt making.) Jon’s non-profit is called WE Care International.

Donation Info

Official Paypal of WE Care International:


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