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Study: Quilts for Wounded Warriors


Quilters throughout the United States and Canada spend countless hours quietly quilting for wounded service members and their families.

So what motivates them?

Researchers from Penn State Mont Alto in Pennsylvania (U.S.A.), put that question to 24 quilters, chosen from a list of names submitted by The Quilts of Valor Foundation, an organization that focuses on wounded service people. All the participants were middle-aged women with the exception of one 28-year-old female and one 82-year-old male.

Although this study focuses on U.S. service members, Canadians also provide support for injured service members.

The study, published online in the Journal of Women & Aging (Vol. 29, No.1, 2017) shows individuals have many reasons for making and donating quilts. They include:

  • offering support to wounded members
  • caring for family and friends, and
  • providing a better homecoming for veterans.

The study also revealed quilting for others fosters personal growth.

Offering support

First and foremost, participants wanted to support service members wounded in combat zones.

Indeed, the study found that many quilters were opposed to American involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts, but that didn't stop them from reaching out to wounded service people.

Caring for family and friends

Nine of the 24 participants had family members in the military.

One quilter explained that her son had been a drill sergeant, and he was constantly calling or writing or e-mailing and saying, "Mom, I got a kid who doesn't get any mail."

Another woman reported that a suicide bomber had hit an oil tanker, during her son's deployment, sending five of his colleagues to the burn unit. He called and said, "Mom, get quilts."

Participants who did not have family in the military wanted to support friends and acquaintances who did have family involved in the conflicts, some of whom had been injured or killed.

For instance, one participant talked about making a quilt for the mother of one of her son's comrades, who had been killed. After she hand-delivered the quilt to his grieving mother, the two women became close friends.

Among participants, nine quilters were especially interested in reaching out to young service members. As one participant put it, "Like I say, I don't necessarily support war, but I know . . . so many of the people that are getting injured are very, very young, and many of them are very traumatized by what they've seen and had to deal with."

Positive homecomings

Seven participants had family members, or had known others, who were treated badly, on their return from the Vietnam War.

For example, one woman said her husband couldn't hold his head up high: "I got called a whore because I was a Navy wife looking for a job in a bank during Vietnam."

She added, "We've been there, we've done that. . . . I don't ever, ever want our servicemen to be treated like our Vietnam veterans were treated."

Similarly, another woman, whose husband was in the submarine service said they had to worry about people looking up the crew's names and harassing them, "I just couldn't face that again, where they were spat on and people turned their backs."

These quilters were determined to make homecomings more positive events for veterans.

Conveying meaning

How did quilters convey the meaning of their work to recipients?

The study found 13 participants imagined the needs of recipients, conveying meaning mainly through choice of fabrics and quilting patterns.

Several donors sent letters with each quilt.

One participant wrote:

I think quilts are like this: we start out with a whole piece, which you started out as. When we cut it up in little pieces, is what combat does. And then we put it back together again, this is what your recovery is. Our little cut-up pieces are now stronger than the original piece. And that's what you will become. So, use my quilt, not just for the warmth of curling up in it, but it's a statement about your recovery and just know that you will become stronger . . . than you were.

Some of the participants designed quilts to make members smile. Quilts with big pink flamingos or flip flops, for example.

Quilters reap benefits

Wounded service members were not the only ones to benefit from the donated quilts, there was payback for quilters, too.

To start, quilters derived satisfaction from feeling their gift made a difference in another person's life.

Quilting also allowed participants to develop their talents and express their creativity.

For a few experienced and novice quilters, the project was a source of healing – either of their own wounds, or those of others, not necessarily related to military involvement.

For instance, one quilter was grieving a sister, killed in a recent car accident.

Another described the way becoming a quilter and donating quilts had helped her 82-year-old neighbour to heal emotional wounds sustained in the Second World War.

Finally, the research found that quilting provided an opportunity for these middle-aged adults to express generativity.

According to Erik Erikson, our psycho-social development is a process that lasts a lifetime. This theory identifies eight separate stages of development which are characterized by specific psycho-social crises. Erikson suggests that adults in midlife face a crisis of generativity versus stagnation. Generative individuals overcome self-absorption by investing in family and community needs.

Research has shown generativity is key to positive aging.