Dolley Madison Quilters Guild – Celebrating the Art of Quilting for 30 Years

Dolley Madison Quilters Guild – Celebrating the Art of Quilting for 30 Years

By Barbara Wimble


After attending the July meeting of the Dolley Madison Quilters Guild, I took out the flannel patchwork quilt I inherited from my Mennonite grandmother that I had stored for years in my cedar chest. (I am changing where I store my quilt because Guild members have informed me that cedar is bad for cotton fibers.) This worn but still cozy quilt had been lovingly hand-stitched by the ladies of her church. Although my grandmother sewed her own dresses and aprons and some of her family’s clothes on her old treadle machine, she did not have time to quilt and participate in the church sewing circles. Raising a large family on a small farm during the Depression was hard, and there was an enormous amount of work to be done. As she wryly recalled about those years, “I always meant to have a nervous breakdown, but never found the time!” As I examined the stitches and stroked the soft flannel fabric, I wondered about whose worn shirts from which the squares were cut and who placed all of those tiny and even stitches.

Quilts tell stories. And they have been telling them throughout history.

“When Life Hands You Scraps, Make a Quilt      “

For centuries, women have been bowing their heads in concentration over their needlework, pricking their fingers in spite of the thimbles they wore, creating beautiful functional art, and socializing with other women at “sewing bees.”

But first, what is quilting? And what is a “bee”? As a noun, a quilt means a three-layer stitched bedcovering. Quilt is also used as a verb, meaning the act of stitching through the layers to hold them together. Think of a quilt as a cloth sandwich, with a top (the decorative part), a filler in the middle, and a back. A bee is ameeting for communal work or amusement.

Quilting is believed to have been around long before European settlers arrived in the New World. People in nearly every part of the world used padded fabrics for clothing, bedding, and even armor. According to and, although most women did make quilts in Colonial America, the quilting beebecame a popular way to pass the time in the 19th century, especially for settlers of the Great Plains. These bees not only provided a chance for women to create a quilt, they were also an important social event. The gatherings were (and still are) a part of community life, like corn-husking bees and barn-raisings in Amish communities. The quilts created during these bees would often be used to commemorate special events, such as weddings or births.

The quilt as we know it was originally a strictly utilitarian article born of the necessity of needing warm covers for beds and hangings for doors and windows to keep out the cold. When money was scarce or imported textiles limited, many women had to become creative in their use of materials on hand. Pieced or patchwork quilts were generally the everyday bedcover. Every scrap of fabric and usable portion of worn garments were saved and used in quilts. These frugal women developed skills using these remnants and bits and pieces of recycled clothing, blankets, and feedsacks. Quilts were passed on from one generation to another and were cherished as precious heirlooms.

The Dolley Madison Quilters Guild

In the 21st century, quilt-making is still practiced, although now more for relaxation than out of necessity. There are 76 quilting guilds (comprising thousands of quilters) throughout Virginia that are part of the Virginia Consortium of Quilters, and Orange County boasts a very active one.

The Dolley Madison Quilters Guild was founded in 1989 by a few women who were employees of James Madison’s Montpelier and wanted to learn quilting. They contacted Marty Moon, who had a quilt shop, Early Times Workshop in Charlottesville. She got them organized, and they have been keeping each other in stitches ever since. Their first meetings were held in Montpelier’s north cellar kitchen. They met at a few other Orange locations until they found their current home, Dogwood Village Senior Living, for their monthly meetings.

The Guild currently has 45 members, most of whom are retired and therefore have more time for leisure activities like quilting. They are from all walks of life and professions – making up a “crazy quilt” of friends. Most of the Guild members learned to quilt from a family member, but quilting today is very different from their grandmothers’ quilting. Quilters now have sophisticated computerized sewing machines, and hand-sewing is rarely done. What has not changed is that women (and men) are still getting together in churches and community centers to sew just as their ancestors did. They enjoy the fellowship of their quilt-enthusiast friends and the thrill of piecing together and creating beautiful art.

Rita Flyzik and Brenda Morris are the oldest active members of the Guild. Brenda started in 1998 when her neighbors Becky Grymes and Bett Herndon invited her to a guild meeting. She got hooked, or shall I say “sewn in,” to the craft of quilting. “Kit” Kat Terry, who has been quilting since she was eight, is the youngest at 29. There are three couples in the Guild – David and Joan Bennett, Robert and Betty Counts, and Don and Donna Mongeon. Yes, there are now men in the Guild!

The Guild adopted the “Dolley Madison Star” block as their pattern. According to the “Origin and History of Patchwork Quilt Making in America,” the pattern was created in Virginia in the early 19th century to commemorate “the first Mistress of the White House.” The design was developed in red and blue on a white background to signify the new Republic.

Did the Guild’s namesake “sew a fine seam?” Hilarie Hicks, Senior Research Historian at James Madison’s Montpelier, noted that, although there are references that Dolley did sew, mend, and made clothes such as shirts and baby bonnets for her friends and family, there is no mention of Dolley ever quilting. 

Dolley Madison Quilters GuildQuilt Show

The Dolley Madison Quilters Guildwill be hosting their biennial Fall Quilt Show on September 21 and 22, and the show promises to be memorable. There will be approximately 200 quilts on display, including several “Best in Show” quilts from past years. There will be quilts for sale, a “Name your Price” White Elephant sale of sewing-related materials, handcrafted items, and “Shirley’s Table,” which will offer fabric in honor of a former member. Christmas shopping anyone?

Another highlight of the show will be the raffle of a king-size quilt made by the Guild. The 110” x 110” “Blue Ridge Beauty” pattern quilt took the Guild members almost eight months to complete and every member participated in some way. Raffle tickets are $1 each or six for $5, and will also be sold in advance at the Orange Street Fair on September 7.

Show attendees will receive a ballot to vote for their favorite quilt in each of the six categories at the show large, medium, small, wall hanging, miniature, and other. Ribbons are awarded to the top three quilts in each category, and there is a “Best in Show.”

For each show, the Guild chooses a charity to receive the proceeds from the admissions and the quilt raffle. Each year, between $2,500-$3,000 is raised for the charity. This year, proceeds will go to the Shining Hands Caring Kidz Program, which provides weekend meals for elementary school-age children in Orange County. Past recipients include the Christian Emergency Council, Orange Free Clinic, Habitat for Humanity, Hospice of the Rapidan, Love Outreach Food Pantry, Michael’s Gift, and Piedmont Regional Dental Clinic. Money raised from the show is also used by the Guild for educational programs.

Busy (Quilting) Bees and Caring Hands

The donation of Quilt Show proceeds is not the Guild’s only charitable work. Guild members are busy quilting “bees!” The Guild has donated quilts to benefit the Arts Center in Orange, new Habitat for Humanity homeowners, and Project Linus, a non-profit that provides blankets to children under duress. (Guild member Joan Bennett has made over 1,000 quilts for Project Linus!)

Guild member Donna Mongeon’s mother taught her to quilt, but Donna was not able to devote time to quilting until she was in her 40s. A few years ago, she found she had more than enough quilts, and decided to give some away. She started an annual quilt drive for veterans, and last year, the Guild donated 100quilts to veterans in the McGuire Veterans Hospital in Richmond. Guild members and their spouses (several of whom are veterans themselves) delivered the quilts on Christmas Eve. They found that the veterans’ hospital rooms were often stark and impersonal, and the colorful and cozy quilts brought comfort and cheer. The first year, they made mostly feminine floral patterns, but they realized that most of the patients were men. Therefore, they have included more masculine colors and patterns. However, one gent chose a lavender pattern last year because it was his wife’s favorite color.

In appreciation to Dogwood Village Senior Living for accommodating the Guild for their monthly meetings, Guild members make lap quilts for wheelchairs, walker bags, and twin-size quilts for the residents. They also assisted the residents in a project making rice bags for cancer patients in the infusion units at UVA Hospital.

In 1997, the Guild donated a quilt to James Madison’s Montpelier. This was a project shared with Madison descendants who were sent quilt pieces to complete and sign with indelible ink. Descendants completed thirty-nine blocks and returned them to the Guild, who put them together and finished the quilt. The quilt was dedicated and displayed in the Montpelier Visitor Center for years. It is a one-of-a kind creation and a wonderful gift to the Madison descendants and to Orange County.

In 2000, the Guild presented to the community the Orange Millennium Quilt, which depicts scenes from the Town of Orange. It was designed by former member Bett Herndon and compiled by the Guild. The quilt blocks include images from Orange in 2000 – the Coca Cola sign, Grymes Drug Store, the Orange County Court House, the James Madison Museum, Lacy’s Florist, the Taylor Park Fountain, Sparks’ Deli, and the Train Station. It is on permanent display at the Orange County Visitor Center at the train station.

The Guild’s members’ generosity, compassion, and commitment to care for each other are remarkable. A former member started several quilts but found she could no longer sew. Pat Koczur, president of the Guild, and Don and Donna Mongeon completed five quilts and sent them to the former member’s family. 

What is Longarm Quilting?

Member Joan Bennett calls paying someone to do the finishing of her piece, “quilt by check.” Most members piece their tops and pay to have the finishing done by a longarm quilting machine. Four Guild members have longarm quilt businesses – Jennifer Evans of Peaceful Hill Quilting, Wanda Hlavka of Lake View Quilts, and Donna and Don Mongeon of Blackberry Knoll.

Donna and Don graciously invited me into their home to observe and learn about what longarm quilting is all about. The computerized longarm machine stitches the three layers of a quilt together. The Mongeons have two 12-foot longarm machines. Originally, they bought a simpler version for Donna, but she didn’t like running it. Don tried it, found he enjoyed it, and took over the quilt finishing. They originally quilted just for themselves and friends, but for the last 12 years they have been operating their longarm business. Donna helps clients choose their thread and pattern selections, and think through their ideas. Don, a retired engineer, became the first male member of the Guild ten years ago. He loves working with his hands and enjoys the mechanics of running the machines. He also cuts the pieces and does machine embroidery. They work from 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. most days – and love what they do. In 2017, they finished 500 quilts.

Donna worked for 30 years estimating jobs for builders and contractors. Her background in reading house plans has helped her in picturing finished quilts. To generate continued interest in quilting, Donna started her “Sew Happy” group. These sewing days or “sew-ins” are held periodically at Rhoadesville Baptist Church, where Donna is a member. Her classes are open to anyone, not just Guild members. The quilters bring their materials, projects, and sewing machines and spend all day, sometimes for a three-day seminar, sewing, learning, and enjoying the fellowship of other quilters.

Jennifer Evans, a native of Madison County, has been quilting since 2001. She learned to quilt from her grandmother, who believed that every new mother should make her baby a quilt to keep warm. Jennifer began free motion custom-quilting when her husband was deployed overseas. It was her “me” time at night after her children went to bed, a way to relax and do something creative. After he returned, Jennifer rented time on a longarm quilting machine, and she soon thereafter purchased her own. After practicing every day for about three months, she opened her business, Peaceful Hill Quilting Studio, two years ago. She said she “loves bringing a quilt to life with custom-quilting and the beauty and simplicity of edge-to-edge quilting. It is a joy to be part of creating treasured heirlooms that people’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren will hold dear to them.”

A Stitch in Time…

Most of the Guild’s monthly meetings include an educational component, like pillow-making, binding, and applique. They have hosted guest speakers, including one from Northern Virginia who has appeared on 29 different covers of quilting magazines.

The Guild issues a challenge to its members once a year. They are challenged to use leftover pieces, try a new technique or color, and reach outside their box. Their “paint chip challenge” this year was issued in March, and Guild members had four months to complete their project. They were to match the background of their quilt, which is normally a light color, to their assigned dark paint chip. The results were displayed at the July meeting, and they were amazing! All so different, just like the personalities of the quilters.

I was also impressed with the “Show and Tell” portion of the meeting. Members proudly displayed their projects, some as small as needle holders, bags, table runners, and placemats, and others as large as wall-hangings and intricate king size quilts. The members showed off their masterpieces to the admiring “oohs and ahhs” of their friends and described the details and story of their creation. Every quilter told a story from choosing the pattern, fabric, thread, and quilt-finishing. Some quilts will be donated to sell or be shown at the Quilt Show, and others donated to the veterans at Christmas. Some of the members are quite prolific quilters, making 30-40 quilts a year. 

The Guild also holds workshops for special projects. They do piece work together for large Guild projects and help each other with their individual projects. Many hands make light work, as my grandmother used to say. Quilting bees are all about getting together with like-minded quilters, relaxing over sewing, and helping each other. One member chuckled as she related that, while her first hobby is quilting, her second hobby is picking out fabrics and patterns. They all have stashes of fabric in their homes.

“Sewing Mends the Soul”

Quilting is not a dying art. And the Dolley Madison Quilters Guild is very active with programs and charitable work and is, under Pat Koczur’s inspirational leadership, gaining members.

I’ve noticed a certain serenity in the quilters I’ve met. One member said that quilting is Zen-like and peaceful. Another said it is very calming to create a quilt. From their July meeting and the interviews I conducted, I could feel the camaraderie of the members. Not only do they literally keep each other in stitches, they are some of the most compassionate, thoughtful, and generous people I’ve the Guild members encountered. As a quilt embraces you with warmth, so do the members of the Dolley Madison Quilters Guild. They experience joy in both the process of making a quilt, and the act of giving it away.


The Dolley Madison Quilters Guild Quilt Show will be held on September 21 and 22 at Prospect Heights Middle School in Orange. Hours are Saturday 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. and Sunday 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Admission is $5.00 per person. Happy Quilting!



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