Quilting Changes Everything
Writer: Linzee Kull McCray
Photographs courtesy of Diane Lehman
Quilting helped women who had moved halfway around the world form new friendships and break down communication barriers.
In January 2013, four South Korean women ventured into Tillie’s Quilts in Fort Dodge, Iowa. They had moved to the area because of their husbands’ jobs and hoped to gain stitching skills while in the United States. Jo Seltz, the owner of Tillie’s Quilts, promptly organized a class to fit the women’s schedules.
From left: Myung Suk Park, SE Youn Kim, So-Yong Lee, and Kyong Mi Kim (Alice) hold projects they’ve made.
“They came in and picked out their fabric,” says Jo, who taught the class with shop employee Diane Lehman. “We started with the basics—learning to use the sewing machine and rotary cutter.” Wooyeon Chang, the only one of the four to speak English well, translated class instructions to the other three. “After a while, we were able to figure out what they needed, and they were able to figure out what I was telling them,” Jo says.
Wooyeon Chang (right) gave her first quilt to her mother.
Owner Jo Seltz and teachers Diane Lehman and Carolyn Sandvig learned that their Korean students were exceptionally meticulous.
“Even if it was something no one will see, they were very precise and wanted things to be accurate. When the women figured out they could take out mistakes, they became great friends with the seam ripper,” Diane says.
From left: Carolyn Sandvig, Jo Seltz, and Diane Lehman
Tillie’s Quilts owner Jo Seltz helps Alice sew an apron.
“Communication is not a barrier in quilting,” says Jo.
Though none of the women had sewing machines initially and all did their stitching in class, their first quilt tops were ready for the quilter just two months after they started. The women have since stitched table runners, aprons, and tote bags.
Jeongmin Kim shows off her first quilt.
Besides learning to quilt, the South Korean women, who didn’t know one another when they came to Iowa, have built real friendships since they started sewing together. And three more South Korean women have joined them to sew at Tillie’s Quilts. “Quilting makes us closer,” new quilter Kyong Mi Kim (Alice) says of their weekly sewing sessions.
From left: Se Youn Kim and Kyong Mi Kim (Alice) choose fabric for their next project.
They’ve also met other customers during open-sewing days at the shop. “We laugh a lot and share sewing challenges with each other,” Diane says.
Alice and the others don’t plan to leave quilting behind when they return to South Korea. “When I came in to the shop I just thought I’d learn to use a sewing machine,” Alice says.
“I didn’t think I had any talent for quilting. Now I am more satisfied making quilts. I can’t stop.”
From left: Kyong Mi Kim (Alice), SE Youn Kim, Myung Suk Park, and So-Yong Lee check out a panel.