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Chattanooga Quilters Give their Work to Owners of New Habitat for Humanity Homes

Cornelia Johnson with her quilt. Photo courtesy The Times-Free Press.

Cornelia Johnson with her quilt. Photo courtesy The Times-Free Press.

When Kelly Spell was casting about for a new hobby, her mind drifted across the bizarre challenges that the reality TV show "Project Runway" poses for its aspiring fashion designer contestants.

Make a dress from flower blossoms purchased at a warehouse market. Make a gown sewn from items bought in grocery aisles: candy wrappers, garbage bags, lettuce leaves. Rip apart home decor— leather from sofas, woven throw rugs — for fabric to make a dress.

While Spell, a 35-year-old marketing specialist, had not been particularly artsy-craftsy as a child, she discovered she had a gift for cutting designs from all sorts of fabric and sewing them into something lovely. So she chose quilting as a hobby, then became an enthusiastic member of the Chattanooga Modern Quilt Guild, where women of all ages gather to sew quilts that are works of art.

But they do much more. Last fall, they decided to give their quilts away to new owners of Habitat for Humanity houses.

The quilters wanted to create a gift that would make a new homeowner feel snug and safe and able to dream sweetly. They also wanted it to be an heirloom that could be passed on to a child.

"We wanted to make something so beautiful, the owner would be proud to pass it along to a son or daughter like a family heirloom," Spell says.

Cornelia Johnson, who works for the state health department in downtown Chattanooga, was the first Habitat homeowner to get a quilt.

"They gave me the quilt the day Habitat for Humanity handed me the keys to my new house last fall; the house and the quilt are absolutely beautiful," Johnson says. "I have two adult sons, and I'm not sure how much they know about art, but this quilt is definitely something I would want to hand down to my grandkids."

Her quilt has a deep magenta background — "my favorite color," Johnson notes — with a large eight-pointed star encircling a smaller star. The dozens of fabric swatches that form the stars are imprinted with fanciful goldfish swimming around a teddy bear wearing a diving helmet as well as musical notes, huge golden lilies, a rolling pin, cookie cutters and bright abstract designs.

"I was told each piece has a special meaning for the person who brought it to the quilt so, in a way, the women who made it are sharing their good wishes and dreams with me," Johnson says, examining a piece with a whimsical elephant adorned with pink and green gems.

"Some day I would love to attend one of the guild's meetings so I can thank the women who made this and hear the stories behind the pictures on the fabric."

Guild member Jean Larson, who first approached Habitat about giving quilts to new owners, says she and about 10 other quilters attended the ceremony where Johnson was given her house keys.

"We've made two quilts for two new owners since then," she says.

Pictured on the guild's Facebook page, one quilt is adorned with a colorful abstract — yet instantly recognizable — portrait of the Walnut Street Bridge and the Tennessee Aquarium towers. The other quilt has white lightning zigzags dividing brightly colored blocks and stripes.

The guild is now working on a quilt for a new Habitat homeowner in April. Spell says the members sometimes design a quilt pattern; other times they modernize a pattern that might be 200 years old."We wanted to take all these unusual pieces of fabric that at first look helter-skelter and arrange them on the quilt to be appealing to the modern eye," says Larson.

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