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Itching to be stitching

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Hartington woman finds purpose with quilting

HARTINGTON — Betty Eickhoff’s soul is fed by needle and thread.

The 88-year-old Hartington woman counts her near-lifetime of sewing as one of her many blessings.

Her daughters, Charlotte Tilley, Mary Lou Steffen and Jean McEwan, benefited by being sent off to school in home-sewn dresses. Under her steady hand, Eickhoff sewed and altered bridesmaid dresses, church vestments and banners, as well as tablecloths for family gatherings, and many other items.

So it wasn’t too much of a stretch when Tilley coaxed Eickhoff to develop a new yet similar skill: quilting. The idea was to keep Eickhoff busy in her own home during the COVID-19 pandemic when visitors and going out were limited.

“We ordered fabric and came up with an idea for a quilt,” said Tilley of Naples, Fla. “We’d sew one block and say, ‘Now, when I go home, I want you to spend your time figuring this out. And she did. Over the past couple of years, she has quite mastered the ability to follow our directions and to create these clever quilts.”

The mother-daughter duo work as a team.

On her visits back to Hartington several times a year, Tilley would fill large duffel bags with Eickhoff’s work. She returned to Florida and put her long-arm quilting machine to good use, putting it all together in a finished product.

“We have one small suitcase and three duffel bags full of quilts when we go back and forth between my husband and I,” Tilley said. “One of the duffel bags is nicknamed ‘The Beast.’ It’s huge. It just barely gets under the 50-pound limit on Southwest Airlines.”

It’s something for the women to do together when Tilley and McEwan, Warrensburg, Mo., are in Hartington visiting, Steffen said.

“Neither of us are as particular as Charlotte or as talented. When we’re all together we have something to do with our hands when we’re chit-chatting so it’s kind of fun,” she said.

Tilley estimates they have completed more than 100 quilts with Eickhoff being self-taught or picking up particular techniques through YouTube tutorials. She spends about 90 percent of her time in her newly designed sewing room.

“Her love of doing it has really pushed her to do things she says she can’t do. She’s obsessed with it. She loves it,” Tilley said. “She’s addicted to two things - one, doing it and the second being able to give these quilts away.”

About 20 great-grandchildren were gifted “reading quilts.”

“It has a little character on it, an animal that’s reading a book. On the back, it has a little label that says, this quilt was made for you by your great-grandma on it and have a little saying on it maybe by Dr. Seuss for example,” Tilley said. “It was a little inspiration to snuggle up and read.”

Tubs of finished quilts have been donated to children’s hospitals and the Ronald McDonald House, a charity which provides families with the comforts of home while a child receives medical care.

“We don’t meet the children individually that we help but we trust God took them and gave them to the little guys or girls who needed them the most,” Tilley said.

A few lap quilts have also been given to senior citizens who were ill.

“We were taken aback by the positive response we got, the emotion we got from seniors who felt like the world had forgotten about them and here someone was giving them a gift snuggly and soft that they could wrap up in and receive the love,” Tilley said.

Eickhoff accepts donated fabric or will look for quality fabrics on sale for her quilting projects, each one taking her two to three days depending on the intricacy of the pattern.

Some of the quilts have been sold. Some come in as custom projects for a specific person. All include a tag listing Eickhoff as the creator and may also include an explanation about the quilt if needed.

“We put her name on the back of all of them so that wherever they end up, it’s a small world sometimes,” Tilley said.

Many of Eickhoff’s quilts will be on display at the upcoming Cedar County Fair including some of her favorites - one with an Old McDonald nursery rhyme theme, and another that features a blue and green diagonal pattern with dragonflies.

“Personally it started out as a way to occupy her time, to learn new things and to keep her mind stimulated. We find that kind of amazing that she’s still willing to work as accurately as possible,” Tilley said. “We hope that we might encourage other people, that if this 88 year old woman can do this, we can all try things. We shouldn’t hold back.”