ASHLAND – For more than two months before the annual quilt auction at Carol Joy Holling Camp takes place, a group of women work diligently to catalogue, photograph and store the pieces of textile art in preparation for the big event.
The “Quilt Ladies,” as they are affectionately known to CJH staff, spend 10 Tuesdays from May to July in a room on the lower floor of the Carol Joy Holling Camp office sorting through the nearly 500 quilts that come from across the state and country for the auction, which nets tens of thousands of dollars for Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministries (NLOM), which operates the camp.
“This team of volunteers has been the behind-the-scenes heroes of this event for more than a decade,” said Dani Hatfield, director of marketing for NLOM.
Shirley Splittgerber of Omaha began cataloguing auction quilts more than 15 years ago. She was retired and saw a blurb in her church newsletter that volunteers were needed to prepare for the quilt auction, an event she had attended previously.
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At first, Splittgerber was on her own when it came to receiving the quilts, documenting the information and assigning the quilt a number.
“Next thing I knew, I was doing this all by myself,” she said.
There were 400 quilts donated to the auction that year. Splittgerber realized she needed to put together a team to handle the volume of quilts, so she recruited help from her congregation at Rejoice Lutheran Church in Omaha.
Inez Petrie, Jan Fuglsang and Nancy Riley answered the call just over a decade ago. For the past two years, they have been joined by Diane Heller, who fills in when needed.
Quilts begin arriving at Carol Joy Holling Camp in May. Some are delivered via mail or are dropped off when families they bring children to camp.
When each quilt arrives, there is a sense of wonder as the fabric masterpiece is unveiled.
“It’s really cool to hear them when they open one up,” said Gera Schultz, NLOM associate director of marketing.
This is Schultz’s first year working at a quilt auction, and she’s learned quite a bit from the Quilt Ladies.
“I have asked them so many questions,” said Schultz, who admits she knows nothing about quilting.
The Quilt Ladies are full of information.
“It’s like having a walking encyclopedia,” Schultz said.
Not all of the Quilt Ladies are quilters, however.
“I’m not a quilter,” said Petrie. “But I sew.”
Riley only dabbles in quilting, but these fabric gems hold a special place in her heart. There is a quilt with a water lily pattern that’s been handed down in her family.
Splittgerber calls herself a “casual quilter” who makes t-shirt quilts for her grandkids.
Fuglsang is the real quilter in the group.
“I quilt a lot,” she said.
Although the majority of the quilts donated for the auction are made by individual quilters and groups across the state, not every quilt that is up for bids is brand new. They receive many vintage, or “well-loved,” quilts that have warmed generations of Nebraskans.
One year, a handwoven coverlet made in 1840 was among the auction items, the ladies recalled. They also remember a quilt that they assumed had been used in a barn, because a whiff of tell-tale odor remained.
Of the newly-constructed quilts, there seem to be trends each year in patterns or styles. In some years, Christmas quilts are prevalent. Husker-themed quilts have also dominated at times.
This year, there were several quilts embellished with embroidery, but no real trend emerged. But the Quilt Ladies have recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic has had an effect on the quilts that have been completed since 2020.
“You can tell during COVID people were cleaning out their stashes of fabric,” Splittgerber said.
After examining each quilt for the past 15 years or so, Splittgerber remembers one in particular that was unique. It was in the shape of a grand piano and had fingers quilted on the keyboard, with a red rose for embellishment. The quilter had purchased the unfinished project at a garage sale and completed the quilt.
The Quilt Ladies have developed a well-organized system for cataloguing the quilts. After the quilt is received, it is inspected.
“Stains or tears are noted so the buyer is aware,” said Hatfield.
The quilt is photographed by Riley. She shoots a close up view of the pattern and long shots of the front and back. These photos are used for the online posting and for cataloguing purposes.
Every quilt comes with a form filled out by the quilter or donor. Many times, there is a story attached. This year, Janet Huenink of Hickman made a quilt called the “Rowdy Flat Library Quilt.” The 84” x 85” masterpiece was made with a mixture of machine sewing, hand sew-
ing and embroidery. Tiny flowers, lady bugs and butterflies were appliqued carefully by hand. It took Huenink over two years to make.
“I pray that the child who attends camp will be blessed by this donation,” Huenink wrote in her story. “I also pray that the new owner of this quilt is blessed as well.”
The quilt is also measured to confirm the dimensions provided on the form are correct. If the quilter has not designated a name for the quilt, the Quilt Ladies will do so, often with a little whimsy involved.
“If they send it in without a name, we have to be creative,” Splittgerber said.
Once the quilt has been property documented, it is assigned a number. The corresponding form and photographs are placed in a three-ring binder by Petrie.
The quilt is then carefully folded with the corner that bears the tag left on top. Then it is placed in order on a shelf to wait for the auction.
The ladies work diligently to prepare for the auction. Their quitting time each Tuesday preceding the auction depends on how many quilts arrived that week.
“We work until we get done,” said Splittgerber. “Sometimes it’s 4, sometimes it’s 6, sometimes it’s 8.”
“They’re amazing!” said Hatfield.
This year, there were 449 quilts to catalogue for the auction. The Quilt Ladies worked until after lunch on July 26, their final day before Saturday’s big event.
By Saturday, they were ready to relax and watch everyone else work.
Suzi Nelson is the managing editor of The Ashland Gazette. Reach her via email at email@example.com.