I don’t remember exactly how old I was when someone first put a needle and thread in my hands, but I remember who it was. Actually it was three people. My Grandma Thirtle had a sewing box filled with bits of embroidery floss and sharp needles. She used to embroider pillowcases and dish towels. Many years later it was large tablecloths. For someone whose hands shook so badly with Parkinson’s disease, I realized many years later just how difficult the task must have been for her. But those dishtowels and pillowcases usually became gifts for someone, and I can remember that it took two of her tablecloths to cover our holiday tables because we were such a big family.
When my sisters and I were small, she would iron a pattern onto a muslin towel or pillowcase and show us the stitches. Running stitches. Satin stitches. Daisy stitches. The hard to master French knot. When you learned the stitches and used the appropriate ones, when you changed the color of thread in your needle for a new part of the pattern, eventually you would have a frolicking puppy or a bunch of daisies or maybe even a butterfly. As we grew older, we would find designs to put on shirt jackets or tops. It wasn’t high fashion, but it was our own artwork.
Before our mom died when I was seven, she used to sew all our clothes. There is this great Easter photo in which Jana, Susan, Sally and I (Cathy hadn’t come along yet) were in matching dresses. It is not the only time we were, but oh! how I remember those dresses. She left us when we were so young, that she didn’t get the chance to teach us what she knew, but that’s where the aunts came in. Aunt Suzy and Aunt Heddy made sure we learned how to use a machine. In seventh grade – back in the good old 1970s – all the girls took sewing. Because of those good aunts, we already knew how. We had sewn clothing for ourselves for more than two years before Mrs. Schiebe had us in class.
That same Aunt Heddy hooked me on quilting when I was in my early thirties. Cutting large pieces of cloth into smaller ones of different shapes and then stitching them back together in new patterns created a top that was then layered with backing and batting. After quilting the layers together and binding the edges – presto! – you had made a quilt. I still have a large stash of fabric and many projects ready to finish that just await some good free time. It is therapy, and something that will blanket you with warmth comes out at the end.
The best gift received from those lessons was the good time spent together in the learning process. Sharing moments and sharing love. Making something for someone else. Easy sisterly chatter. It was all good.
I have had the joy and privilege of seeing that same kind of community in much harder circumstances than the ones I shared with Grandma and my aunts. There are thousands of Syrian girls and women who have fled the war with their families and are currently living in tents in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, among other places. When husbands or brothers are lost to the war, how do these women provide for their families? Who provides the milk? The diapers? The every day needs? How do you plan for a future? A special woman I know named Izdihar – an artist by trade, a lover of Jesus to the core – has taken some of these women under her care. A number of years ago she saw a need in her own country of Lebanon to care for the overlooked impoverished families residing there and began an NGO called Together For the Family. Izdihar and TFF have channeled resources in these days to use what they have learned from those earlier years to reach out to Syrian women. And part of her ministry revolves around the needle and thread and sewing machine.
Today our team visited her in the new campus she has set up near one of the non-UN organized camps. It was a sweet group of women we discovered inside. Wafa, a Kurdish woman from the northeast of Syria with five children, has worked with Izdihar for several years to help shepherd her sister refugees through a process of learning to sew. With other women about Wafa’s age (early 30s) all the way down to 11-year old Alla from Raqqa, these women were gathered together in a small room working on projects that would be part of their portfolio as they worked toward graduation from Izdihar’s sewing school. They make table runners, tissue holders, dresses, pants, baby clothes, pajamas and other items, all learned together in this little classroom that is furnished with sewing machines and a serger. Upon graduation, they will be each be given a sewing machine so that they can begin their own small business, producing some income for their family. Income means food on the table. Survival. As the saying goes, they are not given fish, but they are taught to catch fish. Izdihar has been able to sell some of what they make now as they learn, so they earn some money before the graduation day.
We were shown the first of a number of quilt tops that they are making. In the center panel is the simple shape of a baby sleeping on a quilt. Once these are layered, quilted and bound, they will be given to babies, also cared for by TFF, who have been born in the camps where Izdihar works. Stitched with loving hands of women who have borne much pain, those new babies will be wrapped in the love of Christ.
From 30,000 feet, the view can be daunting. There are thousands of women and children like the half dozen we met today. Where do we start? Come in closer where Izdihar is and hear her prayer: “Please Lord, give me this day work to do.” She sees the ones God puts in her path and she meets them where they are. She gathers them in. She puts the needle and thread in their hands. She teaches. She loves. She shows them a future. They will pass it on as it was passed on to me, and through the work of women’s hands, chattering together at the table in this small room, a little corner of a great big world will be blanketed with love.
May God continue to bless this work and the hands that move the needles.