Sewing circle: For seven sisters and their mom, this family ritual is a must

March 10, 2018 10:01:16 PM

Jan Swoope -


There are family reunions -- and then, there is what the Heatwole women have done every year for nigh two decades. Seven sisters and their mother gather from Virginia, Delaware, Texas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, to sew and quilt together for a week to 10 days. They talk, laugh and stay up late. They take turns preparing meals. And they create.  


It's uncommon for the ladies to hold their sewing retreat in the Magnolia State. They usually rent a house, condo, and once even a church camp, somewhere like Tennessee or South Carolina. But this year was different. So when I was invited to Julia Heatwole Graber's home in Noxubee County to see it for myself, I went.  


Vast, flat fields, still quiet from winter, surround the Graber house, a contrast to the industry going on inside a week ago. An explosion of color had taken over the two-story great room. Quilts and fabrics of every hue and pattern covered walls, banisters and the second-floor railing. About a dozen women cut, stitched or moved through the room carrying swatches. Ten or so portable sewing machines were set up. Four generations were together again. And at their center was the matriarch, the woman who started her seven daughters sewing, Margaret Wenger Heatwole. 


"It's a good German name," the lively 92-year-old smiled, setting aside the potholders she was working on. She still lives in Bridgewater, Virginia, near where she and her late husband had a Bernina sewing machine dealership for years. Margaret always enjoyed the hands-on side of things.  


"My husband and I were the mechanics," she said. "He'd do one part, and I'd do another. I just loved sitting back there working."  


Her girls, several of whom worked at the shop at one time or other, received their early tutelage from Margaret. She's always been creative, in more ways than one. Some of her oil paintings hang in daughter Julia's home.  


"When I was a girl about 11 or 12 years old, I got a set of three paints, red, blue and yellow," Margaret recalled. But paper was hard to come by in those times. With a merry twinkle, she shared that she even once tried painting on bath tissue.  


As she progressed, the fledgling artist found inspiration in a wall calendar. 


"This calendar came out with a picture of a deer. I had never seen a deer," Margaret said. Unfortunately, the calendar artist had gotten it wrong, giving his deer a long tail. Margaret, of course, copied it, only to be roundly teased later -- something she still chuckles about today.  


A daughter sat down beside her, holding a teapot decorated with delicately painted flowers. It's Margaret's fine work. 


She doesn't paint canvases or ceramics any more, or take on complicated sewing. Her hands are shaky now, she said. But her potholders were soft and well-made, and she was delighted to be surrounded by all her daughters, a daughter-in-law, granddaughters and even a few great-grandchildren who worked on their own fabric art. 






From one corner of the great room to another, the seven sisters employed their talents. June Flory of Timberville, Virginia, worked on a family heirloom -- a Dresden Plate quilt started in the late 1800s by her husband's great-great grandmother. June wants to complete it. 


"She had made 12 of the 'plates.' They had all been put together with hand stitching," said June, carefully handling the vintage fabric. 


She considers the annual retreat a must.  


"Oh, it's my dream to get together with my sisters and mother. There's no other vacation that I look forward to like this one. I will put everything else aside. ... If something happened to my husband, they'd just have to put him on ice -- that's how important it is," she laughed. 


Nearby, her sister Coleen Barnhart of Waynesboro, Georgia, worked on 15-inch, single-block mini quilts, each unique in a personal way. One had the U.S. Postal Service patch in the center, surrounded by blue swatches, all from her father-in-law's mail carrier uniform. Another block was made from her father's shirts.  


Emily Hostetler's maze quilt and her "longhorn steer" made with a collage technique hung near her sew station. She lives in Saltillo, Texas. 


Barbara Cline's sewing machine hummed briskly. She's an expert at this. The Bridgewater resident has written five books on quilting; she also teaches and lectures on the subject.  


Polly Yoder of Greenwood, Delaware, had brought her "mystery quilts." Quilters receive periodic clues or instructions as they construct the quilts and enjoy the variety of resulting designs when everyone is finished.  


While many of the sisters avidly sew throughout the year, some sew primarily at the retreat, like Sheila Helmuth of Bridgewater.  


Coleen's daughter, Coleen Beth Barnhart, is a professional portrait painter and brought canvases to work on in the mornings. She made intricate animatronic backpacks for nieces and nephews in the afternoons.  


Julia's daughter, Amy Graber, works daily in Macon but made a point of joining the retreat in the evenings. Sewing sometimes went on until 10:30 or 11 at night. As part of the next generation of this dynasty, she treasures the experience. 


"When my mom and her sisters get together ... I don't know how you'd describe it -- they're joking, there's always something going on. It's real family time. I'm very grateful to be part of the heritage, the tradition they're passing down," Amy said.  


Coleen Beth feels the same.  


"I've been going to these retreats every year; they are something I don't take for granted," she said. 


The sisters agree the retreat is a highlight of their year.  


"My sisters are some of my best friends," said Coleen. "They are such an inspiration to me, not just with sewing tips, but spiritually ... I'm just so happy to have my mother there, too. ... Sometimes there's laughter, sometimes there are tears, but we're there for each other." 




Until next year 


In the last days of the retreat, the sibling circle was complete when the only brother, Oren Heatwole Jr., visited from Virginia. Margaret had all of her eight children with her. A few spouses joined the party, too.  


Even as all departed Mississippi for their respective homes, next year's gathering was already in the planning. Until then, the sisters will resume their lives. For Julia, that includes leading the sewing circle at Magnolia Mennonite Church and continuing to produce masterful work. Her quilting has been in the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky, as well as in American Quilter's Society showcases. She's also recent past president of the Mississippi Quilters Association and still enjoys entering shows where a prize won might "help pay for some of this fabric stashed in this closet," she said with humor. 


For now, though, she is savoring the echoes of laughter and love that overflowed her family home a week ago. 


"I'd have been glad for them to all stay another week or two," Julia said. "It seems we don't get tired of each other."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.