BY EVAN LAMBERT
It’s a pretty straightforward quilt. The Twin Towers, golden against the New York skyline, jut into the air like beacons of light. Flanking the skyline: sections marked “Flight 11,” “Flight 93,” “Flight 175,” “Flight 77,” “Pentagon.” On closer look, hand-stitched names—one in each three-and-a-half-inch block, one for each person who died in the 9/11 attacks. There are 3,025 of them.
Look past all that, though—past the size of the eight-feet-by-thirty-feet quilt, past the number of victims—and you’ll notice something else. Each block is different—not just because of the victims they represent, but because of the handwriting on them. The 9/11 National Tribute Quilt, currently on display in the American Folk Art Museum, is the work of 1,000 people.
Pennsylvanian Kathy Crawford and three of her friends came up with the idea for the quilt when one of their coworkers at U.S. Steel lost a son in the World Trade Center attacks. “I figured if we were going to do something for him, then we might as well do something for everyone,” said Crawford, 55, who lives in Pittsburgh and still works for the company.
After getting some inspiration from a souvenir cup with the New York skyline on it, Crawford met with friends Amber M. Dalley, Jian X. Li, and Dorothy L. Simback and concocted a plan to construct a massive quilt that would somehow implement the skyline in its design. The group of friends had quilted together in the past under the moniker of The Steel Quilters, but they knew that this project would call for more than just the four of them.
Crawford’s assignment was to create a website asking for people to help make blocks for all of the victims. “It was just a little website with instructions for how to make a block,” Crawford said. “But soon enough…we were getting 200 emails a day from people all over the country.”
News of the website spread, until nearly 2,200 people had written to the Steel Quilters. About 500 of those people—including citizens of Canada, England, Spain, Holland, Australia, and all fifty states—went on to make blocks. One husband and wife—Christy and Gene Masters from Shawnee, Oklahoma—were so touched that they made 300.
“We were even receiving packages from people during the anthrax scare,” said Crawford.
Once the Steel Quilters received all the blocks, they organized a work force of volunteers—quilters and non-quilters alike—who worked tirelessly in the U.S. Steel cafeteria to lay out the quilt’s components and sew them together by hand. They worked whenever they had free time: weekends, lunch breaks, evenings. By the time the quilt was finished, the Steel Quilters and their volunteers had clocked in 442 hours.
Now there was only one thing left to do: share it.
“We contacted many, many people about displaying our quilt…including Mayor Giuliani…but we didn’t hear from anyone,” Crawford said. “I imagine the mayor was too busy to respond.”
Thomas Usher, the C.E.O. of U.S. Steel, was not too busy to respond. In addition to setting up a public dedication for the quilt in the company’s Pittsburgh lobby, he asked Crawford to give a speech at the ceremony.
It seemed as if the quilt had finally found a home. But on Mother’s Day, the day before the U.S. Steel dedication ceremony, Crawford got a call from the American Folk Art Museum. “The curator said she had never ever agreed to display something sight unseen,” Crawford explained. “But after hearing about the story of this quilt, she made an exception for us.”
Lee Kogan, curator emerita of the American Folk Art Museum, said the Folk Art Museum received countless emails from New Yorkers after 9/11 about patriotic projects that they wished to display in the museum. In the end, the quilt stood out from the crowd.
After the quilt was dedicated and displayed in the U.S. Steel lobby, Crawford and her friend Dorothy Simback packed it up in the back of their car and drove it to New York. When they laid it out on a table in the museum, one of the museum workers was so overcome by emotion that she had to leave the room.
“It is very much a human response,” said Kogan. “That so many people contributed to the making of this quilt…It inspires us to do better, and reconsider our treatment of others. It brings out the best of the American spirit.”
The 9/11 Tribute Quilt has been on display since 2002, and the Folk Art Museum has no immediate plans to take it down.