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Meet Your Neighbor: Erwin woman puts pieces together

February 9th, 2014 9:16 pm by Brad Hicks

Meet Your Neighbor: Erwin woman puts pieces together

ERWIN — A corner room of Brenda Wilkins’ tidy Erwin home is devoted to the tools of her trade. Stacked pieces of fabric fill shelves in the space. Equipment for measuring and cutting is kept close to the desk on which Wilkins completes her projects.

It is in this room that Wilkins, president of the local Unaka Piecemakers quilting club, pieces fabric together to make her intricate quilts, examples of which are displayed throughout her home — and throughout Unicoi County.

Wilkins was born in Erwin, but grew up in Illinois. Following her graduation from high school and after a short stint working for a government agency in Washington, D.C., Wilkins and her roommate had the chance to relocate to the Oakland, Calif., area and took the opportunity. It was there Wilkins met her eventual husband, Tom. Wilkins said the couple did encounter a little turbulence, literally, before Tom proposed.

Tom took Wilkins for a flight in his father’s Cessna 210.

“The right main landing gear came up and sheared off, and so we ended up with a crash landing at the Oakland airport,” she said.

After circling the airport’s tower, they avoided a crash landing and landed on the runway where the pair was met with “every emergency piece of equipment Oakland has,” Wilkins said. Tom proposed the following day.

“He said everything else had gone wrong that weekend, he might as well,” Wilkins said. “He also told me that I passed the test.”

Tom, an employee of United Airlines, later transferred to Indianapolis, and this is where Wilkins’ interest in quilting blossomed.

Wilkins took up the craft as a diversion of sorts. Her daughter was in the Navy and aboard a Nimitz aircraft carrier that was sent to the Middle East during the Gulf War. Quilting helped Wilkins take her mind off the worries she had for her daughter, she said.

“Quilting is very relaxing,” she said.

After Tom’s retirement, the couple moved back to her hometown.

“We had property here, so we came down here,” she said. “And I got into the sewing and my quilting got more involved and intricate.”

Wilkins would soon join others with a mutual interest in quilting by becoming a member of the Unaka Piecemakers. Around two years ago, Wilkins was elected the club’s president.

The club’s initial bylaws said the club’s purpose was to “preserve, promote and encourage the art of quilt making.” But Wilkins said the club, which has about 14 members, has begun to branch out in recent years.

For years, the club has made “charity quilts” to be donated to tenants at local nursing homes. Over the years, the organization’s work has also included making quilts for the Rotary Club of Unicoi County, quilts to be displayed at the Farmhouse Gallery & Gardens in Unicoi and appearances at the annual Unicoi Heritage Days event.

The group even decided that its members would take part in making an “Underground Railroad” quilt. Wilkins said quilts were heavily relied upon as part of the Underground Railroad. They were hung to relay messages to escaping slaves, such as warning them of dangers up ahead or to ready their provisions.

Last year, the Unaka Piecemakers completed its own Underground Railroad quilt, with each member contributing a square. Each section of club’s quilt represents a different warning or message. The quilt has been on display at the Zane Whitson Welcome Center since September.

“From what I understand, the quilt gets a lot of attention,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins said the club’s charity efforts also ramped up after its Underground Railroad quilt was completed. She said a local woman donated a large amount of fabric to the Unaka Piecemakers, with the stipulation it be used for charitable purposes. This past winter, the club was able to put together enough quilts with the fabric to donate around 25 each to two local nursing homes. Wilkins said the club was also able to stitch together some quilts for the Cap the Gap organization, an area nonprofit that assists foster children in state custody.

This charity work has become the club’s new mission, Wilkins said, adding that such work is very rewarding.

“You have no idea until you do it,” Wilkins said.

Those interested in joining the Unaka Piecemakers or donating fabric may call Wilkins at 743-9154 or 220-6905.

“I would love to teach more young people how to do this, because just seeing a young person in there, we’re passing it on,” Wilkins said.

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