UW News

January 14, 2010

Pocket quilts: Sociology prof patches together a warm gift for homeless children

The gifts Barbara Reskin and her friend have been making for homeless children serve a double purpose: They keep the children warm and give them a place to store some of their belongings. The gifts are 42 by 54 inch quilts that are covered on one side with pockets.

“I read a book about a child who was in foster care and had to go from place to place carrying his stuff in paper bags,” said Reskin, a professor of sociology, “so I started thinking about homeless kids. Where were they going to put their stuff?”

Then she remembered her pockets.

Reskin is a quilter. She’s also a woman who grew up poor and whose research deals with social inequality. No wonder, then, that when she quilts, she does it the old fashioned way — by salvaging her own old clothes or buying some at thrift stores and using the fabric. When she bought shirts, she cut off the collars, cuffs and pockets. But because she can’t bear to throw things away, she kept the pockets, and over time accumulated quite a stash.

Thus was born the “pocket quilt” project. Reskin recruited her quilting buddy, Lynn White, who recently retired from the University of Nebraska, to join her in making quilts for homeless kids using the pockets she’d saved. (The two women went to graduate school together at the UW in the 1970s, and quilting has been an integral part of their friendship ever since.) For the project, they made 13 quilts with 20 pockets on each, and gave them to Wellspring Family Services last month.

But before they did, Reskin thought of one last touch to make the quilts even more appealing — why not fill the pockets? So she appealed to friends in the UW community to help her do that. Sociology students, faculty and staff came up with useful objects such as soap, toothpaste, notebooks and calculators, as well as entertaining ones like crayons, yoyos and games.

“We loved doing this,” Reskin said. “It was fun and it felt good to be doing something. Because of my research, I’m very aware that the needs out there are great.”

The whole project was so rewarding, in fact, that Reskin and White plan to make more pocket quilts for homeless children. This means they’ll be hitting the thrift stores for old shirts and blouses with pockets. However, it took more than 10 years to accumulate the 260 pockets used in the first batch of quilts, so their immediate project is to get a lot of pockets. They welcome donations of shirt pockets (fabric must be washable), either still attached to the shirt or cut out with at least two inches of fabric on each side. They’d also be happy to have other quilters join them — Reskin said she’d be willing to provide instruction once she gets enough pockets to begin again.

Reskin said she and White probably spent about $25 for each of the first quilts they made, excluding the gifts, but anyone who knows anything about quilts realizes that is pretty inexpensive. And she’s certain she got more out of it than she gave.

“We’ve got a bad economic situation now and everyone knows it, but a lot of us feel there’s nothing we can do,” she said. “I think when you do something like this that commits some time and creates something tangible, it makes you, the giver, happier.”

Anyone who has some pockets to donate or would like to get involved in the pocket quilt project should contact Reskin at reskin@u.washington.edu.