Tiny church’s sewing group comforts thousands with cloth

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The Women’s Fellowship of Poetry United Methodist Church is into sewing, not poetry. But what the members do is epic.

Since 2001, they’ve made some 30,000 items — both useful and comfortable — and distributed them to children’s hospital wards, nursing homes, assisted living homes, hospice groups, U.S. military bases and other places of need.

The women started with lap quilts but expanded to prayer shawls, chemo caps, catheter bag covers, adult bibs, baby booties, leg warmers, pillows, afghans, helmet liners, layettes and “ouchies” small cotton-filled toys for children to squeeze while getting a shot.

Norma Ussery draws funny faces on those as a final touch. She, like most of the women, does not go to Poetry United Methodist Church. But several years ago she read in the local paper that the church sewing group needed more knitters.

“I figured I’d find three or four older ladies knitting,” she said. “I came home and told my husband, `They’ve got a sewing factory.’ ”

That was confirmed on a recent Wednesday morning. Ussery and two dozen other women occupied both rooms of Poetry United Methodist Church’s fellowship hall, their soft chatter interrupted by the locomotive whir of sewing machines.

While some women sewed by machine or hand, others ironed quilts or added labels saying “Sending Love From Poetry United Methodist Church.”

Lina Chase, 93, put cotton into cloth toys.

“I don’t sew, so I just stuff,” she said.

Three women in the kitchen

At the center of the Women’s Fellowship is Esta Basye. She’s 86, and stands just 4 feet 11 inches. There’s no mistaking that she’s in charge.

“She’s our fearless leader,” Ussery said.

Basye founded the ministry after she and her second husband, Clayton, moved to the rural, unincorporated Poetry community. (It’s near Terrell, Texas, about 45 minutes southeast of Dallas, and was named by an early resident who considered its countryside in spring to be as pretty as a poem.)

Her efforts to start a sewing ministry at a suburban United Methodist church had fizzled because of competing missions. Not so at small, white-frame, steeple-topped Poetry United Methodist.

“We joined the church and I asked the minister, ‘Do you have a mission program?’” Basye recalled. “‘Well,’ he says, ‘we take lunch down to the lady on the corner. That’s about it.’ I say, ‘Well, I’ve got an idea.’ I told him about it, and he says, ‘I’ll give you $300 and you see what you can do.’”

The Women’s Fellowship began in April 2001 with three women sewing in the church kitchen. It grew by word of mouth. Ussery, for example, enlisted her bass fishing buddy Judy Muse, who crotchets.

The group also grew when Basye left her card at fabric and quilt shops, and gave talks.

She asked Marsha Leach’s neighborhood study group for donated fabric.

“I had just moved to a new house and had to box up all my fabric,” said Leach, a member of St. Stephen United Methodist Church in Mesquite, Texas. “Instead of un-boxing it, I decided to donate it to this group. Esta gave me a map and I came out here and loved what they were doing. And I’ve been coming ever since.”

The need for the group’s items is considerable, said Sue-Anne MacGregor, volunteer coordinator for Gentiva Hospice in Dallas. She’s a particular fan of what the group calls “memory mats,” improvised assortments of cloth, Velcro, zippers, bells, lace, ribbon and other sensory items.

The memory mats — consisting of nine squares and 18 items — are labor intensive, but popular with Alzheimer’s patients.

“What they can still respond to is texture, and that is what this gives them,” MacGregor said. “These are phenomenal, and I know how much time they take.”

Clothespin nametags

The Women’s Fellowship has helped other churches start a sewing ministry, and it has been a boon to Poetry United Methodist Church. Each year, the group raffles off quilts, and the proceeds have paid for new carpeting at the church, and a new refrigerator. The group also helped with construction costs for the fellowship hall.

Poetry United Methodist remains small — 45 members — but has become more missional. A recent “fifth Sunday” went to packaging health kits, and the church cosponsored a community Thanksgiving feast. The church also gives $3,000 a year to the Women’s Fellowship, helping cover fabric costs.

“They’re an amazing group of women who send tokens of love out to many, many folks,” said the Rev. Kathryn Curbo, the current pastor.

The Women’s Fellowship has twice won The President’s Volunteer Service Award. But members say they get as much as they give.

“We just have an awful lot of fun,” Ussery said.

The group includes middle-age women, but most are well into retirement.

“One of the reasons I started this is there are so many old ladies sitting around not doing anything, thinking their life is finished,” Basye said.

Some members drive more than an hour to sew with the group, and they all have a story about how they got involved.

Sandra Duncan heard at a quilt shop that there was a quilting group in Poetry, so she went to the community’s gas station and made inquiries.

“They had Esta call me,” Duncan said. “I came in here cold — didn’t even know what Esta looked like.”

That was 10 years ago. The gas station is gone, but Duncan is still coming.

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]


The Women’s Fellowship of Poetry United Methodist Church accepts donations of money and fabric. Send to Women’s Fellowship, Poetry United Methodist Church, P.O. Box 64, Terrell, Texas, 75160. For more information, contact Esta Basye at 972-551-1882.

Editor's Note: the Women's Fellowship recently celebrated their 15th anniversary in 2016 with a luncheon. This feature was originally published December 7, 2015.

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