North Star Quilters Guild members cite benefits of age-old craft, especially during pandemic

Concentration on precise cutting and sewing, using math and artistic skills provide antidote to pandemic stress. This is the fourth in a series of stories on how area residents explore their inner creativity during a pandemic.

An avid quilter, Dawn Santangelo of East Grand Forks, has gotten through the pandemic by making quilts. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Since Dawn Santangelo had her first hip surgery about three years ago, her recovery has been difficult, complicated by recurring infections and requiring eight surgeries, she said.

“I went around two years with no hip,” said Santangelo, of East Grand Forks. “They took the hip socket out, because that’s what the infection is drawn to, the weak area in the hip. It was a long drawn-out affair.”

Her last hip surgery, in January, was followed by physical rehabilitation sessions and, later, the pandemic.

“I had quarantined for three years,” she said. “I could get around, but it was not real easy.”

She’s thankful she‘s been able to sit at her sewing machine and work on quilting projects.


“Sewing has gotten me through,” said the avid quilter. “If I couldn’t sew, I would’ve gone crazy, because that is what kept me balanced -- it seemed like you had some worth in your life, to be able to do something and make something -- and it’s always been a big part of my life.”

Her enthusiasm has taken a toll on her sewing machines.

“I had a Singer (machine) and I wore out two sets of feed dogs," she said of the metal pieces that feed fabrics as they’re stitched together under the presser foot. “Now I have a Genome 15,000 with more than a thousand working hours on it.”

‘Piecing’ is intriguing

Santangelo, who’s been sewing since she was 7, became interested in quilting when a great aunt gave her a quilting book, which inspired her to make her first quilt, using a shoofly pattern.

“It’s the piecing (process) that intrigues me,” said Santangelo, noting that one project was so complex, with circles radiating out from the center -- she calls it her “crazy quilt because you’ve got to be crazy to do it.”

She’s also intrigued by what goes into choosing a mix of fabrics to achieve a desired effect by virtue of their colors.


“I think one of the most fun things about quilting is picking your fabric,” she said. “(Quilting) really is an art form.”

It also presents the opportunity to challenge oneself, whether in terms of color, special techniques, or the planning and placement of fabric, she said.

“That’s always been part of me -- I just love a challenge," Santangelo said.

“And it gives you the ability to do things for others,” she said, noting that she gives away most of her quilted items.

Improves mental health

The mental health benefits are important, especially in these unusually stressful times, according to Santangelo.

“Sewing takes your mind off of everything else -- and it makes you concentrate and do precise things -- and get something for it. You get something to show for the time that you have spent," she said.

A family history of Alzheimer’s disease heightens Santangelo’s appreciation for the process of quilting and drives her interest in exploring and mastering difficult techniques.

“So I’m trying to use my brain,” she said. “That’s why I work that much harder on things that are harder.”


A fellow member of the North Star Quilters Guild, Jolene Mikkelson, past president of the Guild and now chair of its long-range planning committee, echoed similar views on the benefits of quilting.

During the pandemic, Mikkelson has made many full-size quilts, pillows, quilted dog jackets, quilted bowls and quilted cosmetic bags.

Quilting is not just a diversion.

"It is also stress-reducing, energizing and something you can do from start to finish in your own home,” said Mikkelson, adding there is so much satisfaction in completing a project that “quilting chases away the tendency to feel blue during this time.”

The social aspect of getting together with other quilters regularly is also beneficial to North Star Quilters Guild members.

“Our Guild community has found ways to stay connected through virtual quilt shows, Zoom meet-ups and classes,” Mikkelson said.

Increasing interest

Since the coronavirus hit countries around the world, disrupting lives and isolating people in their homes, many have gravitated to the age-old craft of quilting, say those who are part of the retail industry.

“You’ve got people sitting home, and they need something to do,” said Kim Dietrich, owner of Quilter’s JEM store in East Grand Forks. "So if they ever have thought about taking up sewing or quilting, now is the time they’re starting.”

Sewing machine sales have skyrocketed to more than four times the normal rate -- and some businesses have reported selling out of machines and some basic fabrics -- all over the world, according to Dietrich.

Some of that demand can be traced to a desire to sew face masks for family and friends at home, but quilting, in particular, has enjoyed increased popularity, attracting new enthusiasts, she said.

“It definitely takes your mind away from (the pandemic),” she said. “You have to focus on what you’re doing when you’re quilting -- you’re cutting, you’re using your math skills, you’re using your artistic skills by color and things like that. I think your mind is more occupied so you’re not focusing on the pandemic.”

That’s certainly true for Santangelo.

During her time spent in quarantine at home, she has made four quilts, completing the last one in June, she said.

Her current project, a quilt called “Make Yourself at Home,” is spread out and positioned on her sewing machine on a large table in a sunny corner of her dining room.

“(Sewing) keeps me going,” she said.

And, with everything she’s faced in recent years, she added: “My quilting friends really got me through.”

Related Topics: HOME AND GARDEN
Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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