14th June 2017 changed the lives of the residents of Grenfell Tower forever and touched all our hearts. This is the story of a group of quilters who decided to do something to help and show their support.
AMY: Most people will remember the images of the Grenfell Tower fire. They were on every TV news channel and in every newspaper for days. Story after story was printed and many appeals for help were launched. As often happens now after such tragedies, a call went out across the crafting community. Hours after the fire, a Facebook group had been launched with the aim of collecting a quilt for each surviving tower resident. Within days the group had 500 members and eventually over a thousand. Many people wanted to help. A request for quilt blocks was put out and within days people from all over the world answered the call.
It was apparent very quickly that it would turn into a major operation. People had questions about what could be donated and where things were to be sent and in the early days it was easily comparable to a full-time job. Linda secured warehouse space, Kathrin and I volunteered to help manage to Facebook group, and soon there was a team working together to make it all happen. We even had weekly conference calls each Monday morning. The Facebook group was our Command Centre. With the tragedy very quickly becoming a political issue, we ensured that each member being admitted to the group was screened and confirmed they were a part of the sewing/quilting community. Offers of blocks were rolling in and it was clear supplies would be needed to help turn the many donated blocks and fabrics into finished quilts. Thankfully word got out and many quilt shops, thread manufacturers and wadding and fabric companies/suppliers offered donations.
A number of group members also offered their long arm quilting services which we could not have done without. Collection points were set up around the country. Some were local fabric shops, others were individual group members and by the end of July 100’s of boxes had been collected from 45 locations – mostly collected by the Mercedes Benz dealer network (organised by Michelle) but with Carillion and others helping out. Once all the packages were back at our storage depot they had to be opened and sorted. The first ‘big sort’ was planned for the end of July. Unable to be there in person I set about putting together a list of people willing to take the donated blocks and put them together in to quilt tops and finish them off.
KATHRIN: By mid-July we began to realise the extent of the response to the appeal. We had been directing quilt tops to our longarm heroes for finishing and several donations of rolls of wadding and backing had been accumulated and were being dispatched from my dining room which became a cutting room. I very quickly made good friends with the post office and my local courier pick up point. Many complete quilts had already arrived at the Carillion warehouse. Also there were huge numbers of orphan blocks, quilt tops and fabric lengths. These all needed organising and sending out to be assembled. A sorting session was set for 25th & 26th July. Premier Inn kindly donated rooms for those who were travelling to the depot in Wolverhampton. While some preliminary organisation and sorting had been done by Lynn and a few local group members, it was clear upon arrival the enormity of the task ahead. We arrived on one of the hottest days of the year and finally were able put faces to our electronic friends having been largely unknown to each other before this adventure began. Over 2 days, 15 volunteers were put to work! Linda had organised the volunteers into teams. As some were non-quilters each team had at least one quilter in it. There were a group of quilters in a portacabin in the car park, quickly renamed “The Quilting Cabin”, who were tasked with organising the donated quilt components into kits for assembly and completion. This was well lead by Sarah Smith and, despite the awful heat, they soon began producing bags of coordinated orphan blocks and tops matched with suitable backing.
Upstairs on the mezzanine floor, a system developed so that as the parcels and boxes were unpacked the quilts were photographed, measured, categorised by gender, age etc and passed on to be individually wrapped and labelled. Fortunately, some of the completed quilts had already been measured and wrapped for us by their donors – this saved a huge amount of time. All the wrapped quilts were then boxed to be stored until we were ready for distribution.
The photos that had been taken were then uploaded to our Instagram page by Vicky. She crashed the page by uploading so many that first evening! By the end of the first day organisation was developing from the chaos and we went back to the hotel exhausted but ready for a celebratory drink and a group meal. The next day while opening the remaining boxes and finishing the sorting, we moved onto parcelling up the kits to send out for completion. Amy had produced a list of eager folk who had agreed to assemble them for us with numbers they thought they could handle and sizes they could cope with. Many had their arms gently twisted into taking extra. With some space opened up on the mezzanine floor, a cutting space was created to cut wadding to size to go with the relevant pack. Other packs of blocks were being assembled into a top to be sent on for quilting. We had discovered “Tag Team Quilts”. By the end of the second day we had sorted all the blocks and tops into 68 sets with backing and allocated most of them to individuals to be completed. My car was full, with over 50 parcels to take home to post onward.
The local post office was overwhelmed to say the least. By the afternoon of the 26th July, we had categorised and repacked over 500 complete quilts with some 100 or so still to do. We were all very tired but knew we were well on our way to provide all the survivors with quilts and likely had a good number for the emergency services personnel too.
AMY: With 15 people having helped at the sort and over 40 waiting to put blocks together we were making huge progress but our first big problem was right around the corner. We had the volunteers ready to sew and we had the packages ready to go but the costs of sending fabrics and wadding were considerable. Although we have been very lucky to receive some financial donations, mostly from overseas group members in lieu of sending expensive packages, we didn’t have anywhere near enough. In early August with bills of over £300 we spoke to the group. Explaining where we were and the costs to date we appealed for funds to help us get the project to its conclusion. Having posted in the group many many times, this was the first time I was nervous and uncertain about the potential response. The post went out at 7.15pm. The group responded in the most amazing way with donations within minutes. By mid-morning a day later, after more than 45 donations, we asked the group to stop. They had been more generous than we could have ever anticipated, and we knew there were now sufficient funds to see the project to completion. Following the sort, and distribution of the “Tag Quilts” people were so busy working on the donated blocks and getting their own quilts finished that the group went a little quiet. Behind the scenes, the hard work was just getting started. While energising the group and sorting donations had been relatively easy, if a little time consuming, the process of delivering the quilts to the intended recipients would be anything but.
LINDA: There were some minor challenges on storage and getting the quilts all together, but the real challenge on distribution was finding the correct contacts for each of the recipient groups and explaining what it was that was being donated. If I had to explain once more that these were quilts – not blankets, duvet covers or rugs – I think I might have screamed! While responses to quilt appeals like this are well known in USA, these donations came as a bit of a surprise to the groups we were reaching out to. Several times politics and well-meaning advice took us down unneeded routes and my swear jar did fill up “once or twice”. I lost track of how many people I may have spoken too but to give you an idea, in one organisation alone I spoke to 19 different people to find the right person. Once the correct person was found it was then a mainly a matter of keeping in touch with them and working out when we could deliver the bulk of the quilts. This was all organised around when the key contact for the Grenfell Tower recipients could take them and get them handed out. After various conversations it was agreed that we would deliver just before Christmas to allow distribution for the majority of the recipient groups over the holiday period. The date was set.
LYNN: With the delivery date set we had to get the quilts boxes up ready to go and the second sort was planned. It is fitting that as the first ‘big sort’ took place on the hottest day of the summer so the final sort would take place on the coldest, as on Sunday 10 December Wolverhampton disappeared under 6 inches of snow. While very pretty, it did place a huge question mark over whether the sort could take place as scheduled on the 11th and 12th December. Volunteers were due to arrive at Carillion on Monday morning to begin the last unpacking and sorting of donated quilts. Tuesday had been designated picking and packing day – boxing up quilts ready for their final destination. The van was due to leave for London at the end of the week. In the end the decision of whether people should still travel was made for us when Carillion closed the site due to H&S issues with the car park. This meant our time was halved and were under serious pressure to get all the work done in one day. When I arrived at Carillion on Tuesday morning the guys were hacking a path through the snow and ice across the car park to give us safe passage from gate to reception door. Great bunch of guys.
Lyn, one of our group members, was determined to help although she was unable to get to the site so she asked friends who lived in fairly locally to deputise for her. Her friends Jen and Steve – non-quilters – made it through the snow. And they didn’t run when they saw the size of the task ahead of them.
We couldn’t have done it without them. Another example of the amazing generosity of spirit shown to this group by strangers wanting to help. And we did it. 1,111 quilts were wrapped, picked and boxed ready for transport to London by Carillion and on to their final destination.
We finished the final tidy up of the mezzanine floor just before 5 pm. Hasty goodbyes on an icy cold dark car park seemed an anti-climactic end to an emotional roller coaster lasting 6 months.
AMY: With Linda’s meticulous planning, things were ready to go and on the 15th December Carillion sent out a van filled with our precious donated quilts.
With 4 drop off points and London traffic to consider the van set out early and arrived at the first drop with the London Fire Brigade at 9.15am to be met by Assistant Commissioner Richard Mills.
The three further drops were to the Grenfell Support base, the London Ambulance Service and the second Fire Brigade site in Hammersmith
Members of the group met the van at each stop to help with the unloading of boxes. By lunchtime all drops were done and our job almost complete and the helpers headed for a well earned drink!
Having delivered quilts to the planned recipients we were left with around 90 quilts and began to look for places to donate them. The quilts had been donated in good faith and we wanted to make sure they weren’t left unused after all the hard work to put them together. I set about searching the Kensington and Chelsea area for charitable causes. It didn’t take long to find suitable options. I had heard about The Harrow club after seeing a short piece about them on Children in Need. The Harrow Club is a youth club local to the Grenfell site. On the night of the fire the club opened to provide shelter and support to those in the community. The club lost several members in the fire as it felt appropriate to offer a number of quilts to them to use in their counselling services. I also located The St Quentin’s Centre for Disabled Children and Young People, a centre offering much needed support to families and children, again close to the Grenfell site. With a good number of quilts still remaining I went on the search again and was able to reach out to a couple of shelters for women and children leaving domestic violence situations. The shelters run by Hestia work to help people rebuild their lives providing multiple avenues of support and assistance. Finally, there was a surplus of small cot and child sized quilts and it seemed appropriate to offer these to Project Linus. We put these options to the group who came back with strong support for our suggestions and we proceeded to set about a second round of distribution.
At the outset, we had hoped to distribute quilts to all areas of the Emergency Services that responded the the fire. We had reached out to the Metropolitan Police but after much discussion and consideration at a very high level, they declined to accept our quilts due to a strict policy against accepting gifts. We were very disappointed and the group felt the same way.
With our project almost at a close many group members asked about whether the Facebook group would be closed. It was a very easy decision to make. We had built a fantastic community of amazing and generous people and we agreed to maintain the group as a ‘Quilters Community’ going forward. A place for people to share their projects and quilts in good company. We have also set a charitable challenge for 2018 to keep folks working together and keep the goodwill going.
The Quilts for Grenfell Tower appeal was a major point of all our lives in 2017. It was an enormous undertaking and we are thrilled that we were able to take the project to such an amazing conclusion. We could not have accomplished so much with the support of each and every group member, the donations of fabric and supplies from so many companies, the warehouse space from Carillion and the pick up team from Mercedes Benz.
I think I can speak for the whole ‘team’ when I say we are immensely proud of what we achieved and thankful to the group members for their generosity, kindness and the faith they had in us to lead the project. Quilts for Grenfell Tower has now been renamed GT Quilters and you can find our group on Facebook and Instagram.
Amy Watson, Kathrin Waite, Linda Morgan, Lynn Banks, Michelle Green and Vicki Elisa Hughes