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Pieced together with love

Motivated by the death of a daughter, Maule started sewing for a cause: making quilts for other people stricken by disease to help keep them warm.
Motivated by the death of a daughter, Maule started sewing for a cause: making quilts for other people stricken by disease to help keep them warm. lsterling@sacbee.com

Gwen Maule puts a piece of her heart into every patchwork quilt she creates.

The retired state worker has made hundreds of them, almost always to give away, and many of them have gone to people undergoing cancer treatment.

In a notebook, Maule keeps track of every quilt – the design, color and pattern, and where it goes. Maule also keeps scrapbooks of photos of the finished quilts, each different from the rest. So far, spurred by her own personal tragedy, she has donated 608 quilts to Sacramento area cancer patients.

“This is my passion, my gift,” she said, smoothing the pinwheel panels across her lap. “This is something I love to do. And it’s warm. There’s always the need (for warmth). God has given me a gift, and I need to share it.”

Her family loves her creations, which have become part of every baby shower and special occasion. One Christmas, Maule made a quilt for each of her five grandchildren.

Maule also shared her love of quilting with her seven daughters, buying each one a vintage Singer featherweight portable sewing machine. She has taught her granddaughters how to sew, too.

“I’ve always sewed,” Maule said. “When the children were small, I made their clothes. When they didn’t like a pattern, I had them pick out their own – and make it, too.”

“That’s how we learned to sew, making clothes,” said daughter Donna Gurrierre. “Now, she’s teaching her great-grandchildren, too.”

“We’re a sewing family,” said granddaughter Jill Ford. “That’s what keeps us together.”

One Saturday every month, Maule and her family get together to stitch. The daughters and granddaughters bring their sewing machines and work on their own quilts or other projects. Jill’s 7-year-old daughter, Sophia, recently started sewing with the group.

“She taught all of us to quilt,” said granddaughter Jodi Lopez. “Now, we’re all quilters, too. We all bring our fabric to our Saturday sews. My friends ask if they could be part of the family, too.”

Maule even got her husband David involved. At age 86, he recently finished his first quilt.

Grandma Gwen to her extended family, Maule worked for years as a secretary for California Department of Social Services. That’s another family tradition. More than a dozen members of her immediate family have worked for the state.

“I worked all my adult life, since 17 1/2 ,” said Maule, a native Texan. “I lied about my age so I could get a job early.”

Now 83, Maule started seriously quilting more than 30 years ago, she said. In 1989, she joined the Folsom Quilt and Fiber Guild. Every meeting, she shares her latest creations, usually three or four a month.

“People always ask me how long it takes to make a quilt,” she said. “It’s hard for me to say; I’ve always got three or four going at the same time. I keep working on them. My motto: Finished is better than perfect.”

Two rooms of her Rancho Cordova home are devoted to quilt making. She buys 90-inch-wide cotton batting by the 30-yard roll.

“I prefer an 80-20 (cotton-polyester) blend for batting, but it’s hard to find,” she said. So she special orders it, two rolls at a time.

For tops, she uses only 100 percent cotton. To find the variety needed for patchwork, Maule’s friends, family and fellow quilters often give her scraps of fabric.

“I used to never make anything red,” she said, “but now I use all colors because everybody likes something different.”

Like a treasure hunter, Maule scours garage and estate sales for usable yardage (that’s where she found three yards of 1950s seafoam green).

For backing, she swears by cotton flannel. “It gives extra warmth,” she explained. “That’s what the patients need.”

Maule started making quilts for hospital patients in 2006 after her daughter, Deanne Vollmer, died of breast cancer. That started her personal effort to help other cancer patients.

“My friend Mary made quilts for patients at a children’s cancer center, so I started to sew them, too,” Maule said.

In a hospital waiting room in the adult wing of the cancer center, Maule noticed a young man shivering. Her child-size quilts were too small to cover his shoulders, and she remembered how cold her own daughter felt when she was awaiting treatments.

“I thought, he needs a quilt, too!” Maule recalled. Soon, she started turning out adult-size quilts along with the smaller ones.

Maule made quilts for patients at two Kaiser hospitals before switching to the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

Nurses and staff in both the children’s and adult sections of the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center are very fond of the “quilt lady.”

“I love her,” said Ashley Budak, a medical assistant in the cancer center’s pediatrics unit. “She’s awesome.”

When Maule drops off a fresh bag of quilts, the staff goes through them and tries to match designs to patients’ likes and favorite colors.

“Our staff members love to give the beautiful quilts to our patients, and our patients are very appreciative of the generosity of Gwen,” said assistant nurse manager Christine Fonseca, who works in the cancer center’s adult infusion section. “It brightens everyone’s day when we give a patient one of Gwen’s quilts.”

“They do go quickly because they’re so special,” Budak added. “Our patients love them because they make them feel at home.”

The nurses and staff top beds with Maule’s handmade quilts, so the hospital rooms look a little more welcoming and the atmosphere, along with the bed, feels warmer. This quilt also represents a get-well gift.

“It’s their individual quilt,” Budak said. “They get to take it home.”

That’s just what Maule loves best.

“My quilts aren’t meant to hang on a wall,” she said. “My quilts are meant for a child to drag around on the ground or for someone to wrap around their shoulders and keep warm. This is truly a gift, and I have to do it.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, 916-321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.