Through the eye of a quilter’s needle, the world helps us remember Sept. 11

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WASHINGTON – The first quilt arrived shortly before Thanksgiving 2001.

It was sent in by students at Cardinal Forest Elementary School in Springfield, Va. They had decorated brown lunch bags for rescue and repair workers and then used those drawings to create a 64-by-82-inch quilt.

Other quilts soon began arriving, sometimes two or three a week. They came from people around the United States and abroad who wanted to show respect for lives lost, give thanks for survivors and appreciate heroic efforts of rescue workers after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America.

Exhibit prep. More than 60 quilts have been sent to the Pentagon since that infamous day. They have become almost a full-time job for June Forte, who has taken on the task of cataloging and preparing them for public exhibit.

Because the Pentagon is in the process of renovation, the “Pentagon Quilts” are being exhibited to the public, said Forte, an Air Force employee on assignment in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.

“When I arrived there, the office was filled wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with boxes, letters, posters, cards and gifts that had poured in. I rolled up my sleeves and set to work opening the mail and sending thank you letters,” she said.

Personal contact. As the quilts arrived, they were displayed inside the Pentagon, where they were an inspiration for Department of Defense employees.

Forte maintains a detailed record of each quilt, including photographs, correspondence and newspaper articles from the quilt’s home community. She stays in contact with the makers of every quilt.

Diversity. The Pentagon Quilts are a diverse collection. There are patriotic quilts; some with names, and others with messages of condolence, encouragement and support; and still more that look like flags. Some were made by quilting guilds or student groups or individuals.

Quilting has been part of American culture since the earliest days of immigration, when they were used as symbols of comfort during hardship, gestures of friendship and guides on the Underground Railroad.

The unsolicited quilts are from schools as close as Washington, D.C., and as far away as a military community in Singapore.

Around the world. Although many different individuals and groups have sent in quilts, they are all united by their efforts to create symbols of comfort and encouragement for the Pentagon community.

“The Sembawang military community partnered up to show victims of the attacks in the states that they care, even though they’re stationed on the other side of the world,” said Chris Wagner, Navy wife and organizer of the quilt project in Singapore.

In Ohio. School children from Falls-Lenox Primary School in Olmstead Falls, Ohio, said they decided to make their “Proud To Be An American” quilt because they feel comforted when cuddled up in a comfy blanket or when a loved one holds them.

The quilt is their way of putting their arms around all the people of the United States, comforting them, and telling them they are sorry, said Sharon Shea, second-grade teacher.

“We were not in New York or at the Pentagon. We did not lose loved ones, but we share in the collective grief and lost sense of security of the American people,” said Valerie Edwards, organizer of the “Memory” quilt from Phoenix.

“Our greatest hope is that our quilt would help bring hope to those who were so much closer to the Sept. 11 tragedy than we were.”

National treasures. The Department of Defense considers the quilts to be national treasures that need to be protected and preserved for generations to come, Forte said.

Because of building restoration and renovation, no decision has been made on a permanent display area. Some, if not all the quilts, will be hung in the Pentagon or be part of a rotating exhibit in the building.

Nationwide exhibit. At this time, portions of the Pentagon Quilts collection are scheduled for exhibit through October at the following locations:

* Reagan Building and International Trade Center (12 quilts), Washington; through Sept. 15; www.itcdc.com.

* American Textile History Museum (29 quilts), Lowell, Mass.; through Sept. 13; www.athm.org.

* Fairhaven Memorial Park (1 quilt), Santa Ana, Calif.

* Richard Nixon Library (5 quilts), Yorba Linda, Calif.; through Sept. 29; www.nixonlibrary.org.

* Massachusetts State House, Doric Hall (14 quilts), Boston; Sept. 16-20.

* University of Massachusetts, Healey Library (10 quilts), 100 Morrissey Blvd., Boston; Sept. 16-20; www.lib.umb.edu.

* Quilting in the Garden 2002, Alden Hills Nursery and Alex Anderson, Home and Garden TV Simply Quilts, Livermore, Calif.; Sept. 28; www.alexandersonquilts.com/garden.

* Livermore National Laboratories, Livermore, Calif.; (Secured facility, not open to the public), Oct. 1; www.llnl.gov.

* St. Francis Episcopal Church County Fair (5 quilts), 9220 Georgetown Pike, Great Falls, Va.; Oct. 5.

* International Quilt Festival, George R. Brown Convention Center, Houston; Oct. 31-Nov. 3.

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