For Disabled Massachusetts Volunteer, Quilting And Computing Are Matters of Necessity
"Before I was disabled I wasn't a quilter. I was always into crafts -- knitting, sewing, and crocheting. But just not quilting," says Millie Becker of Danvers, Massachusetts. "But after I became disabled I found I couldn't do those things I had done before, because of limited mobility, and someone suggested quilting. All I knew about quilting was you cut up old clothes and made them into quilts to be used as blankets. I wasn't the least bit interested."
But Millie *got* interested. A 52-year-old wife and mother of three, she had been struck with not one, but two forms of muscular dystrophy, which have confined her to a wheelchair. She began reading quilt books in her local library, then when their small collection was exhausted moved to the Boston Public Library about 20 miles from her home.
"They had several hundred books on quilting!" Millie says. "First I read books for 3 months, and then decided I would jump in and give it a try! From that I made a queen size bed quilt and then took my first and only quilting class. At that beginners class I found that I wasn't considered a beginner, having completed my first quilt, and queen size to boot. So I consider myself a self-taught quilter. That was in 1991."
While the quilting class may not have taught her to quilt, it sparked the idea that has kept Millie quilting. She is now a quilter primarily of wheelchair bags and other totes for disabled people: "I made my first bag to carry everything to quilting class. I didn't have my power (electric) wheelchair then and needed my arms to push my chair. Necessity is the mother of invention. That is one my favorite sayings. Once I had made the first wheelchair bag, from my own idea through trial and error, it wasn't long before other people in wheelchairs began asking for bags too. There are not a whole lot of choices in wheelchair accessories, and most of them are black vinyl or rip stop nylon yuk!"
Thus Millie's particular trademark quilt, and her cottage industry, were born. "The idea came from trying to put everything I wanted to carry around with me in a regular bag, and hang it off the back of my wheelchair . A regular bag doesn't lie flat and sticks out, so I designed a bag that would lie flat against the back of the wheelchair, no matter how much you stuffed into it. I figured out how to sew this bag entirely on my own, without using commercial bag patterns, through trial and error.
"Those of us in wheelchairs tend to see ourselves coming and going in the same kinds of chairs, so with a unique, bold, vibrant, colorful bag, we are making a fashion statement, that we are individuals. When others see me in my wheelchair and see the gorgeous quilted bags I have hanging from the back, they want one too. I also sell these bags at various expos for people with disabilities. I was recently one of 200 high-tech vendors at the Assistive Technology 95 show at the World Trade Center in Boston. This was the 3rd year that I have participated in this show! I was the only small crafty kind of business there. I don't make my livelihood from this quilting business. . . not yet anyway. I am not sure I could make enough bags myself to do so, as I have limited strength and limited mobility . . . but I could always hire someone else to help me, given enough orders!"
The wheelchair bags led eventually to other types of totes, for ambulatory people and people with walkers, and Millie now markets a line of one-of-a-kind quilted accessories for disabled people.
When she's not quilting, Millie volunteers for a variety of disabled advocacy groups. "I am an advocate for accessible transportation for people with disabilities," Millie says. "I am one of five people on the board of the Access Advisory Committee to the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority). We represent 35,000 people with disabilities in 62 cities and towns, who use accessible paratransit service. I am a commissioner in my town for the Danvers Disability Commission. We work to advise the town on implementing the Americans with Disabilities Act. I also work for other organizations that advocate for people with disabilities." In 1994 she was named "Advocate of the Year" for the North Shore of Massachusetts.
If quilting has become a central focus of Millie's life, computing has taken its place alongside it. "Since getting my first computer two years ago . . . my quilting has changed tremendously," Millie says. "First and foremost being a part of Prodigy online quilters has enabled me to make quilting friendships with two quilters who live in Massachusetts. One of them lives about 20 minutes from me and we have become great friends. I had asked on the bulletin board for information about quilt guilds in the area that were accessible. There was only one, but it was too far away for me to get to . . . but that is how we met. Before that I was a sole lonely quilter, not knowing any other quilters because of inaccessibility."
Prodigy has also provided a virtual community of quilters for Millie. "Writing to the other online quilters has meant so much to me, as well as being in quilt and fabric swaps. It has made me a part of a guild, in a way. That is so exciting for me. I tell people all the time, that the online quilters are my quilt guild. I have learned so much from them. You asked about what Prodigy quilters have meant to me. . .in a word EVERYTHING!!!! Prodigy quilters have changed my life!" Her latest Prodigy project is the "Ugly Lovers Quilt Challenge," in which 19 quilters exchanged the ugliest fabrics they could find and were challenged to make a beautiful quilt from them. "I have made an original design on Quilt-Pro, and have almost all of the top pieced at this time," she says.
Quilt design software has changed Millie's life in other ways as well. "Since getting Quilt-Pro last July, I use paper-piecing for my designs [for wheelchair bags]. This has been a boon to me, as tracing and making templates was getting harder and harder due to the fact that it takes so much muscle control. Since beginning quilting, I haven't been able to use a scissor, and have always used a rotary cutter for every single cut. Before paper-piecing I would trace my template onto plastic then use the cutter to cut that out and then trace the template onto the fabric, and then cut each template one at a time with the rotary cutter. This was very hard and very time-consuming. With this method I could do a bag a week. . . now it is much easier and much faster!!!! I have used my computer to develop and print my brochure with Aldus PageMaker and Seattle Filmworks Pictures on Disc."
If quilting has become something of a business for Millie, the commercial aspects haven't detracted from her joy in the craft. "I am not able to sew every day or for many hours in a day. It takes me about 5 hours to make a bag, that is after the quilt square is pieced. I spend a lot of time deciding on the fabric colors and combinations for the pieced square before making it. That is the part I enjoy, putting the colors together. I try to incorporate the recipient's first and second choice colors into the bag so she will love it! I use mostly Hoffman fabrics, because of the vibrant colors that are in them, and then occasionally other designers, depending on the order requested. As you can see this is a labor of love, not a livelihood!"
If you're interested in Millie's line of wheelchair and other accessories (or you just want to say "Hi!"), she can be contacted by e-mail at ENRG18A@PRODIGY.COM.
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