Laura Najemy, an artist and attorney from Wilmington, spent over 30 painstaking hours embroidering iconic Delaware images onto a hexagon of fabric. Once she finished stitching the state’s outline, a blue hen and a cluster of peach blossoms, Najemy packaged up her hard work and mailed it to a woman she had never met in Chicago.
Najemy, 36, is one of 100 artists who came together to complete a quilt left behind by 99-year-old Rita Smith, who died earlier this year. When activist and quilting artist Shannon Downey found the quilt at an estate sale in Chicago, she reached out to her Instagram followers for help.
The project – a massive quilt of the United States, including all 50 states and 50 stars – would take years to finish alone.
Thanks to volunteers like Najemy, however, all 100 pieces of the quilt were completed in just two months’ time. As the artists documented their progress, Rita’s quilt captivated the nation as an example of community and common purpose.
Najemy sent her First State fabric to Downey earlier this month, where it has been reunited with 99 other finished pieces of Rita’s quilt.
Talented quilters in the Chicago area will now work together to join all the elements before sending it to the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky sometime next year. With the project near completion, Najemy reflects on the personal significance it holds for her.
“The main thing that drew me to this project is that Rita reminds me of my grandmother,” Najemy said. “To me, it was a way of honoring a generation of women that passed down a love of textiles.”
Though she has only lived in Delaware for six years, Najemy was thrilled to represent her adopted state in this nation-wide project.
“We are raising our children here,” she says. “When we came to Delaware, we found an amazing community. Everything from our coworkers to our neighbors, to our church family. We definitely feel that Delaware is home.”
Like many stitchers, Najemy, who was born and raised in Romania, has many fond memories of watching her grandmother knit and cross-stitch. She learned her first stitches from her grandmother, and from that she developed a lifelong respect for textile arts.
Najemy also has skills in macramé, knitting, weaving and more. As an adult, these intricate, detailed artforms have acted as a personal form of meditation.
“This art always been a really fond and happy part of my life,” she said. “It’s something that I really got into in the last few years as a way of relaxing and mindfulness.”
Quilter Rita Smith had already drawn images for every state onto individual hexagon shapes of fabric before she died. But Najemy says many important decisions were left to her discretion. Saying “there’s no such thing as a perfect green,” Najemy blended three greens together for the stems of the peach blossoms.
“I loved that working on Rita’s Quilt involved so many different techniques: color theory, color blending, half a dozen different stitches, texture that captures light, and pattern transfer. Rita did not finish transferring the Delaware pattern onto the chevron. So, after I embroidered about half, I transferred the rest. I first darkened the parts that were missing, and then used graphite transfer paper.”
Najemy said that creating the blue hen was by far the most difficult part of the project. “I am so happy with how the feathering came out. I used four different stitches to create the four different types of feathers.”
While she worked to get the intricate feathers just right, her grandmother and the other women working on Rita’s quilt acted as inspirations. According to Najemy, the women have a Facebook group where they share their progress and connect over their art.
“We talk about everything,” she said. “We talk about what brought us to embroidery, we get advice about picking colors. Everyone is so supportive and so encouraging. I really hope this community continues and we work on another project together.”
Though the art form dates back millennia, textile arts have recently become a form of social activism for many women. According to Najemy, this renewed interest means textiles are finally gaining the recognition they deserve.
“I definitely feel that textiles are finally being acknowledged as a true art form,” she said. “I think a lot of things that were acknowledged as women’s work weren’t previously given the respect of art forms. You’re not going to go to a museum and see a lot of textile work. It’s only recently that it’s really received the acknowledgment of a true art form.”
She is now teaching her 5-year-old daughter the basics of embroidery and plans to teach her 1-year-old son once he is old enough. According to Najemy, knowing how to stitch will be both practical and beneficial to their mental health.
“If I can teach them to value the mindfulness that comes with sewing, they can go on in life with a skill that will help them remain calm and relaxed,” she said.
Moving forward, Najemy hopes to create more Delaware-centered art. Her next goal is to embroider images from Rita’s quilt onto a jacket for herself. Downey recently encouraged artists to create art that celebrates their own legacy – something they had successfully done for Rita.
“It’s hard to take the time to make something for yourself when you’re spending so much time making things for others,” she said. “You really have to stop and make time to do that. When Shannon put out this challenge, it really hit home how little I’ve made for myself.”