Studies have long maintained that quilting can be not only an art form but also can provide therapeutic value — and Barb Patrick certainly agrees.
Patrick is the owner of Newtown’s Bitty Birdie Design, where she creates quilts and accessories that combine high-quality fabrics with clothing provided by her customers — T-shirts, baby clothes and the like — for a personalized keepsake.
“In 2000 I’d had my second son in 20 months, and I was losing it,” she laughed at her Bitty Birdie Design studio in Newtown. At the suggestion of her mother she took up sewing and, that Christmas, she received a sewing machine.
“My husband Sean and my brother had a bet going,” she recalled. “My brother said I’d never touch it, and Sean said I’d become completely obsessed.”
Her husband, a history teacher at Fairfield Ludlowe High School in Fairfield, was right, as Barb spent the next several years producing high-end, “sophisticated” baby quilts for friends and family that were singularly unique. By 2007 she’s opened up shop in what is now a fairly overstuffed 11-foot by 12-foot studio inside her 95 Boggs Hill Road home.
“It evolved in ways that I didn’t anticipate or plan,” Patrick said. “As my kids grew up and there were fewer babies in our lives, I began adding things to my repertoire like t-shirt memory quilts and bereavement memory quilts.”
The former are often given by parents as high school or college graduation presents, and can include everything from favorite childhood outfits to concert tees and sports jerseys. “You can have your entire childhood represented in a blanket,” she said. “Every time a parent picks one up they start to cry — and then I start to cry.”Her bereavement memory quilts serve as poignant reminders of a family member who’s passed on, and again employ favorite and/or significant articles of clothing, not only t-shirts.
“Those are really powerful for me,” Patrick said. “I lost my dad when I was four, and don’t have anything of his. I do my memory quilt work in his honor as a way of paying it forward, and expressing to those customers how I understand what they’re going through.”
The process of gathering material for a bereavement memory quilt can also help with the grieving process, she said. “Family members usually don’t know what to do with all that stuff — throw it out, donate it, or keep it in the attic,” she said. “This is a great way to remember them. And I’ve also had some customers who are dying, who’ve come to me with some of their clothes to make into a quilt for their family after they’re gone.”Customer input can range from very specific details — “I want this t-shirt in the upper right-hand corner and this one dead center” — to simply delivering 10 shirts to Bitty Birdie and leaving it up to Patrick, she said.
“I love when an 18-year-old gets involve in picking stuff and helping with the design,” she said. “One girl found a piece of paper stapled to her old baby blanket, and it turned out to be a note to The Blanket Fairy about how special it was, and to make sure if she gave it to someone that it was somebody who really needed it.”
Christmas and June graduation season are her busiest times, Patrick said. “I have 60 orders for t-shirt quilts right now,” she noted. “I’m probably doing 75 to 100 a year.” She generally needs eight to 12 weeks’ lead time, she noted, “depending on how large a project it is.”
Custom baby announcement pillows, measuring 16 x 16 inches, sell for $60, while T-shirt memory quilts range from $250 (nine shirts on a quilt measuring 48 by 48 inches) to $500 (20 to 30 items, measuring 76 by 76 inches.) A number of quilts and other custom-made products to mark special occasions are also available.
As for the Bitty Birdie name, Patrick said, “I’ve also always loved birds and images of birds. And I’ve always loved alliteration, and it works with my first name.”