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Photo by Marsha MacDowell
Photo by Marsha MacDowell
1988 awardee, Fairview (Oscoda County), quilter
Donna Esch, born in 1918, remembers being about eight years old when she first started piecing and embroidering, learning from her mother and grandmother. She recalls that growing up in the Mennonite community in the Mio-Fairview region "everybody in the community quilted-all had homemade bedding." In keeping with another one of the community quilt traditions, Donna's first quilt was made for her hope chest. By the time she married, and thanks to gifts from friends and family, the chest held 16 quilts, including a friendship quilt from relatives in Detroit. Especially satisfying are her memories of "quiltings," wintertime parties that "would start at 9:00 in the morning and go to, but not past, supper." (1)
Since the mid-1960s, one of the biggest annual fundraising activities of this Mennonite community is the annual Relief Sale in August at which scores of quilts made by local quiltmakers are always part of the goods auctioned. From the first year of the Relief Sale, Donna has always contributed at least one and sometimes as many as seven quilts a year. On auction day, all of the donated quilts are put on display; Donna's quilts are often the most closely scrutinized and admired. As other quilters have commented, "She uses good [harmonious] colors and her sewing skills are top-notch." (2) Working year around with other members of Mennonite sewing circles, Donna produces quilts not only for this charity event but also for many others, including Mennonite Relief Sales in other parts of the United States and for Heston College, a Mennonite College in Kansas.
Today, Donna makes quilts not only in the traditional Jacob's Ladder, Grandmother's Flower Garden, and Wedding ring patterns favored by her community, but also has created new designs especially for fundraising purposes. One such design is of Michigan's original 26-star state flag, made in honor of Michigan's sesquicentennial anniversary of statehood.
In addition to being recognized for her quilting mastery within her own community, Donna has received recognition from further afield. Her quilts have been exhibited at the Jesse Besser Museum and Michigan State University Museum.
(1) Esch, Donna. Audio recorded interview with C. Kurt Dewhurst. 22 August 1986.
(2) MacDowell, Marsha. Field notes. 21 June 1980.
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