The Case of the Miraculous Flying Quilt

The quilt was discovered in the debris left by a tornado. But where did it come from?

Posted in , Jan 16, 2014

An artist's rendering of a needle with thread swirling like a tornado

The quilt on Lenice Hansen’s guest bed really brought the room together. Something about the cheerful floral pattern, the fine hand-sewn stitches, and that deep ruby-red border felt homey and welcoming. It invited you to curl up and get cozy with a book and a hot cup of tea or simply take a catnap.

But the quilt didn’t belong to Lenice. It had ended up at her home in the oddest way–it had flown there.

On February 5, 2008, an F4-category tornado cut a 122-mile-long swath of destruction from Atkins, Arkansas, to just past Highland, where Lenice lived. 

It was the longest-lasting tornado to ever touch down in Arkansas–and among the most devastating. The recovery would take years, both physically and emotionally.

The day after the twister hit, Lenice checked in with her sewing group at church. The tornado hadn’t touched her home–but not everyone was so lucky. The members of the group got together and talked about how entire neighborhoods were uprooted. 

Survivors stumbled out of storm shelters to find that their houses had been flipped upside down and shaken out.

Their most precious possessions–photo albums, baby books, cards and letters, priceless keepsakes–were destroyed or lost forever, scattered to the winds or buried beneath debris in other people’s yards. Was there some way the sewing group could help?

The women gathered around one item dropped off by another member of their church, Mark Hoosier, manager of the ALCO store in town. He’d gone to take a look at the debris that had settled on the store property. One thing caught his eye immediately. A quilt.

It was filthy from the storm, still damp, and a tree branch had torn a small hole in it–but Mark couldn’t throw it away. If someone restored it, the quilt could be quite beautiful. Perhaps the sewing group at his church could fix it up and send it overseas for its quilt-donation program.

Lenice had been making quilts all her life, a skill her grandmother had taught her. She knew a fine hand-sewn quilt when she saw one. “Someone loved this quilt,” Lenice said to the group. “We can’t send it overseas.”

Everyone agreed. Lenice offered to clean it up, mend its snags, patch the hole, and hold onto it until its rightful owner could be found.

“The flying homeless quilt”–that’s what the group called it in an ad they placed in the Villager Journal, a local newspaper with a circulation of 2,300:

“There’s no way to know how far this patchwork of fabric pieces traveled before landing in our small community. After surviving such a journey, it deserves to find its way back home.”

Lenice posted a photo of it–black-and-white, so she could test any caller claiming it was theirs; the true owner would know the quilt’s colors. But no one called. 

Lenice put the ad in the lost-and-found section of Country magazine, a publication with a much larger reach. Several people called, but none knew the right colors.

It seemed more and more unlikely that the sewing group would find the owner. They couldn’t afford to keep running ads. Lenice put the quilt on the guest bed, and there it remained. Someday, maybe someone would come for it.

Around the first anniversary of the tornado, Highland was hit hard by another storm–an ice storm. The quilt helped keep Lenice and her family warm all week as they were stuck indoors without power. 

The minute electricity was restored, the phone rang. “I believe you have my grandma’s quilt,” the female caller said. “I saw your ad.”

“What is the quilt like?” Lenice asked.

“Well, it’s made of floral squares, has a cream-colored backing, and it’s all hand-stitched,” she said. “Oh, and the border is ruby red.”

Lenice and her daughter spent the next day preparing for the owner’s arrival. They made sure the quilt was clean, and Lenice labored over a pot of chicken soup for lunch. 

One question nagged at her. How, after all this time, had the owner discovered that Lenice had the quilt? Her ad hadn’t run in months.

“You don’t know how happy I am to get this quilt back,” the woman said when she arrived. “A year ago, my husband and I lost just about everything. The house, my husband’s mechanic shop. We could rebuild those things, though. I’d never be able to re-create my grandmother’s quilts.

“All the quilts were special, but there was one I treasured most. The first one Grandma taught me to make. She sat in a chair at the quilting frame and sewed a stitch on top, passing the needle down to me, sitting on the floor.

"I’d take care of the stitch underneath and pass the needle back up. It was this quilt. My grandmother chose the color of the border to match my name, Ruby.

“I stumbled on your ad by chance. I don’t normally read The Atkins Chronicle, but my husband had a copy on his desk.”

The Atkins Chronicle? The sewing group had never run an ad there. Why would they? The town was 140 miles away, a three-hour drive. Lenice had never even heard of that small-town paper.

Ruby showed her the page: “Last week, several Chronicle readers brought us a feature from Country magazine. The picture of the quilt accompanied this story...” Lenice’s ad was reprinted below the article. 

None of Lenice’s friends had any idea who would pass along the year-old advertisement. It was as unfathomable as the quilt arriving practically unscathed from 140 miles away.

But there was something about this quilt that brought everyone together. A grandmother and her granddaughter. A church sewing circle. Readers across the state of Arkansas, and the communities of Highland and Atkins. 

Each patch had been chosen, each stitch made, with love. Strong enough to survive even the most powerful storm.

Lenice Hansen’s daughter, Susan, has authored an illustrated children’s book about Ruby’s quilt and its incredible journey—from the quilt’s point of view! For more information about The Flying Quilt, visit the Infinity Publishing website.

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