- Written by Megan Joyce Megan Joyce
Grieving is a beautifully selfish act. Despite what we were already so fortunate to share with our departed loved one, like children we succumb to the insistent, thunderous pulse in our hearts that screams indignantly for more, more, more — but instead of toys or candy, we crave more time, more chances, more memories.
Although she can’t bring you more, Jenni Sipe has found a way to help you preserve what was.
A self-taught quilter, Sipe has handcrafted more than 50 healing quilts for families who have experienced loss. These memory quilts are hand stitched from pieces of clothing, fabric, and mementos from a loved one’s life.
“I try to capture the essence of their loved one,” Sipe said. “I tell them not to wash the clothing so their scent will still be on them. Sometimes I use a photo in the quilt that makes it even more special.”
Growing up, Sipe had always been “crafty,” with design inspiration coming from her life on family farms.
“My love of fabric goes back to my childhood when I made doll clothes out of fabric feed sacks on my grandma’s treadle sewing machine,” Sipe said.
She discovered quilting in 1975, helping to make a quilt for the U.S.’s bicentennial and making patchwork potholders, pillows, and other quilted items to sell at craft fairs.
Customers would sometimes send her photos of former homes or farms they wished to remember, and Sipe began recreating those images in wall quilts.
It wasn’t until decades later that Sipe and friend Leslie Delp, a bereavement specialist, began discussing a way their two passions could collide, to beautiful and beneficial effect.
Delp saw the healing potential in the creation of personalized quilts for grieving families.
“One time as she was showing [her quilts] to me, I said, ‘You know, that’s a grief and loss issue — when someone takes a picture of their house that they’re moving out of or a family farm that’s being sold out of the family,’” Delp said. “‘That means that a person has to process that loss, and that doesn’t happen easily. Your quilt is a good coping strategy for them when they’re longing for their home.’”
Serendipitously, the day Delp decided to leave her job in the hospice field to start a nonprofit grief center for kids was also the day Sipe was laid off from her job at a garden center. They finally decided to go into business together.
At the time, The Oprah Winfrey Show was running a contest offering startup money for female entrepreneurs. For four months in 2001, Delp and Sipe worked diligently on writing their grant proposal.
“We wrote the grant and mailed it, and on Sept. 10 it arrived at World Trade Center No. 1,” Delp recalled. “On Sept. 11, it was in the air. All the confetti that was flying in the street [on 9/11] — that included our grant.”
Though their plans of a joint business dissolved, Delp went on to found Olivia’s House, a grief and loss center for children, and Sipe went on to establish The Work of My Heart Quilts, creating personalized, handmade quilts for grieving families with the hope they “might find comfort from something to ‘wrap up in,’” Sipe said.
Delp now refers families to Sipe when she thinks a grieving child would benefit from having a quilt or pillow made from their loved one’s personal items. Sipe first meets with the family to talk about the memories they’d like to have preserved and to decide which pieces of clothing or fabric to include.
“They brought these items to me in bags and boxes, and in a quiet, light-filled space, we sat together, shared tears and laughter, and reminisced,” Sipe said. “I truly feel honored each time I am invited to create a special story quilt that will become someone’s keepsake for generations.”
“When they tell their life story to Jenni — picking out clothing, sharing the memories — it’s very cathartic, very healing,” Delp said. “It’s a process; there are many steps along the way, and every one of those steps leads to healing.”
Sipe said it usually takes two to three months for her to complete a project, depending on its size, which can range from an 11- by 13-inch pillow to a 50- by 60-inch quilt.
Sipe must cut the cloth items into squares and then machine piece and hand stitch the quilt, sometimes even recreating the loved one’s likeness in fabric.
For years, Sipe crammed all her creativity and hard work into a small section of her living room, both meeting with families and constructing the quilts there. In 2004 she built a studio in the back of her home.
“My heart would break each time I heard a new family story,” Sipe said. “Yet I was also uplifted by their courage to give voice and expression to their experiences.”
Presenting the finished quilt to the family is a humbling and emotional experience for Sipe.
“Everyone loves the quilts I make for them, and sometimes they cry when they see it for the first time,” Sipe said.
“First of all, they’re very surprised that Jenni can capture the beauty of their loved ones,” Delp said. “They have no idea how much the quilt will still smell like the person; there’s the therapeutic value of the aroma in the clothes that really takes that child back. When you wrap yourself up in the quilt, it’s almost like you’re wrapping up in a hug from that person.”
In 2005, Olivia’s House presented an exhibition called “Healing Hearts through Arts” at the Pullo Family Performing Arts Center. In addition to work from more than 50 local artists, the exhibit included 11 quilts Sipe had made for area families.
And in January 2016, Sipe began collecting stories and photos from 17 families to compose a book, The Work of My Heart, which relates each story of loss and how Sipe’s quilt aided the healing process.
The book was printed in fall 2017. The quilt Sipe made in memory of her grandmother is featured on the cover.
Inside, each recipient of Sipe’s quilts recounts the life of their loved one who has passed and the variety of fabrics used to commemorate them: t-shirts, neckties, sweaters, pants, bathrobes, knapsacks, dresses, handkerchiefs, pillowcases, and more, representing hobbies, sports teams, places traveled, universities, and often-worn items of clothing.
Delp penned the book’s foreword and includes the story of her stillborn son, for whom Sipe created a memory quilt out of his unused baby clothes.
“When you can look at or hug a quilt, it’s just a constant reminder of how important that person was, and it takes you into [the family’s] healing by virtue of that spiritual healing you’re creating for them,” Delp said.
“They get to pick out the clothes, the design, and tell their story. They truly enjoy the process, and it is a gift.”
For more information on Olivia’s House, visit www.oliviashouse.org or call (717) 699-1133.