Everett Drevs of Estherville, one of the few male quilters in Iowa, shows one of his favorite quilts, which was made from pieces of material taken from the clothes he and his late wife would wear to go dancing. / Bryon Houlgrave, The Des Moines Register
ESTHERVILLE, Iowa -- Everett Drevs descends to his basement workshop, where a TV is aligned so he can work and still look up at the baseball game when he hears a cheer.
"Now that stitch," says the 81-year-old, "isn't my cup of tea."
Did he mean to say pitch?
No, Drevs is a quilter and doesn't feel out of his league in Estherville as the North Star Quilt Guild's only man. He also isn't interested in discussing how he busts stereotypes in a female-dominated hobby, although men are a growing minority of U.S. quilters.
"I just like doing it," said Drevs, who people call Ev. "It's relaxing."
It means a lot more than he lets on. His quilts have sewn together his family's history, becoming a living document of each era, and also bring warmth and comfort to community members dying in hospice care.
The retired community college biology teacher started talking double pinwheel patterns and batting - not the baseball kind - when he got around to describing how he started quilting.
"I did it because she wanted me to," he said.
That's wife Teddy. She was an art teacher when they met in the late 1950s. "She was 5-foot. Nice looking. A joy to talk to."
Ev and Teddy married in 1960 and had four daughters, moving to this northwest Iowa border town in 1966 when he got a job here. She stayed home to care for the kids, and he built her a sewing room in the home's addition, reusing materials to do it, and she launched her own in-home sewing business.
"That's her sewing room," he says, pointing from his living room recliner to behind a half wall where several machines sit. "That's where I do my sewing."
If he came home from work and the door was closed, he knew not to enter. She was hard at work. She might be whipping up a tie or sport coat for Ev, or dresses for the girls, or even sewing a new city flag for a town celebration.
"She was a happy lady. Nothing bothered her. Except the beard I grew for the centennial. It was gray. She said it made me look too old," he said.
Years passed, the girls grew up and left, and in 1996 they got bad news. Teddy had cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Six months later, Ev was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
He pulled out four boxes from storage then. It was fabric from the girls' old clothes, cut and separated, one box for each. His mother started the project when she came to live with Ev and Teddy, but hadn't begun to make them into a quilt before dying.
Living through the Depression, his mother didn't let anything go to waste, and Ev has a similar philosophy.
He tried to talk Teddy into using that material, just sitting in boxes, to finally make that quilt.
"I'd go mad," she told him. "That's something you can finish."
"But I don't know how to sew," Ev said.
She showed him the basics, told him to make his stitches bigger so people knew he stitched by hand and not a machine. But she wouldn't let him use her sewing machine for the edges, the 1951 model from her high school graduation that still sits in the sewing room. He had to go buy a used one.
He practiced on basic patterns until he got good enough to piece together the fabric of oldest daughter Cynthia's dresses into a quilt. Then he started on Nancy's and Merriel's.
"I didn't even know he could sew," said youngest daughter Julie Bates, 47, of Estherville. "I also didn't realize he was going whole-hog into it."
He began shifting through the piles of fabric left by his mother and grandmother, too.
"It makes perfect sense for him to repurpose," Bates said.
But as Ev quilted and his health returned, Teddy's didn't.
Her cancer worsened, and after a six-year battle doctors sent her home for hospice care.
"I knew she was having trouble breathing, and that night she passed away," he said of her June 2002 death.
Ev kept on working in the weeks that followed, finishing Julie's quilt. It was so precious to her that she put it behind glass and hung it on her wall to look at every day. It is the fabric of her mother's creations, quilted together by her dad, that chronicle her life. The kindergarten outfit, a third-grade band recital dress, clothes from her first day of teaching, her wedding and maternity dresses.
"It's all right there," Bates said. "I think of my childhood, my mom and my dad."
Quilting meant a lot more than Ev thought. He dove into it deeper and found more of his family sewn up in these bits of fabric.
He pulled out a quilt he remembers from childhood, with colorful butterflies his mother had stitched. He had to find out what was inside and discovered the batting was a worn old quilt made by his grandmother - the same design as his mother's - butterflies.
So he made his own quilt, duplicating the butterfly pattern from his mother and the quilting stitches of his grandmother.
He began working for hours in the basement, the baseball season turning to football, and football to basketball, churning out quilts for relatives and charities.
His machismo is not threatened, one reason more men are quilting now, said Judy Schwender of the National Quilt Museum in Kentucky. Men also like the structure and tactile experience of quilting.
Ev even joined the local quilt guild, and its members marveled at his skills in geometry and art to design interesting patterns. He saw a newspaper photograph of the High Trestle Trail's bridge and its artistic overhead beams, for example, and fashioned a similar quilt pattern.
"He's done it numerous times, with a tile or something he has seen in nature, and developed a pattern from it," said Mary Hart, a North Star guild member who runs a local quilt shop. "We just appreciate his creativity and his can-do attitude. He's never faced anything he didn't think he could figure out, and that gets us going. He's a good catalyst for creativity."
What the guild produces typically goes to hospice patients. Ev also makes others for hospice on his own, because they helped his wife in her last days.
"Each one of them is unique," said Melissa Studer, of the local hospital's in-home hospice program. "A lot of times the quilts mean more to the family, because once that family member is gone, it is something they can hold on to."
Quilts, Ev has found, are a lot more than an old blanket.
One of his favorites is a pattern of square dancers, using the fabric from their square dance outfits that Teddy made. She loved to square dance with him and helped him plan the quilt before she died. When asked if he feels closer to his late wife while quilting, he doesn't hesitate.
"No," he said.
The baseball game is on. He's deep in concentration. The years have passed. And this has become his own passion now, this stitching together of generations of family history.
After a long pause, Ev points to the sewing room again.
"But I still think of Teddy over there, doing her sewing."
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Read the original story: Widower's quilts piece together family stories