Grinnellian Quilts her Way through the Pandemic

‘Docu-quilt’ offers therapy, joy during the dark days of 2020.

November 16, 2023
Ellen Modersohn works at a table, arranging her quilt squares
Ellen Heath Modersohn works on her 2020 docu-quilt. Photo by Bob Modersohn

It all began one night in early 2020 with some buttons and fabric.

“I just started sewing little COVIDs,” Ellen Heath Modersohn ’83 says. She didn’t yet have a plan in mind for her fabric-and-button creations. “I was just sewing these little buttons on little round red things because I was fascinated by the images of what a COVID virus looked like.”

In response to the unsettling and sometimes frightening events of 2020, Modersohn began stitching her world back together, one quilt square at a time. A retired newspaper journalist, she has been quilting and sewing for more than 30 years.

Going Viral

In the early weeks and months of the pandemic, the whole world seemed to be losing its bearings. Would life ever be the same? Was our civilization coming apart? And depictions of the spiky, deadly coronaviruses were suddenly everywhere.

“They are scary looking,” Modersohn says. “They’re not as scary looking when you make them out of buttons.”

As the year continued, Modersohn kept sewing. “More and more stuff kept happening,” she explains. People were dying. When Modersohn’s mother-in-law died, it became personal.

“I started making crosses,” she says.

Fabric Therapy

Photo of Ellen Modersohn
Ellen Heath Modersohn is a retired newspaper journalist. Photo by Bob Modersohn

Then George Floyd was murdered, followed by weeks of protest against police brutality. Then came the derecho, a brutal windstorm that devastated a wide swath of Iowa in August 2020.

“I realized that making these squares was helping me think through what was happening,” Modersohn says. “Trying to figure out how to express an event in a quilt square gave me some mental therapy.”

She still didn’t know what she was going to do with the fabric squares, but she kept sewing. Each new event gave her something to add. Sewing gave her a way to think things through. It became a form of healing.

A Docu-Quilt Emerges

As Modersohn created new squares, she pinned them up on the wall, rearranging them and gradually building a cohesive whole.

When she realized that a quilt was taking shape on her wall, Modersohn decided to continue through 2020 to make the quilt a complete picture of an extraordinary year.

It captured a tumultuous time, yet there were some positive events to include as well. Modersohn learned to grow tomatoes in 2020, and she added them to the quilt, along with bicycling and kayaking.

“It became fun putting it together,” Modersohn says.

A Piece of History

The docu-quilt is now part of the State Historical Society of Iowa’s collection documenting the events of 2020.

If someone ever looks at this, they’re going to know what one person who lived in Iowa that year thought of everything.

Ellen Heath Modersohn

Modersohn is happy it found a good home that is not her home. “At that point, I just didn’t want it hanging in my house anymore. It was still kind of traumatic to look at it,” she says. “I was fine with letting it be in their closet instead of my closet, just because maybe someday more people will be able to see it.”

Creating the docu-quilt gave Modersohn a therapeutic project — it became a way of documenting a year that was like no other. “I just thought, ‘If someone ever looks at this, they’re going to know what one person who lived in Iowa that year thought of everything.’”

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