POWELL, Wyo. — Sisters Joyce Lynn and Joann Bentz are close, but they're distinctly different as well.
"I'm a nester, and Joann's a traveler," Lynn said during a recent interview in her home. "She likes different houses, and I said, 'Leave me in my box.' That's the difference between us."
But there's one thing both Powell sisters are especially passionate about: Making quilts to comfort children.
Lynn, 86, and Bentz, 84, recently reached a monumental goal: They finished their 1,000th quilt. All 1,000 quilts have been, or soon will be, donated to hospitals and other organizations where they are given to children suffering from life-threatening conditions.
Small beginning for large project
Bentz and Lynn started the project jointly in July 2004 at Bentz's suggestion that they make "a few quilts" and send them to St. Jude's Research Hospital to comfort children who were being treated for cancer.
Bentz recalled her sister's reaction: "She said, 'OK, let's each make 25.'"
"Now, that's not a few," Bentz said.
"I thought, 'Holy smokes, the girl's lost her mind!" she said in 2009 after the dynamic quilting duo had nearly reached the halfway mark to their self-imposed goal.
But they soon found that, for them, quilting was like eating potato chips — "Once you get started, you just can't quit," Bentz said.
When they began sewing quilts together, Bentz and Lynn decided to call themselves "Two Sisters From Wyoming," and each of their crib-sized quilts has their label sewn onto it.
Most of the crib-sized quilts are made of tops constructed of quilt blocks, with silky material on the back, and a thin batting in the middle.
The blocks are a combination of embroidered squares, alternating with blocks cut and sewn from scraps of colorful fabric.
Much of the fabric the sisters used in the quilts was donated. Sometimes, donors contact the sisters, known by many as "the quilting ladies." Other times, Lynn will find bags or boxes of fabric on her front porch.
Some of the millions of yards of thread used to embroider and construct the quilts was paid for by three separate donations from the local Order of the Eastern Star.
The embroidered blocks depict all kinds of designs enticing to boys and girls, such as colorful characters, cartoons, dolls, animals, cars, tractors, butterflies, sports themes and other eye-catching patterns sewn by the women's professional embroidery machines.
"We make frog quilts for every batch that we give away, because even little girls like frog quilts," Lynn said.
Using new technology
For much of the past 11 1/2 years, the sisters have kept their embroidery machines running, with the aid of computerized designs, for six to eight hours per day. The proof is in the machines' stitch and hour counts: Bentz's machine has more than 5,000 hours and approximately 131 million stitches on it, and the counter on Lynn's machine shows 4,322 hours and more than 113 million stitches. The machines were new when the sisters started their project.
"I keep a baby monitor in my sewing room and the receiver in my kitchen so I can hear when the machine stops, then I go and do what I need to do," Lynn said.
While the embroidery machines stitch away, Lynn and Bentz cut and sew fabric scraps into blocks, then sew the pieced and previously embroidered blocks together to form the quilt tops. Once the tops are done, they add the batting in the middle and the silky fabric on the back, then quilt them together.
The crib-sized blankets are machine quilted, with hand-sewn borders.
Lynn began quilting decades ago, following the example set by her mother.
"My mother quilted her quilts by hand," she said. "But if she had known she could do it on a machine, she would have. So I started quilting on a machine, and I've never looked back."
Even with aid of the machine, each quilt takes many hours to assemble and quilt. Bentz and Lynn each make about one quilt per week, for a combined total of about 100 per year.
The patterns they quilt vary from random lines and curves, spirals or other designs, to concentric rings shaped around the embroidery on the quilt blocks.
Lynn said her husband, Bill, thinks the backs of the quilts are the prettiest, showcasing the quilting design on the silky, shimmering fabric.
The finished quilts beckon to children and adults alike. The temptation to reach out to feel the colorful designs on the front and run your fingers along the silky backs is palpable.
And that's what Two Sisters From Wyoming are counting on. The entire motivation for their 11-year project was the hope and knowledge that their quilts will provide a comforting warmth and silky touch for children very much in need of that comfort.
While working toward their goal, each sister has personally given some quilts away to children in Powell and regional communities who had health challenges and who needed comfort. Those were not counted in the 1,000-quilt goal.
Lynn said she learned that one local girl's quilt was hung on a wall in the girl's room to prevent it from being worn out.
"I told her grandmother, 'Take that off of the wall right now and give it to her,'" she said. "We want our quilts to comfort children. They can't do that if they're hung on a wall. We hope they get worn out and tattered around the edges."
The sisters talked to a man a few years ago who had undergone a bone marrow transplant in Seattle. He was an adult at the time of the transplant, but because no room was available on the adult floor, he was put in a room on the pediatric floor.
"He said he would never forget those children crying," Bentz said, "so we decided to send some quilts out there."
They sent 50 quilts. Later, when Bentz was in Seattle visiting her son, he took her to visit the hospital.
"I was treated like a rock star," she said. "We were so enthralled with it and the way I was treated, we sent them another 50 quilts."
Some of the hospitals and organizations that have received quilts from Two Sisters From Wyoming include:
. Shriner's Hospital for Children in Salt Lake City
. Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City
. LDS Humanitarian Services in Salt Lake City
. The Christmas Box House in Salt Lake City
. The Children's Hospital in Seattle
. The Children's Burn Center in Seattle
. The Denver Children's Hospital
. Ronald McDonald Houses in Billings and Missoula, Montana, and in Spokane, Washington.
Some of the hospitals were chosen because they treated children in the sisters' extended families.
No plans to stop
Now that Bentz and Lynn have reached their 1,000-quilt goal, they still have no plans to stop.
"We'll keep going, just at a slower pace," Lynn said.
Years of sewing quilts have taken their toll on her shoulders, she said.
"We were doing 100 a year, but then we got old," Bentz added.
Though they didn't know it at the time, while Two Sisters From Wyoming were stitching quilts, they also were sewing up an example for another generation to follow.
Lynn said one of her granddaughters in Utah has teamed up with a sister-in-law to begin quilting for children as well. They're calling themselves Two Sisters From Utah.
The 50 quilts that completed Lynn's and Bentz's 1,000-quilt goal will be on display at Bank of Powell in mid-January and will remain on display for three weeks.
When the sisters started their joint project, an employee at another bank suggested that they auction the quilts off and donate the money to hospitals for children.
They thought about it, and both reached the same conclusion simultaneously: They wanted to donate quilts, not money.
"We want to send them to kids that need them," Bentz said. "We do it for the needy, not the greedy."
"You can't wrap money around yourself," Lynn added.
Information from: Powell (Wyo.) Tribune, http://www.powelltribune.com