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It started with just two sewing machines and four female inmates. Then the men wanted a group of their own. Soon, Susan Cavanaugh was running four quilting classes at the Arlington County Detention Facility.

After years of teaching General Education Development and English as a Second Language to prisoners, Cavanaugh felt the inmates needed an artistic outlet. As a longtime sewer and quilter, she knew working with fabrics and thread was calming and enjoyable. In her research, she found that other jails had implemented programs like needlepoint and knitting. Still, convincing the Arlington jail authorities to start a quilting group was a little more difficult.

"You've got to use scissors and pens and sharp objects," she said, which at first concerned officials. Yet, in spite of the risks, the classes have been very successful and safe. "It's creative but it's also very therapeutic," she said.

Cavanaugh and other longtime quilters help instruct the class. Inmates design and sew the quilts with donated fabric. "In quilting, there's a lot of problem solving, a lot of math, a lot of geometry," said Cavanaugh, a parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington. "Some can quickly decide on a pattern and have it done in a couple of weeks. Others have been working on theirs for months."

While there's a wide range of skill levels in each class, often the men prove to be more adept at quilting than the women, she said. "The tattoo artists and carpenters tend to really excel at it," said Cavanaugh. "(It's fun to see) a big guy covered in tattoos, asking, 'You think this pink goes with this?' They're getting in touch with their softer side," she said.

Most of the quilts are donated to shelters or other charities, giving the inmates a chance to give back to the community. "They just love the idea that they're making something for somebody else," said Cavanaugh.

Each inmate also can give a handmade quilt to a loved one outside the jail. "The ones that do it for their children put a lot into the quilt," she said. "Particularly for the men, they feel they're letting their kids down, so there's some healing that can go along with that."

One recipient of the quilts is Borromeo Housing Inc., an education-focused group home for single mothers and their children. Director Darlene Bakke has been to the jail twice to receive the quilts from the men and women who made them. "The women (inmates) really are touched by the story of single moms trying to better themselves with education," she said. "I tell them when they're done with their time to come speak to the (Borromeo Housing) group and teach (the girls) how to quilt themselves."

The young mothers also appreciate the gift, said Bakke. "The kids are attracted to the colors but the mothers are touched by the (inmates') stories," she said. "All the (Borromeo Housing) women have been touched by incarceration at some point in their lives."

The quilting program provides the inmates a chance to work with their hands, to complete a task and to give to others, but just as importantly it provides them a time just to be, said Cavanaugh. "It's nice to have a program where they can just be ordinary people sitting and talking … and to see another side of themselves. Everybody has worth, and they deserve the right to be who they are and to find outlets of expression."

Di Mauro can be reached at or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016