It’s one thing to read about history, leafing through textbook pages, trying to find meaning in the stories and happenings of the past. Seeing history, though, yields an entirely different, immersive experience, especially when it’s brought to life on something as unusual as fabric.
A seasoned quilter and artist, Peggy Szasz, has turned traditional quilting into a medium for storytelling, encapsulating DeWitt history through lively landscapes of buildings and homes central to the town. Szasz said her favorite buildings to include are the ones that no longer exist.
“If I hadn’t done this, they’re gone,” Szasz said. “Because they’re on this fabric, this quilt, wherever it ends up when I’m gone, these buildings are still here.”
Szasz began quilting 29 years ago by somewhat of an accident. It all started when her husband’s relentless colleague pestered him to get Peggy to try a quilting class with her. Eventually, she agreed.
The relentless colleague hated it, but Szasz was instantly in love.
The craft offered stability, a foreign and welcomed commodity to a lifelong Army wife. Szasz bounced around the globe as her husband’s assignments changed, but brought the knowledge of quilting with her. She made excellent connections to fellow quilters and even taught quilting at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe when she lived in Belgium for six years.
“Quilting gave me something that I could take wherever,” Szasz said.
A couple years after sinking roots and retiring in DeWitt, Szasz opened Northern Sky Quilts. Her main gallery show occurred each winter at Mackerel Sky in East Lansing, where she displayed the quilts she’d worked on all year.
For a while, her creative freedom was stifled by a contract she had with a designer, which forced her to follow its designs precisely. Eventually, Szasz discovered she could create her own designs of things she loved, and the past few years of shows at Mackerel Sky included some of her original pieces.
Then, what she deems the pinnacle of her quilting career began.
A drive through DeWitt one late afternoon during Christmastime sparked an idea the community loved: what if she quilted DeWitt buildings and people, documenting the town’s history?
She started taking photos around town and printing them to make patterns. Szasz and Ken Coin, the town historian, became good friends as she frequented him to ensure accuracy in building design and the stories behind them.
She crafted each building with care, cutting and laying each brick and panel of siding individually. Lace and fabric from her daughter’s christening gown became curtains, and rocks from Lake Superior became stones on the exteriors of houses.
Each Sunday, she’d keep the community updated on the quilt’s progress through local Facebook groups.
“Everyone was kind of hooked,” Szasz said.
As time went on, and upon completion of the first quilt, people started asking for their houses and stories to appear on her wonderfully complicated quilts.
“How do you tell someone no?” Szasz asked. “You don’t.”
Szasz says her style, design and methods became stronger and better with each quilt. She found a special fabric online that allowed her to print photos of animals and humans from DeWitt’s past and present on it, bringing the quilts even more to life.
Where there might have been an empty lake, there was now someone casting a fishing line, or a group of men standing in front of storefronts. A pumpkin turned into a lovely seat for a little girl, and an empty window in the Toppings’ house became a looking glass for the deceased wife Lucinda, who is said to haunt the place.
“I tried to just bring everything to life as much as I could with the fabric so it looked inviting. If you stepped into this village you’d say ‘Wow, this is cool. I’d like to live here’,” Szasz said.
Szasz made five quilts, one showing downtown DeWitt and others for each season. Her quilting documents DeWitt, and she has secured descriptions to the back of each quilt so the stories can be retold.
Now, the quilts hang in Szaz’s studio, lined up so perfectly that half of an evergreen on one quilt aligns with the other half on the next.
“I look at it at night and it’s like, ‘I did that,’” Szasz said. “I still pinch myself – I really did that.”