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Saltwter Portrait

Quilter Brenda Holbrook showcases African-American history

Seaford resident focuses on faith, family
June 20, 2017

African-American history is at the heart of hobby quilting for Seaford resident Brenda Holbrook.

Since the 75-year-old started dabbling with picture quilts in 2000, she's crafted more than 150 quilts featuring notable figures like Harriet Tubman, Oprah Winfrey, former President Barack Obama as well as her friends and family.

"My theme is African-American history on fabric," she said matter-of-factly, brimming with pride that a quilt featuring photos of the former president was auctioned off at the Sussex County Democratic Committee's annual spring dinner and now is on display in the Wilmington office of U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester.

Brenda is one of seven siblings born and raised on a Seaford-area farm. It was a much simpler time then, she said, when neighbors were truly neighbors, and she and her sisters were teased by classmates for their handmade clothes.

"My mom was a seamstress," she said. "And I hated it."

Little did she know, her mom was keeping her stylish.

"She would go up to New York and get the latest styles, come back and cut it out, and we'd wear it," she said. "But I just thought, 'blech!'"

Brenda said she can remember getting a brand-new pair of black-and-white Oxfords, the kind with pointy toes – much more stylish than anything she'd seen in Sussex County – and was crushed when her classmates followed her around, pointing and teasing her about her spiffy kicks.

"We were blessed," she said, admitting that wasn't the thought in her mind at the time. "The problem was the style hadn't gotten here yet!"

After high school, she headed to the Big Apple. While in the city, she worked in a school cafeteria, in hospital medical records and as a switchboard operator and file clerk.

In the 1970s, Brenda returned to Seaford to raise her two young sons. After her boys grew up and life slowed down a bit, Brenda's stepdaughter, Julie Brown, joined a quilting guild in Dover and showed Brenda a handmade picture quilt.

That was it for Brenda, who said she found her calling.

"I'd obviously seen quilts before, but not ones with actual pictures on them," she said.

So she whipped out her sewing machine and got to work. Her mother's work as a seamstress had rubbed off on her, and she had fine-tuned her sewing skills while living in New York making her own wardrobe from scratch.

At first, Brenda used family photos and old yearbooks to quilt family trees and re-creations of her childhood. She'd take those photos and watch them come to life on special, thin fabric she fed through her printer.

"It's just something I enjoy doing," she said.

But after she had internet access, her quilting developed into history lessons. "Quilts were the code to the Underground Railroad," Brenda explained, pointing to symbols on one colorful piece that represented different messages for slaves seeking freedom. "Whenever [Harriet Tubman] was getting ready to transport them, she hung up a quilt and that gave a code out."

For example, if someone saw a wagon wheel, Brenda said, pointing to a circular symbol on the quilt, it meant they'd be traveling by wagon. Other symbols indicated those seeking freedom should pack a bag with food for the journey, while another symbol would hang on quilts outside houses designated as safe havens.

"Everything meant something pertaining to them trying to escape," she said. "There had to be a lot of wisdom because you had to be careful who you told because there were people that would go back and tell their masters."

Tubman's portrait stands starkly in the middle of the queen-sized quilt made with deep orange, red and brown hues.

While some quilts embrace African-American history, others embrace Brenda's United Methodist faith.

Shortly after she began making picture quilts for family and friends, Brenda was on the way to church one Sunday and asked God, "God, you gave me this talent, so how do I use it to glorify you?"

The answer was to make prayer quilts, she said, which is a quilt prayed over and blessed by a priest or pastor. Usually they're lap-size or large enough to sit at the foot of a bed, Brenda said.

Brenda's prayer quilts aren't always picture quilts; she designs them based on spiritual inspiration, such as one she made with cups on it, based on the scripture, "My cup runneth over." While at church one day, she felt the urge to gift the quilt to a new church member. The woman, who Brenda had just met for the first time, burst out in tears when she was handed the quilt.

"I was like, 'oh boy, what now,'" Brenda said. "That was her favorite scripture."

Shortly after she followed the calling to make prayer quilts, she found out a family friend who would give her rides to Georgia to visit one of her sons had fallen ill. So she decided to make a prayer quilt for a him.

When she heard he had recovered after being covered with the quilt, Brenda said all she could do was sit and cry.

"After that, I just started making prayer quilts. Some people may not believe these things, but it does happen," she said. "I know God is in charge of everything, and I think he gives you your talent. So this is the way I'm using it, so he can get the glory out of it."

 

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