Pedal to the metal

  • By Sarah Koenig Enterprise reporter
  • Thursday, April 24, 2008 2:06pm

It was Curtis Olson’s turn at the sewing machine, and he didn’t want to give it up.

“You can go sit down, you’ll have another turn in a minute,” said Stephanie Dilbeck, Meadowdale High School senior.

Dilbeck has been working with Olson and other fifth-graders at Hazelwood Elementary for her senior project. Together they’ve been sewing a quilt using secret code designs from the era of the Underground Railroad.

Olson sat down, reluctantly, and another student took his place, running the cloth under the hammering needle. He waited a few minutes, then asked: “Can I do it again next?”

Olson enjoys the quilt project — he’s never done anything like that before, he said. He especially likes the sewing machine.

“I’ve done it more than anybody here,” he said.

“He’s good at it,” chimed in classmate Ameen John Stanikzy, sitting next to him.

Like Olson, Stanikzy said he wants to do more sewing after the project is over because he’s liked it so much, especially the “fun designs and colors.”

“(I will) try to get the chance to sew more quilts,” he said.

Dilbeck works with the small group of students in Marlex Memmel’s class while their peers are at band and oropted not to play an instrument, and usually during band time they do written work.

“Some of the guys I definitely would think they would never, ever sit at home and make a quilt,” Dilbeck said.

At first, some of the boys were wary, but she tried to appeal to them by referring to the sewing pedal as the “gas pedal,” for example.

“I was like, ‘Press the gas pedal,’ and one guy is like, ‘Floor it!’” she said.

The group also likes the secret code aspect of the project, Dilbeck said.

The Underground Railroad, which ran from 1810 to 1850, was an underground network of people who helped southern slaves escape north.

People hung quilts sewn with encoded designs in windows to give slaves directions or advertise a safe haven. The codes were so secret they were known only by word of mouth and not written down until years later, Dilbeck said.

For example, the “birds in the air” design, a set of triangles, showed slaves which direction was north.

The drunkard’s path design, a lighting bolt going in four directions, showed that they should take an erratic path to avoid local slave hunters.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, when Dilbeck visits, students sew while one of them reads stories aloud about the Underground Railroad.

Student Rachael Montz has been a big fan of the process.

“It’s kind of fun ’cause you get to see the design after,” she said. “It looks pretty amazing to me.”

Dilbeck chose the quilting project because she’s a crafts buff and wants to be an elementary school teacher.

She attended Hazelwood and was a student of Memmel’s. In the classroom, a framed photo of the two of them shows Dilbeck as a fourth-grader dressed in a salmon costume standing next to Memmel, dressed as a skate.

“I’m proud of how hard they’ve worked,” Dilbeck said. “Lately the other students come in (from band), see the quilt and say, ‘Wow.’”

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