DOWNERS GROVE — It was the early '80s, and Pat Russo just wanted a reason to get out of the house.
The mother of three young children at the time, she needed a night of activity. So she went to her park district hoping to take the first class that looked fun — floral arrangement.
"When I got there, they said, 'That class is full,'" recalled Russo, now 78 and a Downers Grove resident. "I said, 'I've got to take a class. What else do you have?'"
Quilting was the only open class. Now, 30 years and hundreds of quilts later, Russo has no plans of slowing down. She devotes three to four hours a day to the activity, usually juggling several at a time.
"I will quilt until I can't see or move," she said.
Her Downers Grove home is adorned in quilts, but it's only a portion of the ones she's made. Many more have gone out into the world either as gifts or heirlooms.
"My daughters have more of my quilts than I do," Russo said.
She can't peg a number to it, but she says she has probably completed several hundred quilts over the years.
Recently, she completed one of her more ambitious undertakings — a quilt featuring more than 669 pieces adorned with hearts sent from friends, acquaintances and friends of friends from around the world.
The word went out that she was making a heart-themed quilt, and the donations came pouring in — from individuals in 22 states and five countries, Russo said.
She was touched by the outpouring, but not all that surprised.
"Quilters help each other whether they know each other or not," she said.
That community is at the heart of quilting, Russo said. Thirty years on, she remains an active member of her quilting group, the Elmhurst Piecemakers.
There are usually about 40 members at the meetings, nearly a dozen of them founding members, though that number has dwindled.
"Over the years, a few of our members have passed on to the quilting group in the sky," said Mary Conley of Elmhurst, another one of the Piecemakers' founding members.
Last month was National Quilting Month, and it gave Russo and Conley a chance to reflect on how much had changed in the hobby since they started out.
When Russo began, she recalls it being more of a niche hobby. There were only a few stores within the western suburbs that offered quilting supplies.
"And we were lucky to have them," Russo said.
Now, many towns have multiple stores to choose from. Downers Grove's own, The Quilting Basket, is downtown at 1012 Curtiss St.
But the appeal has never changed, Conley said. It's about exercising creativity, but it also creates something useful. She has nine grandchildren under 10, and each is getting a quilt for Christmas.
"I think it's a practical thing," she said. "It's probably the prices rather than the acquisition of a finished process."
And it's as much about the hobby as the socializing.
"By and large, it's a great group of women — and there's a shared camaraderie of, well, our mutual interest — but our affection for each other," Conley said.