The eighth generation of Pine River-Backus girls basketball seniors received "memory quilts" made of their old T-shirts as a parting gift from their coach, Randy Schwegel, on Thursday, Feb. 21.
These quilts have become something of a tradition during the team's senior night each year, and they wouldn't be possible without the master quilter herself, Linda McNamara.
McNamara, longtime resident of Backus, has been quilting for nearly three decades. Schwegel approached her in 2011 with a plan to make quilts as a surprise for that year's graduating seniors after his daughter received a similar gift. She agreed to help, and the rest is history.
"I thought, 'This will be fun,' McNamara said while quilting with a group at a Pine River church. "I thought it would just be a one-time shot."
That year, McNamara and Schwegel recruited family members to smuggle the seniors' shirts without them realizing. They both laughed when remembering doing some damage control as players accused siblings of stealing their belongings before the secret was revealed.
Now, eight years later, the element of surprise is gone but the tradition of the quilts remains strong.
Seniors on the PR-B basketball team gather their old T-shirts from meaningful parts of their high school careers and give them to Schwegel, who then passes them to McNamara to create unique quilts for each girl.
"It's so rewarding for me to see how thrilled they are," said McNamara. "They're not what you would call 'beautiful quilts,' but they are such a treasure for those girls, because they're their own shirts that mark events in their lives."
She likes to receive all of the materials before winter break so she doesn't feel rushed leading up to the presentation of the quilts on senior night. Using fabric that Schwegel purchased and the shirts the seniors submitted, McNamara spends most of her evenings stitching to get the quilts done on time.
"I don't do this kind of project year-round, so I'm always excited to get going on them," she said.
"It's a big hobby for me. I'm retired, so I can spend a lot of time on them."
When senior night comes around, McNamara said that's the one game per year she attends.
"Of course I'd rather be quilting," she joked.
The graduating seniors are presented with their quilts that evening as part of the farewell from the team.
"It's my gift to them," said Schwegel. "Instead of $20 and a card, this is something they can take with them. Ten years from now, they're going to look at it and remember all of those fun times. It's a really neat thing."
Senior Bailey Wynn was one of the quilt recipients this year. She said that receiving the gift was amazing.
"I love having that blanket for the rest of my life to remember all that I was a part of," she said.
Wynn remembers seeing seniors from past seasons with their quilts, and recognizing some of the shirts that she also had in her collection. She likes that these quilts connect teammates throughout the years, and thanks McNamara for her work.
"She's a wonderful person," said Wynn.
Annie Semmler, a 2017 graduate, has her quilt hanging up so she can see it every day.
"It makes me smile when I see it," she said. "There's a story behind every one of those shirts. It's a memory I will hold with me for many years."
She said the "memory quilts" were something younger players on the team always looked forward to. When she was a senior, she felt a sense of satisfaction.
"Finally, I felt like it was my turn," she said.
McNamara always enjoyed sewing and needlework as a hobby to occupy her evenings. She has her own sewing room at home so she can leave unfinished projects out for weeks while she works. A friend introduced her to quilting in the 1990s, which became her main hobby. She said it's different than other kinds of sewing projects.
"Quilting is precise, but clothing has to fit just exactly right," she said. "Quilts can be any size."
After sewing on her own for a while, McNamara joined a group of quilters at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Pine River. The group volunteers once a week to create quilts with donated fabric for a variety of recipients.
Several quilts are given to newly baptized children, graduates and victims of tragedy, but a majority of these quilts are sold to the public. Baby quilts cost $25 apiece while a large, queen-size quilt runs for $125.
In a span of three to four years, this quilting group can raise up to $25,000 in sales, which goes back into the community as food shelf donations, purchases for the church, care packages for local seminarians and other goodwill endeavors.
"There's about a dozen of us," said McNamara. "We have a good time."
McNamara said she gets her "crafty mindset" from her grandmother, because her mother doesn't have a mind for these things. She made Easter dresses for her mother and grandmother as a high schooler, and she said "of course" both her sons and their children all had quilts.
Sticking with her creative personality, McNamara makes and sells jelly along with handmade bags and purses at local craft fairs. She is also an avid gardener, and she loves to cook with fresh vegetables in the summer.
McNamara's "memory quilts" are a hit across the area. She has taught classes on quilting, and the Pine River-Backus School District has asked her to lead a community education class teaching participants how to make their own quilt with T-shirts.
The details have not been finalized, but McNamara said she hopes there will be interest in a class like that.
McNamara has already made quilts for more than 20 seniors on the PR-B girls basketball team over the years, and she imagines she'll keep making them until Schwegel retires.
"But I don't think that's in his genes," she said.