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ORGANIZATION PROFILE: Oceanography and Quilting

Quilting and the Oceanography Camp for Girls

by Christina Holland

This summer, sixty teenage girls went off to camp to learn all about ocean science: dolphins, waves, beaches and ... quilting.

I know that sounds a little strange. I'm a graduate student of marine science at the University of South Florida, and I'm a fledgling quilter. So when I walked into the marine science building one day and saw two colorful quilts hanging in the lobby, I was understandably intrigued.

They were two gorgeous quilts. One was a star pattern, with golden stars on a dark blue background. The background fabric, with whales swimming next to the moon and the stars, betrayed the quilt's oceanic origins. The second quilt was home to bright red, blue and even zebra-striped fish.

Then I read the sheet of paper pinned to one of the quilts, and found out two things. First, that these quilts had both been made by campers in our summer Oceanography Camp for Girls - thirteen and fourteen year-old girls with little or no prior quilting experience. Second, the quilts were being raffled off to benefit the camp.

I wanted to win that fish quilt!

All of this began as a fund-raising project for the camp. The Oceanography Camp for Girls is a three week program run out of the University of South Florida's marine science department. I first heard about the camp last summer, my first one here at USF. My friend Jyotika Virmani asked me to cover for her on one of the camp field trips. I soon found myself up to my waist in sea-water, helping as a gaggle of teenage girls injected green glowing dye (it must've looked like we were dumping toxic waste) into the water to measure the speed of the long-shore currents. It was a blast! I was soon more involved, going out with the girls for a day taking measurements at sea, and working with them in the lab.

I wish there had been a camp like this around when I was a kid!

These girls are not necessarily sold on the idea of science before the camp. They are chosen on the basis of their educational, economic and cultural diversity. According to Teresa Greely, USF's Educational Outreach Coordinator, about a third of the girls are those considered to be gifted math and science students. Another third might be described as "at risk" in some way. The rest of the girls fill out the spectrum. To avoid favoritism, the camp counselors don't know which girls fall into which category. The program is free to the campers and their families.

The camp is open only to girls because while they compete very successfully at younger ages, thirteen- and fourteen- year-old girls often start to struggle and then to lose interest in math and science. Throughout high school and college, fewer and fewer girls opt to take elective math and science classes.

At camp, the girls participate in field activities designed to highlight the interdisciplinary nature of the marine sciences - physics, geology, biology, and chemistry. They gain some valuable hands-on experience both in the field and in the labs, working alongside graduate students like myself and Jyotika. The aim of the camp is to show girls that science can be fun, that scientists are just people too, and finally to show by example that women can and do become scientists. By the way, you can find out more about the camp on the web at http://www.marine.usf.edu/girlscamp.

The campers seem to have a good time. I think they might even learn a little, in direct defiance of the ancient kids' code ("Thou shalt not learn or educate thyself for the duration of summer vacation"). Former camper Kellie Hyde says "I've learned more in three weeks than I will ever learn in one school year. Also I've met many great people." Christy Valdes thinks that "this program was a wonderful experience for me, and I feel (it was) very beneficial in helping me overcome my blocks against science and math."

The only real requirement of the camp is that each girl have completed the eighth grade within Pinellas County, Florida, and be about to enter the ninth grade, also in Pinellas. The camp has always been a community-based program. It began in 1991 with state funding. That fundung evaporated two years later, and since then the camp has survived through a combination of national (National Science Foundation) funding and local community support. Now the national funding is about to disappear as well, but fortunately local donations have been used to establish and build up a set of endowments to carry the camp forward. The quilts made by the campers, camp staff and Suncoast Quilting Circle guild members this year brought in enough money - nearly $6000 - to complete all of the endowments.

When Peter Betzer, the chairman of the department of marine science here at USF, saw that the national funding was going to dry up, he alerted the community. Ann Puffer, of The Sewing Circle quilt store in St. Petersburg, already knew about the camp. A neighbor's daughter had attended a few years before, and Ann had her eye on the camp for her own daughter, who was almost old enough. As she relates, "Peter wrote an outreach letter to women in business, to recruit support for the program. So I called him and told him that I just had a little quilt shop, but that maybe we'd be interested in doing something, maybe a quilt or something like that."

The idea of involving the campers in the quilting evolved over time. The first year, summer of 1997, it all came together a little bit late to actively include the girls. Ann and the camp staff had a great time making the first oceanography quilts, though. And it was successful as a fund-raiser, so everyone wanted to do it again this year.

I need to digress for a while, to tell you more about The Sewing Circle shop. It's only a couple of miles from my apartment, so I drove by it probably dozens of times before I finally went in. I should've come in sooner.

The shop has been at the same location (408 33rd Avenue N., St. Petersburg, Florida) since the 1970s, when Ann's mother ran it as an all-purpose fabric store. As Ann grew up and became more involved with the family business, it changed more and more into a quilting store, reflecting her interests.

The fact that this is a quilters' store is immediately apparent. The walls are covered with bolts of fabric, of course, but the center of the main room is devoted to a couple of tables, around which to sit and talk and quilt. There are sewing machines set up nearby. It's a cozy atmosphere, perfect for sewing alone or with friends. When I went there to talk to Ann for this article, I wasn't too surprised to see two staff members of the marine science department there before me, playing hooky and quilting on a weekday afternoon.

That's just the main room. There's also a good-sized and well-equipped classroom. Their business seems to revolve around the classes. Next week they're offering a "fish stocking" class. I'm extremely curious about that, but unfortunately I'll be out of town that week.

The fabric selection is wide. The prices are higher than you'll find at the big chain fabric stores, but the quality of the fabrics is also much better. Just a few minutes of browsing is sure to lead you to several "must have" fabrics.

If you come to the Tampa Bay area, definitely stop by The Sewing Circle. It's right off of 4th Street, next to the Hungry Bear cafe.

Ann Puffer designed both of the campers' quilts and selected the fabrics. She chose patterns that would work well with a group of novices; "We used a technique called fast triangle paper piecing. It's very accurate, because you actually layer paper on top of your fabric layers and literally sew on the lines, and then cut away. And for people who don't sew a lot, it's comforting to have a straight line to sew along. It worked out real well."

The girls caught on surprisingly well. Paper piecing may be a beginner-friendly technique, but it does require a certain amount of accuracy. Ann and the camp counselors showed examples of what the finished blocks should look like. They also advised the girls on the importance of making the intersections line up properly and showed them how to pin the layers together, but then "the girls really just took off with it."

Of course, these girls didn't come to camp to learn how to sew; they came to dissect fish and peer into microscopes and stuff like that. Ann's daughter was in the camp this summer, and reported to her mom that on the way to the shop for their first evening of quilting, "they were kind of like 'Sewing? Why are we sewing?' And on the way back, she said everyone wanted to come back the next night and do some more because she said they really had a good time."

The girls weren't the only ones learning new skills. In addition to the two campers' quilts, which were given away by raffle (I didn't win, unfortunately), several others were sold in an auction, all to benefit the camp.

The camp counselors started making appliqued fish blocks for one quilt. They got a little carried away with the fun of it, though, and soon they had way too many fish for the quilt. Linda Kelbaugh, who works in the marine science department, couldn't bear to see them go to waste, so she assembled the extras into a second quilt, one which is actually one of my favorites. The fish are framed in a "split rail" pattern (at The Sewing Circle's suggestion) with vibrant purple and yellow sashing reminiscent of waves.

The counselors and the USF staff actually made yet another fish quilt, this time using paper piecing. As Ann Puffer comments, "It worked so well the first time that we felt like, well, why change it?" This quilt contains three different fish designs: moderately easy, tricky, and very, very tricky. Tracy Christner, one of the USF quilters, pointed out that the quilt quickly filled up with the easy fish, a few medium fish, and only four of the hard ones. I think the resulting balance is stunning, though.

Tracy Christner got her first chance to make an entire quilt by herself this summer. She made a USF spirit quilt, which was also sold off at the auction. It's all done in white, green and yellow, the University's school colors. Some of the blocks are from USF T-shirts, and some are collages of newspaper clippings, tickets to the very first ever USF football game (this past year), and other memorabilia. Talking to Tracy, it's apparent that she really enjoyed the process. To make the collages, she first grouped the items and photocopied them onto transparency sheets, like one uses with overhead projectors. She used them instead of paper so that only the collage images, and not the color of the paper, would appear on the fabric. Then she was able to have the designs put onto "transfer sheets" at the closest copy store. At that point they can be ironed onto the fabric, but she found the results were more uniform when the fabric transfer was done at the copy store on a machine designed for the purpose.

Tracy loved the quilt when it was finished, and says she would like to do more, if only she can find the time - "I had fun; it's kind of a neat experience to sit around in a relaxed atmosphere with other people and you can actually work on something and talk at the same time. It's just a really nice way to make new friends."

In addition, the local guild, the Suncoast Quilting Circle, got in on the action. They donated two exquisite full-size quilts for the auction. The first, a field of purple flowers on a white background, brought in $500 at the auction. The other one I really wanted to take home. It was a pattern of interlocking rings in rich colors against a white background fabric. Both were finely made and were wonderful additions to the program.

All in all, everybody came out of the summer of oceanography and quilting a little richer for the experience. The camp, of course, made enough money to guarantee the future salaries for graduate students working with the campers as mentors. The girls learned new skills and found new, and possibly unexpected, interests. Ann Puffer got some great exposure for her shop and infected a few innocent future customers with the quilting bug. Everyone in the camp and at the Sewing Circle raves about the experience. As Ann Puffer says, "it's a real win-win situation."

See more of the Oceanography Camp and the quilts they made!


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