CLINTON — With needles and thread and a few hundred yards of fabric, Clinton quilter Sandi Carstensen offers comfort to the men and women currently serving overseas, past service members and their families right here at home.

Five years ago, Carstensen decided to put her sewing talents to great use by providing some Christmastime comfort to soldiers stationed in Iraq during the holiday season. She began “Operation Support” when her son-in-law, Jim, was stationed in Iraq. Jim had been using his poncho as a cover for his pillow and asked her to send him a dark pillowcase. So, Carstensen quilted Jim a pillowcase. She said he was very happy to receive it and asked her to make more for the commanders.

When her son-in-law returned from Iraq, she adopted the next group of soldiers who replaced his unit and began making quilted pillowcases for them as well. Carstensen recently completed her fourth rotation of sending pillowcases to the soldiers who took the place of the unit before them. Last year, she sent more than 2,000 pillowcases out, with 750 of those going to soldiers with the 133rd Army National Guard unit from Iowa.

As a member of an online quilting group, she mentioned what she was doing to her friends and Operation Pillowcase, Operation Christmas Stockings and Operation Cuddle-ups were founded.

Soon, other soldiers found Carstensen’s project and sent requests for her creations. She receives requests on a nearly daily basis and as of September, Carstensen already had received thousands of requests for stockings and pillowcases. The soldiers hail from all over the United States and she has received requests from just about everywhere. Since 2004, more than 4,000 pillowcases and approximately 2,200 Christmas stockings have been sent, as well as cuddle-ups for new citizen patriots born during deployment to the adopted units.

Local quilting groups have donated their talents for the “Operation Support” effort, including Mississippi Quilters in the Quad-Cities, the Christian Comfort Quilters in Rockford, Ill., and the Cedar County Peacemakers in Tipton. Area businesses also have chipped in to help. Last fall, a quilt store in Newton contacted Carstensen and offered assistance, asking if she had any blocks that needed to be quilted. She sent several kits and the group sewed the quilts together. 3M also donated backing to be used for the stockings and quilts.

In addition to the Christmas stocking and pillowcase projects, Carstensen had taken on the job of serving as the Iowa and Kansas coordinator for the “Home of the Brave Quilt Project.” The project is dedicated to creating memorial quilts for each of the soldiers who gives their life in the line of duty.

The project was begun when the Citrus Belt Quilters Guild in Redlands, Calif., started making replicas based on the Civil War U.S. Sanitary Commission quilt on display at the A.K. Smiley Library, Lincoln Shrine in Redlands. Each quilt features four squares in the middle of the quilt, with a center block with a gold star and purple hearts. The other blocks detail information on the soldier, who the quilt was presented to and their relationship to the soldier, the quilt maker and the Home of the Brave Quilt Project logo and the quilt number. Carstensen uses an embroidery machine to stitch the information on the blocks, something she says is the hardest part of the job.

“I look at these every day and it’s like I’ve lost a member of my own family,” she said. “You feel like you get to know them when you deal this closely with them and put that kind of love into it. They become a part of you. It’s changed me forever.”

In gratitude for their service and sacrifice, the quilts are presented to the families of service persons who died while in the service of their country. According to the project Web site, the effort has now spread to nearly all 50 states and the U.S. territories and has received national recognition, including the placement of a link on the official Department of Defense Web site for the military and their dependents. To date, the project has presented more than 2,000 quilts to 1,800 families nationwide who have lost a loved one in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Sadly, the number is over 4,000, so there’s more work to be done. But we won’t quit until everyone has a quilt,” said Carstensen. “Every one of my coordinators say they’d love to be put out of a job, and me too.”

Carstensen was appointed national coordinator in January and now oversees the project in all 50 states and U.S. territories. She checks her e-mail daily for notices from the U.S. Department of Defense and creates the quilts to honor the memory of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice. She says the families absolutely love receiving the quilts and she tells the families that when they are missing that special someone, they can wrap the quilt around them like that person is giving them a big, warm hug.

“We want them to use it when they need some comfort. We want them to wrap themselves in it, that’s what it’s for,” she said.

Carstensen remarked that sometimes, military families express disbelief that people could be so devoted to showing appreciation to past and present service personnel.

“I hear a lot of families that say they didn’t think anybody cared,” said Carstensen. “They can’t believe that a complete stranger cares about them, but you realize how much it means to them. I feel really good about what I do and all the coordinators say the same thing.”

In June, Carstensen will travel to Kansas and present quilts to families from Wichita that have lost loved ones in the war.

When the quilts are completed and presented, memorial certificates are sent to the family, Carstensen and the state coordinator. She then enters the soldier’s name, age, rank, hometown, state and operation they served in, into the database on the HOTB quilt project Web site, and includes a picture of the quilt. All the information also is sent to the International Quilt Museum for its archives.

Approximately one year ago, Carstensen was contacted by a gentleman working toward his doctorate in textiles at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and interviewed her about why she participates in the Home of the Brave Quilt Project.

She said Jonathan Gregory now has his degree and is associated with the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Lincoln, Neb. Carstensen said he e-mailed her saying the producers of the Internet show, “The Quilt Show” with internationally known quilters Alex Anderson and Ricky Tims, visited the museum and spoke with him about quilting projects for the service personnel deployed overseas to sustain Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan or Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iraq.

Carstensen said she was contacted three weeks ago and they wanted to know about the Home of the Brave Quilt Project.

“I was just absolutely thrilled when they called me,” Carstensen said.

When asked about quilt projects for babies, Carstensen shared information about Operation Cuddleups. She said the show’s producers immediately wanted to set up an interview with her about her various support projects.

A broadcast crew filmed a workshop sewing marathon with Carstensen at Neal’s Sewing Center on May 6. The show filmed there from 11:45 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., interviewing Carstensen and Mary Ann Soenksen, mother of PFC Katie Soenksen, killed in the line of duty last year. Soenksen brought the quilt project officials presented her.

“When that airs, there won’t be a dry eye, because that was a very moving interview,” Carstensen said.

The show also interviewed Operation Cuddleups Illinois Coordinator Margaret Steele.

In going to the workshop, Carstensen brought along 400 cut blocks ready to be sewn and five quilt kits to be put together. She said 21 people attended the sewing marathon from all over the Gateway area and beyond, including Morrison, Fulton, Davenport, East Moline, LeClaire, East Liberty, Rockford, Ill., and Sherrard, Ill.

She reports that at the end of the day, three quilts were finished, a fourth was almost done and one sewing volunteer took the fifth home to finish it.

The regular tapings for Internet broadcast are taped at Tims’ ranch in LaVita Colo, Carstensen said she would like to attend a taping of the show.

“I’d love to go to a taping. That would be really awesome,” she said.

Carstensen said anyone wanting to assist in the Operation Support or Home of the Brave quilt projects is more than welcome. She said no sewing experience is necessary and she is willing to instruct those who want to aid the project. Several “sew-ins” are planned in the coming weeks for people who would like to participate in “Operation Support.”

On July 18 and 19, quilters can travel to Neal’s Sewing and Vacuum in Muscatine for a sew-in from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Area residents also can help the project at Connie’s Constantly Stitching in Morrison from noon to 8 p.m. on July 14, July 21 and July 28 and at Susan’s Calico Creations, 1108 Fourth St., in Fulton on July 8 and 15 from 6 to 8 p.m.

Carstensen has spent thousands of dollars of her own money to ship the items overseas.

To help her and others send the quilts to soldiers and their families, donations to ship the items can be sent to Member’s Choice Community Credit Union, c/o Home of the Brave Quilts, 1702 N. Second St., Clinton, IA 52732.

U.S. Postal Service flat rate boxes for shipping, thread, backing material and fabric in a variety of colors and prints also are appreciated donations. Carstensen said the soldiers are truly grateful for the support.

For more information on the project, visit To contact Carstensen, call 242-7213 or e-mail her at