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Sewing stitches in time

Ruth Brown has been handy with a needle and thread since she was a small girl.

The 80-year-old Modesto resident first was exposed to sewing when she watched her mother make costumes for a dance studio.

"By the time I was 7, she was bringing these costumes home, making them, and I was helping her sew sequins and all the embellishments on them," Brown said.

She volunteered for years making costumes for Modesto's Dance Academy and made tons of square-dancing outfits for herself and her husband, Burt.

Now that Burt has Alzheimer's and is in a nursing home, Brown is sewing less, but she has continued to be active in quilting. She completed a 4-by-4-foot quilt panel in Burt's honor for the Alzheimer's Foundation of America's Quilt to Remember project. The quilt is touring the country and was on display in San Francisco's Union Square on Sept. 19-20.

Q: How did you get interested in quilting?

A: I started watching Alex Anderson's TV program on quilting. It's been on until this past year on HGTV. I started watching it every day since I had heart surgery four years ago. It was easy to sit and watch it. I kept getting more and more interested in it and I started picking up different types of quilting fabric. At the quilt store, I heard about the guild -- Country Crossroads Quilting. I joined it and I spend all my time quilting.

Q: What about quilting appealed to you?

A: The creative end of doing it. I won't say that my sewing is that great, but I feel like can create the ideas. I get my inspirations from pictures I've seen, people who have told me about something or maybe something that will tell a story. I make a lot of children's quilts -- usually I'll find a cute little plush animal or something and then I'll make a quilt from that, and those I usually donate back to the guild so they can give them out to our charities. For me, it's a very calming thing. All my life, I've always sewn a little bit every day.

Q: What other things do you sew?

A: I used to make all my clothes and a good share of Burt's suits. I made my son's suit for his wedding and I've made costumes for different groups since my kids were little.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: I grew up in Waukegan in northern Illinois -- Jack Benny is from there. Burt and I came out here in 1954 when our son was 4 years old. We went to Southern California and also adopted our daughter. We have two grandchildren.

Q: How long has Burt had Alzheimer's?

A: He was diagnosed a little over three years ago, and then you think maybe he had it eight years, and then maybe it started 20 years ago. Alzheimer's is very gradual. His came up when he started getting lost. He'd be gone for maybe an hour longer than I figured he would be and he would call and say I'm with so and so but I don't know how to get back to so and so. That was a good clue right then. Everyone loses their keys and what have you, but it's when you forget what the keys are for -- that's a good indication. If he had a screwdriver in his hand, he'd maybe go tighten something, but then he would forget what he was going to do or how to turn it -- little things like that at the beginning.

Q: Now, does Burt know who you are?

A: No. When I go in, sometimes he'll say "hi" or "hello." He doesn't have a big vocabulary at all -- it's becoming nonexistent. He really doesn't know who I am, it's just that he recognizes me as someone just like he would any of the caregivers. He loses the meaning of words like daughter, wife, son, chair. Sometimes, you see the frustration a little bit -- he can't get it out, but then it passes quickly, because a few seconds later, he has forgotten.

Q: How did you learn about the Quilt to Remember project?

A: The Alzheimer's Foundation of America asked if I would be interested in making a memorial quilt two and a half years ago. I had to write up a proposal for it, and it was accepted. The quilt has been with them since June '06 and it's been on tour. You know how the AIDS group did their blanket banner? This is similar. A copy of the quilt will be on display in the Heart of the Valley Quilt & Textile Arts Show Jan. 24-25 at Modesto Centre Plaza.

Q: How long did it take you to make a quilt?

A: Usually between 30 and 40 hours for a small quilt like this.

Q: Tell me about the meaning of your quilt. I see it features a musical group, the Senior Rascals.

A: The group played together for about 15 years. My husband played the stand-up bass. They would play between 15 and 18 different facilities, nursing homes every month. They would play mostly music from the '50s and '60s. The quilt has the names of the people who played with the group at different times.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at 578-2313 or