Combat Quilter

As every quilter knows, the gift of a quilt can provide healing and comfort to the recipient but in some cases, the healing is even more profound for the quilt’s creator.  This is the case with Andrew Lee, a Loudon, Tennessee resident who goes by the name of the Combat Quilter.

With 18 years in the military and three combat deployments, when Andrew took up quilting a few short years ago, it quickly became an outlet that helped him deal with his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Now, using his new Statler by Gammill, he is turning quilting into a career.

“I’ve made 54 quilts in 36 months total. Of those, 36 have been awarded through Quilts of Valor,” Andrew said. “Having a creative outlet and doing something where you produce something positive that you can put your hands on makes your chances of recovery [from PTSD] so much greater.  With quilting, not only do I get the creative outlet, I also get to give back to other veterans.”


The Beginning

It all started with a postcard form a fabric store advertising a two-for-one special on a quilted table runner class.  Andrew’s wife had recently suggested that they take up a hobby to spend more quality time together.

“I thought, ‘this is epic.’ We can each make a table runner for our mothers and I can make three women happy with one event,” Andrew jokes.

During the class, the instructor spotted Andrew’s natural talent for quilting and his attention to detail. She encouraged him to return, which he did the next week. It was then that Andrew had a chance encounter with a gentleman who runs a local Quilts of Valor group. He invited Andrew to participate in the group and soon enough, Andrew was making his own works for Quilts of Valor, a non-profit group that provides quilts to veterans.

“After I returned from combat, I really shut off my emotions,” Andrew said. “But then, I awarded my first Quilts of Valor to a 95-year-old World War II veteran. He said to me, ‘I don’t deserve this.’ I told him ‘you walked 26 miles into Normandy, I can’t imagine being more deserving than that.’  Giving that quilt made me feel something again.”

Andrew purchased a small quilt machine with a nine-inch throat. Over the next two and half years, he completed 36 quilts for QOV.



The Dream of a Gammill

During this same time, in addition to his completed quilts, Andrew also created more than a dozen tops that needed to be finished, planned another 41 quilts, and cut out five. He needed a machine to match his enthusiasm and passion.

“From the beginning, I knew I was going to upgrade to a Gammill,” he said. “I researched every machine on the market and knew it was the best choice.”

Andrew set his sights on a Statler, Gammill’s longarm quilting machine with advanced computerization capabilities.

A former graphic design major, Andrew said the CreativeStudio software included with a Statler would give him the design options to maximize his creativity and put all of the plans for his next 41 quilts into action.

As Andrew began to enter quilt shows, he became even more anxious to upgrade. His first show quilt was only the third he ever created. That piece, “Mother’s Looking Glass” was a quilt that he made for his mother-in-law. He won first place in the novice category with the quilt.

“I knew for the next show I entered, I was going to be up against the pros. I wanted to do something epic,” he said.

And epic, it was.  Andrew’s next show quilt “Shock and Awe” was a pixelated depiction of the flag raising at Iwo Jima. It featured 12,100 pieces and took the “Viewer’s Choice” award.

To turn his dream into a reality, Andrew was determined to purchase a Gammill. He considered selling the Iwo Jima quilt to put the proceeds toward a new machine.


The Meeting that Changed it All

After debuting his Iwo Jima quilt, Andrew attracted the attention of regional quilt guilds and organizations.  Before he had the chance to sell the quilt, he was asked to share his story at a guild meeting.  During his talk, Andrew mentioned that he was saving to purchase a new longarm to meet his quilting needs. At the end of the meeting, a quilter stood up and said, “I would like to give Andrew $50 for his longarm.”

Before he knew it, a box was being passed around for donations from the giving group.

In that box was a total of $3,188 and a business card that instructed him to call the number on it with the words “I want to make up the difference.”

That night Andrew called the number on the business card to thank the woman for the generous offer but tell her he could not possibly accept.

But he was in for a surprise. The woman, who Andrew now calls his “Fairy Godmother,” had been following his story for some time. As a longarm quilter herself, she knew the investment of the machine and had given her offer a great deal of thought.

“Her husband was a Vietnam Veteran who had recently passed away and she wanted to do something to honor his memory,” Andrew said. “She felt that helping me reach my goal was the best way to honor him.”

They discussed the details and Andrew got to work contacting Larry and Cindy Culbertson at Gammill Midwest.

The next week, Andrew was presenting a QOV quilt to his great uncle at the Knoxville Quilt Show when he received a call from Cindy telling him his machine order had been placed. His new Statler was on its way.


Full Time Quilter

Prior to receiving his Gammill, Andrew had been creating approximately two to three quilts per month, all while working 70 hours a week.  Now, he has made the switch to full time quilting.  He says he hopes to have time not only to quilt as a business but also, to continue to give back to QOV.

“I know what quilting does for me,” he said. “I have PTSD. If I didn’t have an outlet, I don’t know if I would still be alive. So many veterans turn to drugs, alcohol and suicide, trying to numb the things they have seen and done.

“Now, I get to use my creativity to create something that also makes a difference to other Veterans.”


The Pieces Come Together

Thanks to his “Fairy Godmother,” Andrew was able to hang onto his 12,100-piece “Shock and Awe” quilt.  It was recently on display at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas and now has a new home at the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska.

As for Andrew’s next creation, it and its 23,000 pieces are still in the works. With the help of his Gammill, it is guaranteed to be a show stopper.

Follow Andrew on Facebook at Facebook.com/CombatQuilter/

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