Handmade: Retired tool and die maker is now quilter

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

Thanks to his “best friend,” who happens to be his wife, Ed Smerza of Howell has been quilting for nearly 17 years, and together, they’re part of a group of quilters who’ve made more than 4,000 quilts for Project Linus, a national organization that hand makes blankets for critically ill children.

Yet, Smerza admits he never imagined he’d ever be a quiltmaker, or that he and his wife would become a couple that quilts together because of her struggle with arthritis.

“My wife, Helen, took a class to learn how to quilt because of bad arthritis in her hands,” says Smerza. “She can’t make a fist, so I would go with her and cut her fabric, using a rotary cutter. She signed up for a class and didn’t like the dark colors of the fabric, so she suggested I take a class. So, I went and bought a sewing machine and took a class. I used lighter colors for the background for the pattern.”

Smerza, 79, who worked with his hands all his life as a tool and die maker at Ford Motor Co. before retiring 19 years ago, admits he’d never used a sewing machine, but with his background as a machinist and under the “tutelage” of his quilting instructor, it was only a matter of time before he learned his way around the mechanical stitching device. And he says that first quilt “turned out to be one of the best quilts I ever made.” Some even suggested he enter it in a contest, but he declined because it wasn’t his original pattern.

As participants of the quilting group for Project Linus, Smerza and his wife attend meetings every third Friday of the month at the Stitchery in Howell. He says what he enjoys most about quilting is the fact that it gives him something to do, and knowing he’s helping others. “We make them and give them to charity, and it gives you a good feeling,” remarks Smerza, who binds his quilts by hand.

“The quilts have a simple patchwork background with an animal on each of them that covers most of the quilt,” says Marge Kleiner of Howell Township, a member of the Howell Melon Patchers, about the quilts Smerza makes for Project Linus.

Smerza and his wife are also members of the Howell Melon Patchers, a quilting guild with about 65 members who meet every Wednesday at the American Legion in Howell. “I go about every week,” he says. “We make patriotic quilts for Veterans Hospital in Ann Arbor. They collect the quilts twice a year — once for Memorial Day and (again) on Veterans Day in November.”

Choosing not to shop at his nearby (chain) fabric store, Smerza buys most of his fabric at the Stitchery because it has a “higher thread count.” And as a quilter who prides himself on using quality fabric, Smerza says, “You can go buy the cheap stuff and it just doesn’t last. If I’m going to spend time and effort, I want it to last. When’ I’m gone, I hope some of my quilts will still be around, and they’ll be my legacy.”

One of Smerza’s patriotic quilts (pictured) will be one of two quilts raffled off at the Melon Patchers’ “Quilt Affair,” a display of quilts featuring quilting demonstrations and a trunk show, set for Sept. 19 from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. at St. Agnes Church (855 E. Grand River) in Fowlerville. Admission is $5.

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150 or

Contact Ed Smerza at (517) 548-2439 or