Good News

Barry learnt quilting to help beloved wife with dementia. He didn't stop after losing her

Marlene Even
Updated December 5 2023 - 10:41am, first published December 4 2023 - 4:00am
Barry Whitehead sits in front of his sewing machine making a quilt at his Barrack Heights home. Picture by Sylvia Liber
Barry Whitehead sits in front of his sewing machine making a quilt at his Barrack Heights home. Picture by Sylvia Liber

At 93 years of age, Barry Whitehead sits in front of his sewing machine at his Barrack Heights home making quilts for those in need.

The retired Illawarra school teacher learned patchwork when his wife Sue Whitehead, who adored the craft, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease in 2000.

"'I'm very happy to donate these quilts and it's something I learned to do with Sue and something I love doing," Mr Whitehead said.

His wife started making them after their "best holiday ever" in Africa in 1996 and when, she could no longer remember the steps, he decided to learn the tools of the trade.

The couple made 16 quilts in 2013 alone and they are memories Mr Whitehead now cherishes.

"It was a very, very good time because it was something we could do together," he said.

"It was really good to be able to keep doing things and have her do the sewing while I was helping her do that."

Even when she went into care and then when she died in 2016, Mr Whitehead continued to sit behind the sewing machine for a couple of hours twice a a day.

Spreading the joy to others

Barry Whitehead sits in front of his sewing machine making a quilt at his Barrack Heights home.. Picture by Sylvia Liber
Barry Whitehead sits in front of his sewing machine making a quilt at his Barrack Heights home.. Picture by Sylvia Liber

The great-grandfather has donated about 70 quilts in the past seven years to those in need - including victims of the Lismore and Eugowra floods and the Illawarra Quilters' community assistance program, which donates them to refuges, nursing homes, charities, and hospitals.

He is also passionate about woodworking and restoring furniture but said creating quilts is somewhat easier to do with arthritis.

"Old age changes the way you can do things, as I said to the ladies at the quilters last week it's much safer cutting material with a little cutter and scissors than soaring up timber on a 10-inch circular saw."

Quilting: a family tradition

Jenny Elliott with her father Barry Whitehead at his Barrack Heights home. The quilt in the far right was made by Barry's wife Sue Whitehead. Picture by Sylvia Liber
Jenny Elliott with her father Barry Whitehead at his Barrack Heights home. The quilt in the far right was made by Barry's wife Sue Whitehead. Picture by Sylvia Liber

While Mr Whitehead makes the quilt designs he has a team of supporters including his daughter Jenny Elliott to help share the workload.

He has hardly purchased any fabric after first going through his wife's "chock-a-block full" cupboard and then receiving material from his daughter and her friends.

"Jenny's friends surprise me with all sorts of material," he said pointing to the different coloured patterns across the table.

Barry Whitehead sits in front of his sewing machine making a quilt at his Barrack Heights home.. Picture by Sylvia Liber
Barry Whitehead sits in front of his sewing machine making a quilt at his Barrack Heights home.. Picture by Sylvia Liber

He sews the front pattern designs and then passes the quilt to his daughter and friends who bind the wadding and backing.

Jenny Elliott said when she went travelled for four months in 2023 she returned home to 22 quilt tops that her dad had made.

Mr Whitehead said he believes his late wife would "be extremely pleased and extremely happy" that he continues to make the quilts and that he is doing it for other people.

WATCH: The Illawarra community donate homemade quilts and winter goods to the Eugowra community, in central west NSW. Footage May 17, 2023. Video by Marlene Even
Marlene Even

Marlene Even

Journalist

Journalist at the Illawarra Mercury. Previously a radio and podcast host at 2SER Radio.

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