Meet Your Neighbor...Quiltmaker Eileen Belmont
WESTPORT — From the large and sunny master bedroom of her Regents Park condominium, Eileen Belmont pieces together the fabric of people’s lives.
Under the auspices of her business, Ei of the Needle, Belmont makes one-of-a-kind quilts, pillows, wall art, and more from old clothing and other textiles her clients bring her.
Belmont dreamed of working with design and fabrics ever since she was in fourth grade and learned to sew from her mother. Belmont’s mother had returned to school to learn to be a science teacher but took a few more classes, including sewing, to gain certification in home economics as well and when she learned new skills, she passed them on to her daughter.
From her family’s dining room table in suburban Philadelphia, Belmont cut cloth from patterns to make her dresses for both junior and senior prom. While studying for her undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania, Belmont sewed decorations for her dorm room and imagined a life like that of fashion designer Donna Karan.
In Belmont’s Jewish family, however, all the men worked in medicine and the women were teachers, and Belmont received little support for her dream to pursue fashion design, so she, too, entered education.
Belmont enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Cincinnati to become a reading specialist and, following school, moved to Maine to coordinate the language arts curriculum for a rural school district.
Belmont lived on a 50-acre farm and loved it, but she missed urban life. So, at 26, she left for Boston, where she earned a second Master of Education degree and then gained employment organizing curriculum in a district outside the city.
After four years in Boston, Belmont returned to Philadelphia and stopped working in the education field in order to care for her three young daughters. She actually founded Ei of the Needle during that time, but back then the company only threw parties for young kids using Belmont’s fabric remnants, ribbons, and a glue gun to help kids make wall hangings and pillows.
“I was doing it, but I was doing it differently from how I had dreamed about doing it,” Belmont said.
About 19 years ago, Belmont returned to work at an eating disorder clinic and was charged with helping the girls in the facility keep abreast of their academics. Belmont said it was a frustrating task given all the girls had to deal with. So, after seven years, Belmont left the clinic.
“I needed to regroup and thought, ‘I need need to work in a joyful context.’ I wanted to do something totally other-brained, and came up with the idea of doing something with what I’ve had a lifelong passion for, which is sewing and creating and working with people and hearing their stories,” Belmont said.
Belmont first tested selling her work at holiday bazaars, but realized handmade trinkets don’t sell well if you can buy something similar at a dollar store.
“It couldn’t be something that they could buy. It had to be something that was unique, and uniquely theirs,” Belmont said. “I wanted to do something that had more of a heart pull and was more sentimental. I didn’t want it to just be a business transaction.”
Belmont refined Ei to specialize in taking people’s own personal textiles, such as old t-shirts, and transforming them into something else, perhaps a pillow or blanket.
The business grew through networking and word of mouth and adapted to a new environment when she moved to Westport five years ago to be closer to her daughters.
In the past decade, Belmont has made everything from pillows from the ties of a widow’s late husband to a Jewish wedding canopy, or chuppah, formed from an old-wedding dress. About half of her clients want to remember a lost loved one, while the other half commemorate a certain period of life, like the woman who wanted a pillow made from her daughter’s Catholic school sweater and skirt.
“They’re all life celebrations,” Belmont said.
Working on a project the other night, Belmont said she felt tired and looked at her watch, discovering it had reached 2 a.m. without her noticing.
“I’m doing design and layout and all the technical stuff and I get lost in the zone,” Belmont said. “Now I’m doing it the way I dreamed of doing it.”
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