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Features- Stitchin' time

Law firm hands blend camaraderie and craft, resulting in gifts of quilts for office mothers to be

By Leila Fujimori

Star-Bulletin

AT her baby shower, one present brought tears to Denise Arestad-Asuncion's eyes. It was a quilt with assorted teddy bears colorfully cross-stitched by the hands of nearly 30 co-workers, and a burgundy fabric back with a Noah's ark design -- her nursery's theme.

"Because of the time and energy that everyone puts into it, I guess you feel pretty special to get one," said Arestad-Asuncion, a paralegal with a Honolulu law firm.

The tradition began at the office 13 years ago when Cynthia Matsunaga, then a new secretary with Cronin, Fried, Sekiya, Kekina & Fairbanks, shared the idea with her fellow female employees.

Since then, the women customarily present a quilt to a first-time expectant mother, or to an already-mom if it's her first child after joining the office.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
From left, Cynthia Matsunaga, Donna Toyofuku, Coleen
Shoda and Dee Berinobis show off their work.

Most of the 33 women in the 52-person office secretly spend weeks cross-stitching designs on fabric squares following a theme. The women use the counted cross-stitch method, which involves making Xs with colored thread on blank pieces of fabric, following a pattern.

Matsunaga then sews the squares with fabric strips to form the top layer, then quilts it together by machine with batting and a printed fabric backing.

Quilts made by groups of women are not unique to Matsunaga's office. Joan Rembold, store manager of Fiddlesticks, said it goes back to the days when women had quilting bees. It was a way of bonding within the community, she explained.

"I know a lot of families that do 50th anniversaries, memory quilts or friendship quilts," as well as baby and going-away quilts, Rembold said.

And owner Rose Sato of Stitch 'N Things has helped many customers find patterns to fit fabric pieces sent to them by mainland relatives making a family quilt. She knows of other offices that participate in similar projects, as well as quilting circles.

So, following the centuries-old tradition, needlework has become a daily lunch-hour diversion along with the usual gossip and shop talk for some women at Cronin, Fried.

Every year, new female employees go through cross-stitching initiation rites. "It bonds them a little more," said office manager Joyce Nakauchi.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
A closer look at the stitching.

The 50-year-old Matsunaga is called "mom" by some and that might explain her success rate in rounding up participants who range in age from their early 20s to early 50s.

Matsunaga freely shares her crafting knowledge -- cross-stitching, hand-stitching teddy bears, knitting -- with her fellow female employees.

"For those interested in getting started, we have a core of girls who know how," Matsunaga explained. "They help get them started, and some have pursued it."

"You feel part of the group," said receptionist Yolanda Pule, who started at the firm last year. "You feel more involved with the gift."

Pule has already shared in two baby quilt projects and bought a kit for a project of her own.

In the predominantly female office, cross-stitching ability turns the usual hierarchical structure of the law firm upside down. The best stitchers reign, with secretaries and messengers among them, while lawyers and paralegals have little ranking.

Denise Hayashi, 27, one of the firm's three female attorneys (out of 18), is new to the firm. She describes herself as "the least craftiest person," preferring tennis and reading to needlework. The associate, who averages a 60- to 70-hour work week, nevertheless set aside an hour an evening for a few weeks to cross-stitch, saying, "It was for a co-worker and someone was going to teach me, so why not take advantage?"

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Ryan Asuncion feeds son Riley on the quilt his wife Denise
received as a present from her co-workers.

But not everyone's great with a needle and thread. Lorraine Wong admitted to cutting corners on the few projects she tried. If she missed a stitch, instead of unraveling the entire row, she just made an "X" over the empty spot. "I didn't do a very good job; I didn't want to ruin it." So Wong no longer participates in the quilts.

Others, who are similarly craft-challenged, do it for another reason. "It's like office peer pressure," Sharleen China admitted. Although she doesn't enjoy cross-stitching enough to do it other than for an office project, she gets involved because "I like to be a part of the whole experience." She has participated in at least 10 projects in the past 10 years.

Annette Floyd tried and found she was not adept at the craft, but found another way to make a contribution to the quilt. The nurse-paralegal employs her mother in Perth, Australia, to make cross-stitch squares.

Some who avoid participation sense peer pressure, but don't succumb. "I tried it, but it wasn't my thing," explained one woman who did not wish to be named. "I think some people just have that need to be part of something and do what everyone else is doing."

Ultimately, it is the gift-giving that everyone agrees is important. Reyna Ortiz said: "It's pressure. It's time-consuming. ... But I want to participate in the gift." One young woman who moved to Seattle earlier this year even mailed her cross-stitch square back for her friend's quilt.

For many of these women, part of the incentive of having a child is receiving the ultimate baby gift. "In the back of your mind, you wouldn't mind getting one," Denise Bagasol admitted. An employee since 1980, she stitched a lot for others before she received her own quilt after giving birth to her first child last year.

As for the childless, they don't get one unless they happen to be the office manager. The women presented a personalized quilt to Nakauchi on her 40th birthday. Their reasoning, she said, was: "She's 40. She ain't having kids. She needs one."

Nakauchi said those who cross-stitch have a certain appreciation for the hours of work involved. But for the unfamiliar, she said "There's some kind of magic." People were mesmerized by one she made and gave away. They expressed amazement and wonder, touching it and asking how it was made and put together.

Great care goes into planning the project, matching up the quilt's theme and colors with the recipient. Arestad-Asuncion preferred muted colors, Matsunaga explained, while another recent recipient liked bright colors.

Matsunaga takes days to arrange and rearrange the individual pieces in a way that looks pleasing. "She looks at it and wants it to flow," said Donna Toyofuku, an avid cross-stitcher. "Cynthia does a beautiful job of finishing it off and her handiwork really makes a big difference." Matsunaga precisely measures and cuts the strips of fabric to the same lengths. Everything must fit perfectly.

On one quilt, Matsunaga worked until 4 a.m. so it was ready to present at a baby shower. Another time, everyone was concerned when she failed to show up for work the morning of the shower. She had fallen asleep in the wee hours of the morning and was scrambling to finish the quilt.

Some of the new crafters have turned the pastime to their own advantage. Dee Berinobis mostly makes things to give away. "People are more appreciative because you take the time to do it," she said. Making use of her time during lunch hours, she recently made a bib and burp cloth for a pregnant friend. She is now working on coasters and pillows for door prizes.

A few become obsessed with the craft. Donna Toyofuku works on projects before and after work, as well as at midday. "It relaxes me," said Toyofuku, a 27-year veteran of the firm. With the stress of working in a law firm, it's no wonder many have taken it up.

Although they could also use some stress relief, none of the 19 men in the office will admit to any interest in stitchery.