A quilter with a cause

Irene Harvalias is quilting up a storm to help her community, and has been doing so for years

📸 Irene Harvalias

At 89 years old, some people might be slowing down. But Irene Harvalias has been quilting up a storm and doesn’t intend to stop soon.

As a member of Burnaby’s Pacific Spirit Quilter’s Guild, retired Vancouver teacher Harvalias had an obvious passion for quilting. However, she’s taken that passion one step further by heading up different community projects that give back through blankets and face masks.

At the beginning of her quilting career, Harvalias stuck to making quilts for her family and friends. That changed when she felt the need to help her community.

Harvalias had been helping her daughter, who was a teacher at Maywood Elementary School, teach students how to sew when there was a fire near the school that affected some students.

“A lot of the kids that were associated with the school either through going there, or having gone there, or their siblings were going there. 18 families were affected, and one of the teachers said that we should make a quilt, and I said, ‘Well, one quilt isn’t going to do any good for 18 kids’,” she explained.

Instead, she expanded on that idea, putting a note in the school newsletter, and teachers and moms came to the gym for a quilting bee. They ended up creating 18 quilts, one for each child that had been affected.

A quilt created by Irene. 📸 Irene Harvalias

The group didn’t stop at just the quilts, though.

“One day, when I was in my daughter’s class, one of the moms that helped, whose kid was in my daughter’s class, was waiting outside to pick him up after school. And she said to me, ‘Could we learn how to do that too?’ And I said, ‘Well, sure.’ So I went to the community school coordinator, and she eventually...decided that yes, we can do it,” she said.

The unofficial “Maywood Moms” group grew to over 30 members and ran for 10 years until they were forced to separate due to the pandemic.

For Harvalias, the impact of the group extended past what they quilted.

“There was one lady that came who was from India. Her daughter lives here, and she visited every year, and her daughter had heard about this group, and this woman had never quilted in her life. Anyways, she came, and she was absolutely taken with quilting, and when she went back to India, she started making little things and selling them, and she gave all the money to help educate girls,” shared Harvalias.

Although the pandemic put an abrupt stop to “Maywood Moms”, it didn’t stop Harvalias’s community work. Instead, she switched gears, making face masks– 3,055 of them, to be exact.

“A friend of mine gave me the pattern for the mask, so I made some for me, and I put it on Facebook ‘Is there anybody that would like a mask?’ I had made them for my whole family, and I have a pretty large family, so I made them for the adults and the kids. And people said, ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t mind a mask or two.’ I said, ‘You can never have one. You always have to have two, one to wear, one to wash’,” she said.

As Harvalias’s mask requests grew through Facebook, they also grew through word-of-mouth and community interactions in New West, which she moved to five years ago.

In one instance, Harvalias was complimented on her mask at a local dollar store. When she returned to the store again, she brought the clerk masks for herself and her mother.

When Harvalias returned again, she found out that her masks were in even greater demand.

“The next time I was there, she said that some people went in and liked her mask, and she gave some masks away. So I made them masks, and I gave them to her, and she gave them out to people over there. So it was kind of a snowball thing. That’s where all of the 3,055 masks went,” she laughed.

Harvalias’s masks continued to spread, making their way to Greece, England, and France, on top of being in most major Canadian cities.

A quilt by Irene. 📸 Irene Harvalias


While she was protecting others from the spread of COVID-19, she was also helping herself.

“Making masks and quilting saved my life during the pandemic because I live on my own. I’m an old bag, and you know, not many people visited at that time. I would have gone nuts if I didn’t have that to do. It was a gift for me, too,” she shared.

Now, Harvalias has moved away from making face masks and is back to making quilts for the people in her life, which include the students she taught during her 25 years of teaching before she retired.

“I used to be a teacher, and I’m still in touch with kids that I taught over 50 years ago, which is another gift for me. I feel very lucky and am very blessed in my life because I’m in touch with kids that I taught in the first year I started teaching, and that’s pretty special,” she said.

She often makes quilts for these families when they visit, calling the children of her previous students her “grandstudents”.

As we were speaking, Harvalias showed me one of the five quilts she’s currently making for a previous student of hers, a beautiful purple quilt with a flower on it.

Harvalias is currently working her way through her stockpile of fabric, and she doesn’t intend to slow down anytime soon.

“I just love making quilts for people, I love it. Every time I make one, it makes me happy. (...) My favourite thing is just making things for people, I love it, and I have so much fun.”