COLUMBIA — From Los Angeles to Johnstown, N.Y., Cathy Abbott leaves a bit of herself behind in the hand-crafted quilts she stitches in the cab of her semi.
Abbott, 49, is a commercial truck driver. She travels across the country alongside her husband of 13 years, Bill Abbott, and their two Yorkies, Scarlett and Mafasa. The couple spends three or more weeks on the road each month, then stops by their Columbia home for a handful of days before departing once again.
“It’s our second home,” Abbott said, referring to the fire-engine red semi parked in front of their house. “We live there.”
There are two bunk beds in the cab of their truck, the top of which is littered with the accoutrements of a quilter: a hoop stand Cathy Abbott sets between the seats to work on when it’s her husband's turn to drive, a plastic tub of completed quilts ready to sell or give away, half a dozen stenciled signs that read “Handmade Quilts: $15,” which she places on the windshield at truck stops.
“I’m calling it my hobby,” Cathy Abott said. “I’m not trying to make any money off of them — I’m selling them, so I can buy more fabric to make more.”
Abbott has no idea how many quilts she’s made through the years because they never stay around long. She passes them out wherever she goes — sometimes for a few dollars, other times for nothing at all.
“I give a lot of quilts away,” she said. “We go out to Hershey, Penn., and we’ve gotten to know a girl up there. She showed us a picture of her granddaughter, so I turned around and I handed her a quilt.”
Cathy Abbott’s hobby came to life about six years ago. Crocheting, she found, was therapeutic for her after her brother passed away, but it only held her attention for so long.
“Crocheting was my therapy,” she said. “I made 15 afghans in one year after my brother passed away. I made afghans for everybody in the family — just kept making them and giving them away. And then it was like, ‘I’m done crocheting. I want to do something else.’”
She bought a “Quilting for Dummies” book, along with as many quilting magazines and patterns she could get her hands on, and started to learn. Through trial and error, she eventually found her stride.
Punkie Spencer, 50, met Cathy Abbott in the fabric section of Walmart, where Spencer works. Spencer also enjoys quilting, and the two quickly became friends. They regularly trade fabric and collaborate on ideas. Spencer even sends her finished work on the road with Abbott.
“If I have a little quilt, I’ll send it with Cathy,” Spencer said. “If she feels that someone needs it and likes it, she can do whatever she wants to.”
Spencer uses a quilting machine, unlike Abbott, who quilts by hand.
“Quilting by hand is something that somebody should treasure because that person puts a lot of work into it,” Spencer said. “Hand-quilting is more personal.”
Cathy Abbott is passing down the appreciation of quilting to her granddaughter, Aliyyah Bader-Dewitt, 11.
“It’s like a whole new way to express yourself,” Aliyyah said. “No one can tell you how to make it because it’s your quilt.”
Cathy Abbott grew up in Stuttgart, Ark., a small town southeast of Little Rock. Watching trucks pass by left her with an urge to travel.
“It was a childhood dream to drive a truck,” she said. “I lived right on a truck route and I remember this so well: A red and white truck drove by, and it said ‘Yakima, Washington,’ and I thought, ‘Whoa, that guy lives in Washington and he’s all the way down here in Arkansas.’ That fascinated me.”
Thirty years ago, Cathy Abbott moved to Columbia. She waited tables for several years and then worked for Joe Machens Ford-Lincoln. It wasn’t until her future husband moved in across the street that her childhood dream of truck driving was realized.
Bill Abbott had been a truck driver for several years when the two met and became friends. The original plan, Cathy Abbott said, was for him to teach her how to drive.
“After I got my license I drove by myself for six months pulling a flatbed," she said. "And then that six months was about enough and he said, ‘Why don’t you get in the truck with me?’ And then we got married. We’ve been driving together ever since.”
Her quilts are scattered across the country, going from the cab of her truck to the hands of a stranger.
“I’m trying to talk her into sewing her initials on the corner,” Bill Abbott said. “So someday, after she’s gone, people can say, ‘I have a Cathy Abbott quilt.’”