A woman needed help completing a quilt she found at an estate sale. Her Instagram followers came to her rescue

Chicago woman finds unfinished quilt after an estate sale

A Chicago woman found a beautiful but unfinished quilt that cried out for its final stitches, and nearly 100 people answered the woman's call for help.

When artist Shannon Downey came across a map of the United States at an estate sale, she knew it was the work of a master embroiderer.

"I just went for it," Downey said.

Downey learned it was done by Rita Smith, a Chicago-area woman who recently died at age 99. When she opened a box she thought contained art supplies, Downey was in for a surprise. It turned out, the map was a blueprint for an unfinished quilt.

"I realized, 'oh, no. This is like a massive quilting project that somebody had already started and not finished,'" Downey explained. "Now I have to buy it and finish it. 

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CBS News

When asked why she felt compelled to finish the quilt, Downey responded, "There's no way their soul is resting knowing that there is, you know, a work in progress that they left behind uncompleted "

Downey calculated that stitching over Smith's outlines on nearly 100 blocks would take her years.

"I have an amazing Instagram community and thought, 'I can definitely find like four or five people that will help me,'" Downey recalls. "Within 24 hours I had over 1,000 people who were offering to help me."

The response gave Downey chills

"I've been living with goosebumps for like two weeks," She said. "It's so cool." 

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CBS News

One of the people who offered to help was Jessie Banwart, who was tasked with Kansas completing Kansas.

"My great aunt passed away and left a lot of unfinished projects and I always wondered where they went," Banwart told CBS News. "I immediately was like, 'I would love to help with this project.'"

Banwart says at first she felt a lot of pressure not to mess up, but that feeling began to melt away as a growing community of women volunteered to help complete the project.

That community spans the country and shares daily progress online using the hashtag #ritasquilt. Many have become friends. Joanne McGranahan is sewing her home state of Virginia.

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Joanne McGranahan sewing her home state of Virginia CBS News

"Everybody's outlining the state basically in the same way, black or blue," Granahan explained. "The rest is up to you." 

Finished blocks are arriving daily from around the country. One envelope addressed to Downey came from a stranger in Utah.

"It's overwhelming," Downey said. "Humans are awesome."

Downey and her helpers plan to have the quilt completed by next year.

The National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky, will display the finished product sometime next year. 

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Shannon Downey working on the embroidery project.  CBS News