Ocean wave quilters talk, October 9, 2011

[At the outset, I want to thank the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria, where I was in residence for two months last spring doing research on quilt history. The reader will find numbers in brackets throughout the text; these refer to my powerpoint presentation, which I am not able to include here. Sorry!] [1]

When I’m quilting, I’m usually thinking about one of two things. Often, I’m focused on the person who will receive the quilt. Last April, my younger niece got married. Krissa loves the ocean, so I made a quilt for her with ocean colors and themes.[2] I put untold hours into the quilting, creating little sea creatures and seaside scenes. [3,4] I hoped it would delight her. Of course, we don’t always know who will get a quilt – for instance, when we are making quilts for new babies [5] or for patients at Sherwood Oaks or for the hospital chaplains to use [6]. Still I imagine that most of us think of the comfort we hope our quilt will bring to someone. Quilting embodies and gives shape to our love of others.

If I’m not thinking of the recipient, however, I’m probably focused on design and fabric and color – did I choose correctly? Is it going to work? Should I put sashing between these squares? [7] Does it need more red? I can tangle myself in a million knots worrying about design and color; quilting is not always restful! Helen Kelly, in some of her amusing, even sardonic, comments about joy of quilting [8], says we get to a point of wondering why EVER did I choose this pattern?! [9 --The pattern is called “a thousand stars,” but with more than 60 pieces in some of the squares, it should have been called 1,000 headaches! I thought I would NEVER finish it! By the time I did, I hated it so much I sold it for a pittance!]

As hard as I sometimes find the process, however, I cannot even imagine how hard it was for some of the women (and men) who came before us. Some quilt historians estimate that women spent as much as 80% of their time in the process of making and using cloth – tending and shearing sheep [10] (or growing flax), carding the wool, dyeing it, spinning thread [11], weaving cloth, cutting it up, and sewing -- sewing all the family clothes, the bedding, the tablecloths and napkins, curtains, room dividers for privacy, and even rugs. [12: my own grandmother made only one quilt in her lifetime, but she made many, many woven rugs] Records show that little girls used to make their first quilt top by the time they were five. They pricked their little fingers over and over, and sometimes they hated it! Suffragette Abigail Dunaway is reported to have considered quilting not only drudgery, but part of women’s oppression.

But today I want to look not at the drudgery or oppression but at the ways in which quilting has been liberating for women (and sometimes for men!). I started with an interest in the links between feminist theology and quilting. Since feminist theology focuses on women’s liberation, the links between quilting and liberation are key. I may not be thinking about liberation while I’m quilting, but I may be participating in something that has historic and contemporary links with liberation nevertheless! Now, frankly, I have found so many links that I’ve had to pick and choose here; and I cannot cover all the ways in which quilting has contributed to liberation both historically and in our contemporary scene. These are just a few…

(The Underground Railroad dispute):

A few years ago, a book was published [13: Hidden in Plain View] that purports to be the written record of an oral tradition in which quilts were used in the underground railroad effort to free slaves. An “Ohio” star meant “go to Ohio this month”, and so on. Beautiful quilts are built around the patterns this book describes [14]. Were quilts part of the Underground Railroad? Frankly, we don’t know. Oral tradition is nearly impossible to substantiate without written records or material objects that support the claims. We don’t know whether quilts were truly used in the Underground Railroad– and most quilt historians are skeptical at best. However, we do know that slaves gathered across plantation lines to quilt together and that they were beaten if their masters found them at these “little quiltings.” Thus, those who sustained the system of slavery seemed to have understood that quilting had the potential to be subversive. For our purposes, I will simply raise the possibility that quilts were not just utilitarian objects made for warmth or decorative objects made to remember or celebrate special occasions, but may also have participated in some way, directly or indirectly, in the effort of slaves to gain their freedom.

A quilter whose quilts are a deliberate medium in the contemporary struggle for racial justice and liberation is Faith Ringgold [15]. Ringgold uses her quilts to expose stories of oppression. In one series, she tells the story of a 14 year old black girl apprenticed to an older white dentist, who raped her. Impregnated and then forced to marry the dentist in order to be “respectable,” the young woman lived a life of imprisonment within the confines of the social “acceptability” of marriage. Ringgold clearly expresses the feminist concern to show how relations between whites and blacks in our culture carry hidden dimensions of oppression. Ringgold has also written children’s books based on quilts and their possible connection to freedom. [16] Quilts can be used to raise consciousness about injustice and oppression and to struggle for liberation.

A very explicit and clearly recorded link between quilting and liberation comes in the stunning work of quilter Radka Donnell. Donnell trained originally as a painter. She broke tradition by choosing fabric rather than pigment as her medium. She was one of the first quilters to break out of the mold of doing repeated squares and small, precise patterns. Donnell’s work is modern art – big, bold patches of bright color, almost shocking in juxtaposition [17]. Donnell very deliberately and explicitly links her quilting to liberation. Noting that quilting was a context for her to search for neglected parts of herself, she says, “Making quilts became an issue of liberation for me.”

While Donnell chose quilting deliberately as a path to liberation, quilting can be a path to liberation in the absence of deliberate choice. Most of us have heard of the Gees Bend community. The Gees Bend quilters have become famous for their “modern art” quilts [18, 19] often made from used denim or other used clothing. These quilts have now hung in museums around the United States. The discovery and sale of their quilts has helped lift this community out of dire poverty (though, in truth, I have been to Gees Bend and the residents there still live quite modestly).

Another example of a quilt that led to liberation for a group of women comes from the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women. Twenty years ago, a series of events came together that set up a program for women inmates who had been battered and had killed their abusers. All of them were incarcerated for life as murderers. The inmates made a quilt with squares depicting the abuse they had suffered [20]. Apparently the quilt so affected governor Brereton Jones that he immediately took steps to pardon the women and 11 of the 12 women ultimately were released from prison!

Historically, quilting sometimes liberated women from dependence on men. In a day and age when women’s “sphere” was the home, quilting was a way for women to make a living: (a) As early as 1745, some women were advertising their quilting skills and making a living quilting [21]. (b) In the next century, Iona and Rosalie Wilkinson formed a quilt company [22] that supported a rather large family; they were pioneers in advertising and they became very successful entrepreneurs in an era when women could not yet even vote. (c) Quilting may have empowered the elderly by giving them a concrete useful chore to contribute to the household when they were no longer able to do hard physical labor. (d) One charming story about quilting tells of a spinster who had to live in her brother’s home, where her life was drudgery and she was treated without respect until she created a quilt that won a prize at the state fair; then her brother’s family began to value her and to lessen her work load. The story is fiction, but may have been based on fact, and it certainly suggests that quilting might have enhanced women’s value and led to their being respected and liberated from drudgery.

Quilts clearly can express women’s desires to be liberated from expectations in a number of arenas. There are wonderful historical examples of quilts used to support political candidates, resist polygamy, urge prohibition, etc. – all of which impacted on women’s lives in serious ways. But today I mention only a few contemporary examples of quilts as social protest: (a) In the medical arena: The Mastectomy by Suzanne Marshall [23] depicts a woman’s refusal to have implants after her mastectomy. (b) In education: a number of children’s stories [24] feature quilts; often, the male protagonist in these stories learns to face his fears, accept his vulnerability, depend on others, etc. – all values lifted up by feminist theologians and associated in these texts with quilts. (c) Jane Burch Cochran is one of many quilters who use quilting to raise consciousness about environmental issues; “A Fragile Balance” is her protest against environmental destruction; [25] (d) In the cultural arena: some argue that the famous Amish quilts [26] are a direct expression of the Amish desire to differentiate themselves from typical culture – hence, their choice of design, color, etc. may be seen as “a sort of rebellion against popular culture.” (e) In the gender/sexual arena: when Karen Horvath asked her friends for a “Sunbonnet Sue” quilt [27], her friends made one that has been dubbed “Scandalous Sue” – instead of the cute/quaint figure of an innocent little girl in a sunbonnet, these “Sues” were smoking, drinking, having sex – in short, defying conventions for women! And at the end of the quilt, they killed her off! [28] [Now, in truth, one of the composers of this quilt says it was not a feminist protest against women’s roles but simply a frustration with the ubiquity of Sunbonnet Sue that led to their choosing this format; nonetheless, inadvertently perhaps, the quilt does express some breaking of molds for women’s roles. (e) And, of course, quilts have been used to raise consciousness and to celebrate the lives of those considered ‘deviant’ by dominant society, as in the famous Names quilt made to honor those who died of AIDS. [29]

In addition to the quilts themselves, the sewing circles or quilting ‘bees’ may have been very important for women’s efforts at liberation. [30] They were the place where rural women gathered together and shared ideas, found fellowship and support, learned new techniques, etc. Quilting bees were not just rural events, however; they were also important in cities: the Hebrew Ladies Sewing Society of Baltimore, for example, was probably instrumental in urging Jewish women of that era to push for liberation within their synagogues (e.g. not to be banished to the balcony but permitted to sit in a family ‘pew’).

Finally—and perhaps most important today-- I have to say a few words about creativity. I believe that creativity is one of the fundamental needs of the human spirit. Creativity can be expressed in many ways – having children, for example! But for many women today, quilting has become an outlet for that spiritual need [31]. It liberates from daily chores or family demands, it liberates creative juices, it frees us for personal expression. Each of us chooses differently – think how different “mystery” quilts look just because of different choices of color and fabric. And then there are the myriad ways in which we can express our personal preferences – color, texture, line, design, size, scale – you name it! We may not be thinking about liberation when we are quilting, but quilting may just liberate us in spite of ourselves. Thank you!

Melanie McKay and Maaja Stewart, “’The Tradition of Old People’s Ways’: Gees Bend Quilts and Slave Quilts of the Deep South,” Uncoverings 2005, ed. Kathlyn Sullivan, 155-173 at 163

Faith Ringgold, Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky (NY: Crown, 1992) is a tribute to Harriet Tubman, who is thought to have helped over 300 slaves escape through the underground railroad. The book depicts a little girl who goes back to the time of slavery and meets Harriet Tubman. In one scene, Harriet tells the child to wait in the woods until she sees a quilt with a star thrown over the roof of a house; then it will be safe to go in. The powepoint picture illustrates that scene.

Jane Amelon, “The Persuasive Power of a Quilt: A Study of a Women’s Prison Project,” Uncoverings 2009, ed. Laurel Horton, 77-102.

Heather Ersts Venters, “Eighteenth Century Annapolis Quilters: ‘She Performs All Sorts of Quilting in the Best Manner,” Uncoverings 2003, Ed. Virginia Gunn, 1-16 at 3.

Marilyn Goldman, “The Wilkinson Quilt Company: ‘America’s Original Makers of Fine Quilts’” Uncoverings 2002, ed. Virginia Gunn, 131-161 at 154.

Aimee E. Newell, “More than Warmth: Gift Quilts by Aging Women in Antebellum America,” Uncoverings 2008, ed. Laurel Horton, 43-74 at 58.

Dorothy Canfield, “The Bedquilt,” originally published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine, v.113, 1906; reprinted in Cuesta Ray Benberry and Carol Pinney Crabb, Love of Quilts: A Treasury of Classic Quilting Stories (Vancouver: Whitecap, 2004), 190-199.

Historically, when women lacked voice and vote, quilts were one of the ways in which they voiced their opinions on war, politics, and other social issues. The work of the WCTU is well known and many quilts were made and sold to support this work [38]. Less well known are the many quilts made to support particular political candidates, support or oppose particular wars, make statements about social issues. For instance: (a) The Ogden Methodist Quilting Bee made an ‘anti-Polygamy’ quilt in 1882 [39] that is credited with helping the anti-polygamy campaign of Vermont Senator George F. Edmunds. Given that polygamy was considered by many to be a form of oppression as severe as any slavery, this quilt may also be seen as an anti-slavery statement. (b) The quilt pattern known as “Polk’s Fancy” [40] was developed to show support for James K. Polk in his bid for Presidency of the U.S. (c) Many quilts were made for McKinley, who was a very popular figure, and women did not hesitate to incorporate campaign slogans or other views into their quilts. (d) during the Second World War, many “liberty” quilts were made. Women used quiltmaking to bridge private/domestic and public/political arenas. As Carolyn O’Bagy Davis puts it, “humble sewing circles evolved into national societies that gave women a format for effecting social change on a national platform at a time when notions of proper behavior barred women from the public sphere.”

In One Quilt, One Moment…, 38-39.

Judy Elsley, “Read Me a Story: Cultural Values in Children’s Quilt Fiction,” Uncoverings 2002, ed. Virginia Gunn, 65-79 at 69.

Heather Cadogan, “Artistic Creation: Amish Quilts and Abstract Art,” Uncoverings 2005, ed. Kathlyn Sullivan, 121-153 at 130. Might Amish women also have used quilts to express their deviation from Amish culture? This is what Earlene Fowler suggests in the novel/mystery story Kansas Troubles (NY: The Berkley Publishing Group, 1997, at79), where an Amish woman uses a patterned rather than plain piece of fabric in one tiny corner – “A small cry of defiance in a stifling world of conformity.”

Jane Amelon, “The Persuasive Power….” 91.

Rhonda McAllen, “Jewish Baltimore Album Quilts”, Uncoverings 2006, ed. Joanna E. Evans, 187-217.

In the video Quilts in Women’s Lives: Six Portraits (new Day film, 1980), Suzanna Calderon, who once lived in Mendocino, talks about how she takes refuge in her barn to do quilting.