Sewn Together: Quilting as Community Activism

Quilting is a textile art that spans continents and eras. Most basically defined as the stitching together of layers of padding and fabric, the oldest preserved example was discovered in a Mongolian cave, though evidence exists to suggest that the pharaohs of Egypt were no strangers to the craft. In the United States of America, quilting lays claim to a particularly central role in public life; more than a decorative art, quilting is woven into the mythos and history of the country from its earliest days.
Amish Quilt
It is sometimes imagined that because of the patchwork nature of quilting, the art was popularized in America out of a spirit of homesteading and necessity. While this notion conjures up romantic images of pioneer life on the frontiers, where the elegance of frugality reigned supreme, it is a misconception. In fact, American quilting did not begin with thrift and fabric scraps in the West, but rather emerged from excess in the Colonial Northeast, as a leisure activity of wealthy Early American women. As a craft, its elaborate stitching and extensive use of a variety (and large quantity) of fabrics communicated that the creator had both an abundance of time and wealth at her disposal. Gradually, as the availability of supplies grew, quilting moved from being the purview of the leisure class to becoming a common practice throughout 1800s America. As it grew, it took on a wide range of regional variations, with certain patterns coming to denote specific settlements and tell “stories” of local character.
This added dimension of collective communication, perhaps, is what let quilting to become a staple of various political causes through American history. For example, early abolitionists raised money and awareness of their anti-slavery cause through quilting. Similarly, during the Civil War, both warring parties raised funds and produced bedding for their troops through large-scale quilting efforts and quilting fairs.
In today’s America, quilts continue to be a part of the political and folk community fabric. In 1987, perhaps the most widely-known American quilting project began: the NAMES Project, also commonly known as the AIDS Quilt Memorial, was imagined as a way to commemorate those whose lives were lost to AIDS. In an era marked by silence and invisibility around victims of the disease, this project served as both a center of collective grief as well as a public statement recognizing and honoring those whose lives were lost. Today, the quilt is the largest piece of community folk art in the world, currently composed of over 48000 panels. It continues to grow and travel, being exhibited worldwide – a testament to the enduring link between the craft of quilting and community politics in American society.
Aids Quilt