On Women’s Work: Mending the Past, Piecing the Present, Stitching the Future

Both my grandmothers were quilters. They pieced by hand. They stitched seams. My paternal grandma made a quilt in honor of my parents’ marriage, a cascade of flowers in the ochre and orange and olive of the late seventies, and another one, in purples and pinks to celebrate my birth. When I think of quilts, I think of beauty and function, both. I think of the work it takes to for all those stitches and the vision required to make something of such beauty.

The first image that comes to mind when I think of “women’s work” is a spool of thread. I think of thread as a tool to join separate pieces of fabric together. I think of the act of making garments, mending socks. I think of the women of Gee’s Bend and so many other women gathering in circles and singing as they work on quilts, making these masterpieces in communion out of scraps, will, and necessity.

Quilts mean covering. Quilts mean warmth. Quilts are also often crafted with narrative or embedded with the meaning of those who make them and those whom they are made for.

Last Saturday, I went to the Northwest Quilters’ Annual Quilt Show at the Portland Expo Center and saw the exhibit by the Portland Modern Quilt Guild entitled Words Unbound.

Guild member Tamara King was guild president when the project started. Founded in 2010, Portland Modern Quilt Build is the largest modern quilt guild in the world, with 300 members who meet monthly to share with one another about their craft. After the 2016 presidential election, guild member Meredith Hobbs had the idea to do word quilts and the exhibit’s word quilts were all produced in 2017 and 2018.

“At the beginning of 2018, there was a presentation about word quilts and the fact that they’ve been used by women as political statements over the years because women didn’t have any other political power,” King says. They didn’t have the vote, she says, but they could sew.

The first quilt I see has a fiery background, stars, and fabric with overlapping circles that look like barbed wire. At the center, in block letters, are the words:“THIS IS NOT NORMAL.” And stitched over the main design are more words: “You’re fake news,” “Global warming is an expensive hoax,” and “Just kiss, I don’t even ask.”

#notnormal by Kristin La Flamme Artist Statement: Lies and misdirection are commonplace. Words cease to have meaning. Tearing down the establishment is seen as progress. This poster-sized quilt calls attention to the normalization of what I consider to be the very abnormal words and actions by Donald Trump on his way to, and once in, the White House. The gradations are visual reminders that up is down and down is up. The white stars represent the states Clinton won, and orange stars represent the states Donald won. The scribbled words stitched into this piece represent utterances and tweets up to January 2017. Since then, the abhorrent behavior has only gotten worse, and Congress’ refusal to combat it further normalizes the ridiculous

A quilt with a beige background features lowercase letters that say: “six minutes and twenty seconds” and next to them is a topographic portrait of gun-control activist and Stoneman Douglas high school student Emma Gonzales. Her face stilled in the moment of resolution when, at the March for Our Lives, she stood silently for the amount of time it took for the gunman to kill three staff members and fourteen of her classmates and friends.

Six Minutes and Twenty Seconds, Emma Gonzales by Marcia Mertsky
From Artist Statement: “I was moved to create a quilt that captured some of the sorrow, frustration, and rage I felt after yet another tragedy at one of our schools. Until recently, my quilts have been modern and decorative. This piece combines portrait and words to make a statement that I hope will resonate with others.
A note on the construction: this piece is intentionally left raw-edged, symbolizing both the fight that is far from done and the rawness of the moment.

The black, red and white quilt by my friend Sailor Holladay says “Stop Killing Black Men” and on it is embroidered the names of black American men killed by police officers, like Philando Castile, Mike Brown, and Alton Sterling.

Stop Killing Black Men…And Black Women and Black Children by Sailor HolladayFrom the Artist Statement: This quilt is a response to the killing of black men, women, and children and a call to stop the violence. I am drawing off the tradition of signature quilts, and as I embroidered these names, I began thinking about all the signatures each of these people will not be able to make and all of the life events that were stolen from them. The slow act of embroidery is one way for me to process the grief I feel about where our society is while remembering the names of people whose lives were ended unjustly.

King’s quilt for the exhibit is two-sided. On one side of the quilt, she has remade American flag with vertical stripes and a square in the right-lower corner. The flag is frayed at the edges and upside down as is customary to show when people are in distress. That side reads: “By the People, For the People.” The other side says “Power to the People.”

She says, “I wanted to make a quilt just to make the expression that it’s our democracy and its our responsibility to maintain our democracy and that we don’t have to stand by and let our democracy be taken away from us by the wealthy, by the connected so that’s why I made it the way I did.” The letters are in pink, she says, because of the Women’s March and beckons women to be more involved. She says, “The Pink is there to say, ‘Run for office! Take the power! We’ve been behind the scenes doing everything, let’s get in front doing everything. So from the time I started making the front to the time I made the back, so many women had run for office—and now won.”

Elsa Hart created her word quilt in response to a hate crime that happened in her community of Portland on the MAX Light Rail in 2017. On that May day, self-described white nationalist Jeremy Joseph Christian shouted racist anti-Muslim slurs at two teenage girls, one of whom was black and the other who wore a traditional Muslim hijab, and when Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche intervened, Christian stabbed them fatally. Another victim Micah David-Cole Fletcher was also stabbed but survived his serious wounds.

“For three months after it happened, I couldn’t sleep,” Hart said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it.” Her eyes tear as she speaks. “He was the same age as my son. He was clearly such a wonderful man.”

Her quilt uses brightly-colored letters on a gray backdrop that say: “Tell Everyone On This Train That I Love Him—Taliesin” Those were the last words that Namkai-Meche, a recent Reed College graduate, uttered before he died.

Hart said she hopes that someone who knows his mother sees the quilt so that she can give it to her. She hasn’t wanted to bother her but also would like her to have it and to know the impact her son’s life and heroic intervention had on her.

Upon looking at this quilt and remembering these deaths as a result of a hate crime, I am reminded immediately of news spreading across social media in February and March of this year about attacks in Portland against LGBTQ community members. There were patterns to the attacks. According to reports, men in pickup trucks screamed racial and homophobic slurs out of cars or attacked gender-non-conforming people on the street, and, in at least one incident, threw a full beer can at one community member. Some linked these back to social media posts by leaders of local white supremacist groups calling for “open season” on LGBTQ folks.  Community members organized town halls and raised funds for rides on ride apps so people could get around safety. But that doesn’t take away the threat of danger or the fear that you could be harmed just by being who you are walking in your town.

The 70,273 Project. Jeanne Hewell-Chambers

“The 70,273 Project,” also featured at the quilt show, was founded by Jeanne Hewell Chambers and commemorates the lives of 70,273 physically and mentally disabled people of all ages who were killed by the Nazi regime. She is gathering quilt blocks from around the world, one for each person who was killed.

“Without every laying eyes on the disabled person they were evaluating,” the project description reads, “the assessing doctors read the medical files, and if from the words on the page, the person was deemed ‘unfit’ or an ‘economic burden on society’ or ‘a useless eater,’ a red X was placed at the bottom of the form.”

Three doctors read each file. When a person received two Xs, they were condemned to death.

These quilts “commemorate the lives of the disabled people who died, celebrate the disabled people who live among us today, and educate all who will listen about this atrocity known as Aktion T4 and about the often underestimated goodness and abilities of those with special needs.”

Just across the parking lot from the Expo Center is a memorial to the more than 3,500 Japanese Americans who were detained on this very site on their way to permanent internment camps during World War II. The memorial is tucked away and you would miss it if you weren’t looking or didn’t know it was here.

Voices of Remembrance, Valerie Otani

Japanese-American artist Valerie Otani created the memorial, entitled Voices of Remembrance, in 2004. The piece is comprised of four gates, meant to invoke tori, traditional Japanese gates which mark sacred spaces. In a piece about the Expo Center’s role in Japanese-American internment, Otani said since the site is significant, she hoped the gates would act as a space for healing.

The gates themselves are large pillars and they are covered with metal imprinted with headlines from the day that speak in dehumanizing ways about the Japanese: “Portland to be first Jap-Free City” and “Alien Ouster Urged Now.”

Suspended from the top of the pillars are ropes that hold metal tags meant to represent the ID tags worn by individual Japanese-Americans detained here. The tags bore numbers assigned to families. On the day I stood there, the tags clanged against one another in the wind. The sound of metal on metal is dissonant. It disturbs the quiet. 

I’m thinking about cycles of destruction and pain and what all the harm we cause one another as human beings. I’m thinking of the power of language, both to speak the truth and heal, and to inflict and perpetuate hate. I’m thinking about intention. I’m thinking about the length of time it takes to yell a slur and sear that word into someone, and the length of time it takes to sit down with needle and thread and try to say something real and true, to try to seam what is in pieces even if its not perfect, even if wrongs can never fully be made right.

Of these word quilts, guild member Suzanne E.W. Gray writes, “We’re well-versed in the tweet, the text message, the campaign slogan, the protest chant. But there is a significant difference between those forms and the quilts in this exhibition.

Unlike a text or a tweet, a quilt can never be ill-considered: it takes too long to make. Consider the process: after choosing the design, layout and fabric for the quilt, the maker must cut, sew, press and trim the blocks; assemble the blocks into a top; baste the top to the batting and back; stitch the whole thing together with decorative lines of quilting; and trim, bind and label the finished product.”

Consider the process. Consider the fabric. Consider the musts. Consider. Cut. Sew. Trim. Bind.