Quilting as a Social Medium

Pacific Standard Magazine (whom I’ve written for in the past) just published an interesting article by Sarah C. Rich about the Social Justice Sewing Academy, which organizes quilting circles for activist youth in American schools. The organization was inspired by the 23-year-old founder Sara Trail, who first used quilting in high school to express her intense feelings about Trayvon Martin’s death.

“The Activist’s ABC,” photo courtesy:  Social Justice Sewing Academy

“The Activist’s ABC,” photo courtesy: Social Justice Sewing Academy

“The Activist’s ABC,” photo courtesy:  Social Justice Sewing Academy

“The Activist’s ABC,” photo courtesy: Social Justice Sewing Academy

While quilting has the reputation of just being a hobby for grandmothers, it has always been a mode of communication and, at times, a political tool. Lucinda Ward Honstain’s “Reconciliation Quilt,” from 1867, for example, depicts key moments of the Civil War. An anonymous 19th-century quilter made her feelings known about women’s suffrage. In 1987, the AIDS Memorial Quilt made visible the lives of those lost in the epidemic on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Recently, quilting as a tool of resistance has experienced a revival at QuiltCon 2018, the Modern Quilt Guild’s annual convention. While sometimes heavy-handed and failing to take the medium into consideration, the works serve as a good example of how quilts can be utilized to express political anger and fear.

Lucinda Ward Honstain (1820-1904): “Reconciliation Quilt,” 1867.

Lucinda Ward Honstain (1820-1904): “Reconciliation Quilt,” 1867.

What’s most interesting about Sarah Rich’s Pacific Standard article is her equation of quilting and social media. Maybe this is what it takes to get young people involved, as quilting might seem too quiet and slow to hold teenagers’ attention. But it goes far beyond that. 

“It’s hardly a modern hobby but has always been a kind of social media,” Rich writes. “For centuries, quilting circles have been a space for women to discuss their lives and to seek support. And quilts themselves have served as a mode of communication where others failed or posed a threat.”

The AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington, DC

The AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington, DC

Today it is rare that women sit together quilting one giant piece while discussing the world’s woes. We are no longer confined to our living rooms, and social media has made it easy to spread and exchange images and ideas, creating an illusion of togetherness.

“The Activist’s ABC,” photo courtesy:  Social Justice Sewing Academy

“The Activist’s ABC,” photo courtesy: Social Justice Sewing Academy

There is something to be said about the power of community of times past as it unfolded around the quilting frame. One could benefit from the meditative experience of quilting, while creating a “social medium” that has the power to spread love and fight injustice. Collaborative quilts for donation to children’s hospitals and Abolitionist Quilts that raised funds for the cause are good examples.

Modern social media, on the other hand, often leaves the quilter isolated, fighting his or her demons in the quiet of one’s home. The Social Justice Sewing Academy seeks to change that--ironically, through the help of real social media. “Through Instagram, Trail has built a worldwide network of seasoned quilters, to whom she mails the students’ fabric squares for final stitching,” Rich writes. “Most volunteers are older, white, and living in places where they rarely come into direct contact with youth from marginalized communities.” As such, messages of resistance are distributed not just via a tiny photo on Instagram to be “liked” by people who will forget it in seconds, but are carried out together. Quilts make protest real and tangible, building and reaching communities who would otherwise be spared from contemplating the injustice that plagues modern day America.