Episode 54. Quilting Through the Ages, Part 1

Listen to the episode

Cosplay with Cindy (@CationDesigns) The Asian Sewist Collective Podcast

In this month's episode, we're celebrating AANHPI Heritage Month! We chatted with our researcher Cindy Chan (@CationDesigns) to talk about cosplay basics and her experience cosplaying.  Follow the pod at @AsianSewistCollective on Instagram. For show notes and a transcript of this episode, please see:  https://asiansewistcollective.com/episode-59-cosplay-with-cindy-cationdesignsepisode-59/ 


Patterns & Designers mentioned

Angie Tank by Lydia Naomi

Ranges Quilt by Modern Handcraft

Past Episodes mentioned

Episode 18. Meet Fiber Artist, Designer & Small Batch Studio Owner Joy Mao, Asian Sewist Collective


Whipstitch, How to Whip Stitch for Sewing & Crochet, Treasurie

The Most Popular Styles and Techniques of Quilting, Quilter’s Review

Where Did Quilting Originate? A Look into the History, QuiltingInfo

Gambeson, Wikipedia

The Centuries-Old Tradition of Military Quilting is Getting its First Exhibition in the US, Smithsonian Magazine

Kantha, the story, House of Wandering Silk

Between Layers of Cloth, Godhadi Weaves Hand-Spun Tales of Revival, Times of India

Pojagi, a Centuries Old Korean Quilting Art Form, is Featured at The Pacific Northwest Quilt and Fiber Arts Museum Through June, International Examiner

Pojagi: Patchwork & Quilts from Korea, International Quilt Museum

Japanese Boro Jackets Slow Clothing, Kimonoboy

Sashiko Embroidery, The Craft Atlas

A Glimpse of the Japanese Quilting Community: The Influence of Quilting Schools, The Quilt Journal

Quilts of Southwest China, International Quilt Museum

Stitching up a Quilter’s Story, The Guidon

Carabao, Wikipedia

Freestyle Caohagan Quilts Empower a Community One Stitch at a Time, MLive

Show transcript

Nicole: Not fully off topic… I mean, we’re on the topic of, topic of things that rotate. It’s just super broad. But have you…

Ada: The Earth? Tyres?

Nicole: Yeah, so many things, so many things…

Ada: Welcome to the Asian Sewist Collective Podcast. The Asian Sewist Collective is a group of Asian people from around the world brought together by our shared appreciation for fiber and textile arts, and our desire to see more Asian representation in the sewing community.

Nicole: In this podcast, we explore the intersection of our identities, and our shared sewing practice as we create a space for Asian sewists and our allies.

Ada: I’m your co-host, Ada Chen, and I’m recording from Denver, Colorado. Denver is the traditional territory of the Ute, Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples. I’m a Taiwanese-American marketer turned entrepreneur and these days you’ll find me running my own natural skincare business called Chuan’s Promise, that’s C-H-U-A-N-apostrophe-S promise, and sharing my marketing tips on my blog. Most importantly, for this podcast, you can find my sewing at @i.hope.sew on Instagram. 

Nicole: And I’m your co host, Nicole, I’m based outside of Chicago, the original homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Ojibwe, the Potawatomi, and the Odawa people. I’m a Philippine-American woman, a lawyer by day and a sewing enthusiast the rest of the time. You can find me on Instagram at @nicoleangelinesews.

Ada: Before we dive into this week’s episode, Nicole, can you tell us about your current sewing project?

Nicole: I can. I haven’t started it yet. But it’s related to current recent activities. So, you know, buckle up. It’s not that exciting. But yesterday, I got my first tattoo in over a decade.

Ada: Whoo!

Nicole: And so this was planned. It’s a Philippine sun with Sampaguita flowers, which is the national flower of the Philippines. It’s actually the same – we’re talking about that tattoo now – but it’s this, it’s the same as my sister’s. She took me and I got it done on the opposite shoulder and mirrored. So…

Ada: Cute.

Nicole: It’s fine. I got a little “Z” on my finger too, because I was feeling kind of impulsive about it. Such as you can be impulsive about tattoos. But… Haha, I guess you can be impulsive about them, but, you know, the consequences stick for longer. Anyway, I, I’m sore. So my back right shoulder is, is sore. It’s a pretty big tattoo. It’s probably about like, as big as my, like a fist, if not a little bigger.

Ada: Whoa.

Nicole: Yeah. And, and I couldn’t get comfortable last night. So I started looking up one shoulder tops. Like, okay, first, do I have anything in my PDF stash? Or… and I know, I don’t have anything in my Big 4 stash. But I found this pattern, it’s a free pattern from, uh…Do you know Lydia Naomi?

Ada: Yeah. Oh, the Angie tank.

Nicole: Yes! You did my work for me. I… It’s a free pattern that’s available on Lydia Naomi’s website and it is a one shoulder knit top. And it has a, the one shoulder part is, is split into two. So it’s this interesting visual design. And then it’s, it’s a, it’s not a tank top because there’s no other sleeve, but it goes, it just, is held up by one shoulder, essentially. And I haven’t done anything with it yet, but I read through the instructions and it looks really simple. I think, as designed, it would be covering the new tattoo so I’ll probably just flip it because it’s just, doesn’t, it doesn’t seem too difficult to do that. And it’s meant to be fully reversible, which is cool and makes the construction simpler but I think what I’ll do is, I’ll do the inner layer as the same as the outer layer, but do it, install a shelf bra. 

Ada: Nice.

Nicole: So that I can, you know, set them on a shelf so to speak. But yeah, so… I… Yeah, it was like, I haven’t, I have a small tattoo – listeners may have heard me talk about this one before – on my left shoulder, but it’s tiny. It’s really small, like, compared to this one, it’s just like… So I’m hoping to bang out at least one of them just to sleep in, you know, to think, like, to sleep in and then when I’m at home to like, you know, wear around the house. I do have a racerback tank top, which is a tank top that like, cuts in so that the shoulder blades are free for movement. But it’s kind of a pain to like, get over the head. At this point, everything’s like, swollen-ish and tender, so I am going to hopefully crank out an Angie tank over the weekend. What about you? Are you working on anything?

Ada: It’s really funny that you’re like, yeah, I got my tattoo and I have this pain, because I remember you telling us about that or getting the tattoo and the plans. Um, I actually got my COVID booster and a flu shot on Thursday and I naively said, whatever arm works for you, and I gave them my dominant arm, my right arm. And so I woke up this morning with like, swollen lymph nodes. And actually, yesterday, I had like, complete muscle ache and like, back and shoulder pain. And so I was like…

Nicole: Yeah. 

Ada: As you’re saying this, I was like, oh, that’s a good tank top to have…

Nicole: Yeah, just the one shoulder.

Ada: …That I could then, yeah, “one shoulder” it on my left shoulder.

Nicole: Yeah.

Ada: But no, I am working on yet another baby quilt. 

Nicole: Classic. 

Ada: This one is a repeat of one that I think I did either last season or the season before. So it’s the Range quilt, looks like a mountain range. Many of my friends like the pattern because it’s kind of abstract and related to where I live now. But my one friend, I, I, kind of, for my friends who are getting baby quilts, and I tell them that I’m making them a baby quilt, I kind of tried to factor in their likes and dislikes. And this friend was very opinionated about the gender of their future child, pending child. To me, gender is a social construct. So like, who cares? Make whatever color. But no, my friend very specifically said, I’m having a girl, but no pink, I would like yellow and green. And so then I had to hunt through my stash this morning to find eight, I found six, I had to buy two more colors. Well, I found six of the eight colors in yellow and green, and I realized how much of my fabric stash is pink and blue and mostly white, black and gray per our color episode. So yeah, that’s my current project as I stare at mounds of fabric that were pulled out for this.

Nicole: Nice. Another, another day, another baby quilt.

Ada: I almost want to time them at this point. 

Nicole: Do it.

Ada: They’re not quite a panic sew, but they kind of are.

Nicole: Yeah, do it. That’d be interesting to see. I mean, I, part of, I mean, part of why I haven’t dived into anything but the whole cloth quilting – which you know, yay, we’re gonna talk about quilting today – is that I just don’t feel like I have the patience or the time to really piece everything together. Again, I have that box, a box of quilting stuff, or like, quilting cotton meant for quilts. And we’ll get into the difference today as well. But um, yeah, I don’t know. I applaud you and want to know how fast you can make one.

Ada: This one’s, this one I have to do quite a bit of math for because this is the one where last time I just made it following the directions and not quite calculating in my head how big it would be, even though it’s on the pattern. And then I ended up with like, a full sized blanket.

Nicole: Oh, yeah, I remember that quilt!

Ada: Yup. Yup. So I’m going to try to halve it and I’m kind of hoping that it’s very straightforward.

Nicole: That makes sense, the math, the math is mathing on that. 

Ada: Great.

Nicole: Today’s episode is part one of a two part episode on an exciting topic, which we just talked about: quilting through the ages. Well, we just talked about quilting. But the topic today is quilting through the ages. And this episode was produced by Mariko Abe, researched by Cindy Chan and edited by me, so good luck, everybody. And I’m trying it for the first time. So we’ll see how it goes. Yeah, listeners, you can let me know how I did. We’ve had guests on the podcast who quilt and run businesses related to quilting, but we’ve never really looked at what is quilting? And how has quilting evolved over time, at least not until today.

Ada: So get ready for a lot of quilting talk and history. In part one, we will cover what is a quilt and what is quilting, what techniques are used to create a quilt, what are some of the common types of quilts, the history of quilting, how did it manifest and kind of, change over time. And then we will finish off by looking into quilting specifically in Asian cultures and traditions.

Nicole: Then part two is all about popular quilts throughout the ages. Quilting serves all sorts of purposes. Sometimes it’s just a means to stay warm and sometimes it’s to create a piece of art to commemorate someone in a deep and meaningful way. There was a lot of ground to cover with this topic so that is going to be the sole focus for part two, which will be a future episode.

Ada: So let’s start off with defining quilting as a technique. Quilting, the verb, is the act of joining together three or more layers of fabric with stitches to craft a thicker padded material. Usually a piece of batting is sandwiched between the top and bottom fabrics and the top fiber, fabric is the main side of the quilted item, the immediate side most viewers will see, and this is also known as a quilt top. And then the bottom fabric is the quote unquote underside of the quilted item that you would normally not see unless you flip the item over, which is usually referred to as the backing fabric. On the other hand, the noun quilt usually refers to a warm bed covering that is created using quilting techniques. However, the term’s definition has evolved over time, much like many other words in the English language. To some individuals, as long as an item is made up of different smaller pieces of fabric that are joined together in a single layer, it qualifies as a quilt. To others, the batting or other additional layers of fabric are non-negotiable, otherwise it doesn’t qualify as a quilt.

Nicole: Okay, to make sure we’re all on the same page, that is, we, the collective and our listeners who are here today, here’s the definition of quilt that we are using. To us, a quilt is a flat rectangular or square shaped item that has been quilted, that is made up of three or more layers of fabric joined together with stitches. It does not have to be a bed covering. Anything that is not flat and rectangular or square, but is made up of several layers of fabric that are sewn together to hold them in place, that’s a quilted item, like a quilted jacket or a quilted bag. And there are popular and well known objects in the world that are called quilts, which we’ll be covering again in part two of this episode, but they don’t really align with this definition. And when that happens, we’ll point it out and let listeners know.

Ada: Quilting was traditionally a type of work done by women to create functional objects for a variety of purposes. Think bed coverings or other items to stay warm with or a protective wrapping to carry items in. In modern times, there are folks who still create similar items through quilting but more of a hobby or fun activity. Quilting has also been elevated to become a higher art form over time. We now have art quilts, which are unique creations often intended to be decorative wall hangings as opposed to a normal use, like, blanket for warmth. Art quilts may tell a story or convey a message. Because of this, they’re often made with unconventional materials or construction techniques that might be less durable.

Nicole: Regardless of what quilted item is being made, there are different styles and techniques that can be paired with quilting to achieve a unique look. One of the most common techniques used in quilting is patchwork, also known as block piecing. It involves cutting out and joining pieces of fabric together, usually squares or rectangles, to make pattern blocks. Once the pattern blocks are assembled and joined together to form a quilt top, they are quilted with a layer of padded material and fabric of choice. This is what people usually have in mind when they think of quote unquote traditional quilts. And another technique most commonly used is applique. In applique, different shapes are sewn onto a background fabric either by hand or using machine to form a picture.

Ada: Then there’s English paper piecing also known as EPP. This technique involves wrapping and pressing fabric around paper templates. The fabric is basted to the paper template for easy removal later. After this, the shapes are whipstitched together and whipstitching is a type of stitch used when sewing two pieces of fabric together by hand. The stitch forms a loop that passes over the edges of both pieces of fabric and it forms a durable bound seam that doesn’t add much bulk and protects the edges from pulling or fraying. After whipstitching the paper templates are removed by removing the basting stitches. Similar to EPP is a technique called paper piecing also called foundation paper piecing or FPP for short. With this technique paper templates are used as guides to cut out irregularly shaped pieces of fabric which are then sewn onto the paper foundation in a specific order to make a very detailed picture. This technique enables a maker to create intricate designs and sew very small pieces of fabric together that they wouldn’t be able to without the paper foundation.

Nicole: In some quilts and quilted items a single piece of fabric forms the quilt top, there’s no piecing involved. Then a picture or design is formed by decorative stitching and or strategic quilting and this technique is called wholecloth. A variation of wholecloth quilting has the additional step of stuffing additional batting into certain quilted sections to form a puffy picture with depth. This is called trapunto quilting or stuffed quilting. This is different from what you might picture when you think of a puff quilt because the creation of a quote unquote embossed motif is the key to this technique.

Ada:   These next few techniques are non-traditional and are geared more towards art quilting to add additional and intricate details. They include but aren’t limited to beading, thread painting, actual painting, felting and fabric dyeing. For those of you who don’t know, felt is a textile that is produced by interlocking the hair or fibers of a material together creating a matted fabric.

Nicole: And please note that the techniques and types of quilts we’re covering today are in no way exhaustive. There are so many things you can do to quilt top fabric. Ultimately, the only common thread, pun intended, is the way that they are finished. So, a quilt top fabric and base fabric with some batting in between, all stitched together. And that being said, we’ll share two more types of quilts with you today before we move on to the next part of this episode. A crazy quilt quote unquote consists of irregular pieces of fabric that are sewn together with no discernible pattern. Traditionally, leftover scraps and remnants are used to create the quilt top and the person making the quilt would add to the quilt top as pieces became available. Memory quilts are another type of quilt. In memory quilts a loved one’s clothing is used to make a patchwork quilt. The most common clothing items used in them included deceased loved ones’ signature garments, babies’ outgrown clothes, or graduating students’ tees from extracurricular athletics or club activities. I don’t know about you, Ada, free T-shirts in college was a thing?

Ada: Oh my god. Even after college. My last company, we used to joke, we’re not a tech company, we’re a T-shirt company, because we got so many T shirts.

Nicole: Did you make them into a quilt?

Ada: I did not. I think I actually donated them a while back. But I did do an experiment when I was there. I, basically on a dare, was like, I could wear 30 of our branded internal T shirts for 30 days. And I did and I had more after that, it was ridiculous. 

Nicole: Too much, too much.

Ada: Too much, too much. Anyways, since we talked a little bit earlier about how quilts shifted from functional objects to pieces of art, let’s dig in further into the history of the quilt. So it’s hypothesized that the technique of quilting originated multiple times in multiple cultures. And the earliest known examples of quilting are from the Indus Valley civilisation and in Egyptian royal tombs. The Indus Valley civilisation was a Bronze Age civilization in regions of South Asia, lasting from 3300 to 1300 BCE. Therefore, it’s kind of fair to say that quilting has existed since around 3400 BC, a brief time after the invention of weaving, aka getting fabric to quilt. Since quilting was developed very early in human civilization, it’s difficult to determine where exactly it first materialized and when. Also no records exist that document it spread between countries or cultures. No surviving pieces of quilting exist from so far back. But archaeologists were able to tell that quilting is that old based on old illustrations that depicted quilted fabrics.

Nicole: The oldest surviving artifact demonstrating the use of a quilted garment for warmth, is a carving of an Egyptian king or Pharaoh from the first dynasty, which ruled around 3500 BCE. In this carving, the Pharaoh is wearing a mantle or cloak that is made up of a series of small padded squares sewn together to create a thicker and padded fabric. The oldest surviving quilted item is a Mongolian carpet remnant made of linen and decorated with a series of intricate geometric designs and patterns. It’s believed that the carpet remnant dates back to 100 to 200 BCE.

Ada: Quilting was a common way to create additional warmth and garments and other objects. We can see this in the variety of quilted garments that have cropped up in different countries like Chinese peasant jackets, Japanese fishing jackets, quilted European petticoats, those are some examples. We will dive more deeply into examples of quilting and Asian cultures and traditions later on in the episode. Quilting was also a way to get as much use out of fabric as possible. Historically, fabric was very valuable because it was all hand woven and quilts would be made from old garments or household textiles that were no longer wearable. Usable scraps were then cut out to be made into patchwork quilts.

Nicole: Remnants from garment making were also used, although these remnants were much less likely to occur as many types of clothing used to be more zero waste, quote unquote, as in made up of rectangular shapes and patterns. So there was no limit to what type of fiber content or weave was, quote, allowed in a quilt. But the practicality around fabric usage and wear at the time, meant that quilts would generally be made of plain weave cotton, linen, ramie or hemp fabrics. Ramie is sourced from nettle fibers and the fabric is similar to hemp or linen. Garments made of more expensive fabrics such as silk and velvets were unlikely to receive enough daily wear to be rendered unwearable.

Ada: Quilting is also used to add padding. For instance, quilted gambesons were worn under armour in the Middle Ages. And again, a gambeson is a padded defensive jacket worn under mail or plate armor and usually constructed from linen or wool. The stuffing varied but scrap cloth or horsehair was commonly used and gambesons from the 14th century also had buttons or laces up the front. Then of course quilted bedding was another way that quilting was used. This sort of bedding has played a part in many disparate cultures again supporting the hypothesis that quilting developed independently in multiple cultures.

Nicole: Women have traditionally been the main group of people who quilt, usually in their downtime, and they usually quilted solo but also do so in groups as a social activity. Now, think early American quilting bees or Northern Chinese 100 families jackets. A 100 families jacket is a jacket created from fabric contributed by an entire village’s worth of people. And we’ll cover the 100 families jackets in more detail later in this episode. Now, funnily enough, quilting in ancient Egypt was actually done by both men and women. It was considered a highly skilled craft and quilters were held in high regard. Quilting was also highly esteemed in ancient China.

Ada: Honestly, after doing all these baby quilts, I agree with them. Quilting is a highly skilled craft and I respect quilters so much.

Nicole: Oh yeah. 

Ada: So after that period of time, it seems that quilting fell out of favor with men. Western girlhood was dominated by learning domestic textile arts, including how to quote from an older female relative. Young girls would then have pieced their first simple nine patch quilt together by the age of eight or nine. And then over the course of their lives, they would continue working on quilts that would be brought into their home after marriage.

Nicole: The act of passing on quilting skills from older female relatives to younger isn’t just a Western phenomenon. You’ll see examples of quilting being passed down between women in Asian quilting practices when we dive into this topic shortly. All that being said, there is the exception of quote convalescence quilting, end quote, where soldiers work on quilts while they’re stationed away from family and or recovering from injuries.

Ada: Aside from gender role changes over time, other changes to quilting were driven by the advent of the industrial age, which resulted in increased availability of fabric and sewing machines. Quilting moved away from being a means to eke out as much use from a piece of fabric as possible to a less sustainable practice. Many western style quilts saw a shift away from hand stitching. Quilters used domestic home machines to assemble their quilt tops and sometimes for the actual quilting itself. They also had the option to send assembled quilt sandwiches – that is, top with backing and batting in the middle – to be quilted by a professional with a specialized long arm quilting machine.

Nicole: A long arm quilting machine consists of a quilting frame and a sewing machine. There are many variations between models, but the way that this works is this. The frame has two main functions. One is to hold the quilt in place so the part to be sewn is visible, and the rest of the quilt, quilt is rolled up and out of the way. So when the quilt is in the frame, it almost looks like a partially unrolled scroll. And the other function that the frame provides is to enable a sewing machine to be manually moved around the quilt, usually with handles, so that it can sew all over the quilt. Gathering to socialize and quilt together has decreased with the various changes as Ada explained, but there are quilting conventions for one to purchase quilting items at or to display and enter competitions with their finished quilts.

Ada: Now since we are a podcast focused on Asian heritages and fiber arts, we asked our researcher Cindy to look into examples of quilting in Asian cultures and traditions. So hopefully you’ll be as fascinated as we were reading about how the same technique manifested itself in such a varied manner across different regions. In South Asia, traditional quotes from this region include kantha and godhadi. Kantha is a tradition of stitching patchwork cloth from rags that originated in the Eastern Indian states of West Bengal and Orissa [producer note: the state’s name is now Odisha] as well as Bangladesh. Its origin can be traced back to before 1500 BCE, and the word kantha supposedly has roots in the Sanskrit word kontha, which means rags. Apologies for terrible pronunciation. If, if it’s that bad listeners, please, please send us a comment. Kantha describes both the style of running stitch used in the quilt as well as the finished quilt itself. Traditionally, kanthas were a functional object used in many different ways. Here’s some examples that we found in our research for this episode. So we have light coverlets during winter and monsoon season, swaddling babies, floor covers for special guests or as prayer mats, pillow covers, and satchels or purses.

Nicole: Kantha were created by women of all rural classes and the skill needed to make one would be passed between generations by women in a family. Old cotton saris and other garments are used in kanthas for both the fabrics and the stitching thread. Five to seven layers of fabric are stitched together with lighter fabrics on the outside so that the stitching pattern would be visible. Initially, the stitch pattern would be just a simple straight running stitch, but over time elaborate patterns became more prevalent. These are called nakshi kantha. Nakshi is from the Bengali word naksha, which refers to artistic patterns, Nakshi kantha is common… Nakshi kantha commonly have a lotus as a focal point, with birds, plants, fish and flowers as complementary motifs. Kantha disappeared from public view in the early 19th century but experienced a revival in the 1940s. Traditional kantha is still being made in Bengal. It’s also mass produced for commercial consumption in India, Bangladesh and beyond.

Ada: Godhadi on the other hand, originates from Maharastra, a state in the western peninsular region of India. Creating godhadi was a group activity, women at home would come together and sew quilts out of waste fabric that they had at hand. Godhadi is also made from old saris. Patches would be made from the cloth sewn together to form the first layer and then gradually additional layers would be added to that first layer. Godhadi also uses thread that is drawn from the fabric itself. Another key feature of godhadi is that it is completely hand stitched even in modern day. Similar to kantha, godhadi is also growing in popularity as a cultural phenomenon, especially with upcycling, or when upcycling became trendy again.

Nicole: In Korea, there’s a centuries old quilting art form called pojagi. This term is also used to refer to an art form that involves wrapping items and cloth. The earliest documented record of pojagi dates back to 42 AD. But it wasn’t until the Choson Dynasty, which took place between 1392 and 1910, that pojagi became a cultural icon. Women of all classes are subjected to social isolation, so sewing and embroidery was an escape from the daily tedium that they experienced. Cotton, silk and ramie were traditionally used as these were the most widely available fabrics in ancient Korea. The available scraps were usually remnants from clothing production. The patterns and shapes of these fabric scraps were irregular and would be stitched together to form a square piece of fabric. The resulting fabric would remain, resemble a pane of stained glass when held against the light.

Ada: Pojagi was used in a number of ways. This included as decoration, as an accessory or to wrap carry and store items. They were even used to deliver a marriage proposal or to carry possessions on a journey. Bojagi is not always filled with bedding and the ones that were padded would be used to wrap fragile items, or wrapped food to keep it warm or even adapted into clothing to quote unquote wrap and dress one’s loved ones. Pojagi has continued into modern day and art pojagi quilts are often a way for artists to display their cultural and generational pride. There’s a Korean maker named Youngmin Lee who is at youngminlee underscore b-o-j-a-g-i on Instagram, who practices this tradition in California and brings in a touch of modern aesthetics. You can also easily find examples of art pojagi quotes with a simple Google search or check out the links that we will have in our show notes.

Nicole: Japan’s version of quilting back in the day were boro jackets, which were prominent between the mid 1800s to the early 1900s. Whenever garments such as coats or pants wore thin, women in the household would sew two or three layers of scrap fabric onto the thinning spots. Sashiko stitches would hold the mismatched layers together. Sashiko is a form of reinforcement stitching or functional embroidery originating from Japan. The most common form of sashiko you’ll see is white cotton thread on indigo blue cloth. The act of quilting fabric scraps onto worn areas of clothing resulted in a patchwork layered look. Boro jackets were created out of necessity. People who lived in poverty needed to both extend the life of the garment that they had but also maximize warmth. Women in rural farm households would spin their own cotton thread or yarn as well as hand loom the strands into fabric for use at home.

Ada: Old futon covers, worn out garments and other ragged household textiles were recycled to be remade as full garments or for mending. Sometimes these recycled textiles were redyed with indigo to refresh their appearance. Indigo blue dye, aizome in Japanese, was the preferred textile color for Japanese rural folks. They believed the color of indigo was symbolic of the ocean surrounding Japan and aside from its cultural significance, there were a few more reasons as to why it was the main choice of dye. Number one, indigo plants were abundant and easy to get a hold of. Number two, its deep blue color holds even after many years of use fading into a beautiful lighter hue over time. Number three, indigo has antibacterial and odor resistance properties. And number four, back then it was believed to have medicinal properties and the ability to repel insects and snakes.

Nicole: Boro jackets used to be looked down on as a symbol of being lower class, but to no surprise any of us tuning in today, they have had a resurgence as a trendy clothing item in modern Japan. Quote unquote Western quilting has also taken off in modern Japan. We can see the spread of this type of quilting in Japan’s traditional art schools, which follow the Iemoto system. The Iemoto school system teaches all sorts of traditional Japanese arts including music, dance, flower arrangement and tea ceremony. Iemoto schools are being formed in contemporary Japan to formally train quilters in specific styles. In fact, hailing from certain schools is seen as a mark, mark of status. And the position and technical prowess of modern Japanese quilters makes them frequent award winners in international quilting shows.

Ada: We mentioned this earlier in the episode, but in China, quilting has shown up in history in the form of a 100 families jacket or baijiayi. This was predominantly done by ethnic minorities in China. Quilted patchwork jackets or blankets were given to a new child as a traditional gift. Each family in the village would contribute a piece of fabric to the items symbolizing the fact that it takes a village to raise a child, quote unquote.

Nicole: We actually interviewed someone on this podcast before who made a 100 families jacket. Joy Mao, a fiber artist designer and small batch studio owner, made one from fabric collected from Manhattan’s Chinatown’s past and present garment workers. So if you’d like to hear more about this garment from her as well as her process in creating it, check out episode 18. We’ll link to it in our show notes. 

Ada: Another quilt that is made by other ethnic minorities in China is called the baijiabei or 100 families blanket. Appliqued and patchwork quilts are made from fabric contributed by everyone in a village as special covers for newlyweds. Unfortunately, in most communities this practice has pretty much disappeared as commercially manufactured textiles and clothing became more readily available and affordable.

Nicole: There wasn’t much researcher Cindy could dig up about historical quilting in the Philippines, which she hypothesizes may be due to its warm and tropical climate. However, this doesn’t mean quilting isn’t enjoyed by folks in the Philippines. And let’s, let’s take this fun story we found as an example. So Edna Rosas, a woman based in Angeles, Pampanga, started a business with her husband called Rosas Quilts in 1979. She did so because of her love for quilt design. She initially started off making quilts by replicating photos of quilts she could find, although she used techniques that were different than those used for quilts in the photos. After the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991, which to this day is still the second largest volcanic eruption ever in the Philippines, the Rosas family chose to expand their business, and they employed victims of the eruption to do hand quilting.

Ada: Eventually, Edna left the Philippines for Hawaii to train under Hawaiian quilters and continue to hone her skills. Hawaiian quilts are unique to the Hawaiian Islands and each crafter who makes one believes that there is a life force that has enabled the quilt to manifest. Hawaiian quilts feature large radially symmetric patterns that are appliqued on the quilt top. The pattern is usually botanical in nature, but some patterns also feature other aspects of the islands such as sea turtles. The pattern is usually cut from a single piece of fabric that is folded over achieving that symmetrical look. And lastly, the pattern is usually made in bold colors contrasted against a white background on the quilt top. When Edna returned to Angeles, she took her newly learned skills with her and started to create memory quilts. Normally, a Hawaiian memory cold consists of torn up pieces of fabric from older pieces of cloth and commemorates either a certain individual or a life event. Edna instead asked Filipino clients to contribute T-shirts and other pieces of clothing from a loved one in order to preserve their memory or life event. She doesn’t only make quilts for those who have passed away. Her memory quilts are also for parents who want to hold on to clothes that their children have long since outgrown.

Nicole: Edna believes that her culture is what inspires the quilt and makes it distinctly Filipino. She incorporates Filipino elements in the quilt such as carabaos and other traditional motifs. A carabao is the type of water buffalo that you can find in Southeast Asia and Guam. And in the Philippines, the carabao represents hard work. Another way her culture presents itself in her quilts is that the quilts tap into the Filipino value of makapamilya, or family-oriented. These quotes are proof of the tight knit nature of Filipino families.

Ada: Nicole, this story is one that you brought up to us when we were reviewing the script. Another relatively recent phenomenon is a freestyle Caohagan quilt hailing from Caohagan, a small tropical island in the Philippines. And these quilts are beautiful and vibrant, piecing irregular shapes of fabric together to depict a picture. We found a quilt on Google that has palm trees along the beach, and another one depicts, like, a different marine life, kind of, underwater scene. And these quilts are very new because residents of the island never quilted until 1996. So, what happened was a Japanese person by the name of Katsuhiko Sakiyama purchased Caohagan in 1987, and Sakiyama was previously a CEO at Kodansha, which is a major book and manga publishing company in Japan. So he basically moved to the island with his wife in 1991 and wanted to develop the island as an eco-friendly tourist destination.

Nicole: His wife, Junko Yoshikawa was a dress designer and director of the Hearts and Hands quilting school in Japan prior to retirement. Yoshikawa wanted to teach quilting to the inhabitants of the island. In 1996, she taught the basics to an individual who insisted on quilting without patterns or rulers. Eventually, the practice spread within the island’s residents. And now roughly 100 out of the 600 residents of the island are quilters. The sale of their quilts enable them to earn enough money to pay for housing, medical expenses, and for their children to go off to high school off the island. I only learned about the story, like, maybe a year ago, a year and a half ago. And I have feelings about this.

Ada: I mean, I have feelings about it. And I have no cultural ties to this whatsoever.

Nicole: Well, so… The Philippines has a history of very modern colonization by both Japan and most recently, and I wouldn’t maybe argue currently a little bit, um, you know, the United States. And the Philippines is an independent nation, but it’s just a lot in the last 100, 100 years or so. And so the idea that somebody, anybody, you know, in this case, Japanese business people would buy an island. Like, I mean, yes, many islands have been bought, but you know, you think about it, and you’re like, oh okay, well, these people lived here, and now they are subject to the domain of someone who has enough money to buy their home. That’s icky. I don’t like that. There’s the sort of, competing sentiment that they were able to bring a craft that many of us and our listeners love, to this island. And folks, residents there can have then turned it into an alternate means of livelihood. I am always for the advancement of the Filipino people and Filipino culture. And I think that this is part of that. I have saviour-y feelings about it, though. Like, it’s not obviously it’s not white saviourism, but its feels familiar in that vein. And, you know, I’m not going to judge folks for making the quilts, I just think it’s very clearly rooted in modern colonialism. And people don’t think, I think, people a lot… The broad public thinks we’re past those types of things. And I mean, I was in the Philippines in ‘93, for vacation, and they just bought the island a couple years before that, apparently. And, you know, the, like, I just, when I found out the story, I was like, that’s cool. But I also know that one of the only book sources that I’ve been able to find is a white woman who has visited the island and like, written a book about the island. And I’m like, oh, okay, where the proceeds of the book are going, you know? And is she supporting the craft with those people? Because then that feels exploitative, as well. And the story is being shared by someone who is visiting them, it just feels very fishbowl-ly.

Ada: Yeah.

Nicole: Where it’s like, I went to this exotic place, and they do this thing. And it’s really wonderful. Let me tour and go places and talk about this experience, rather than, you know, seek to amplify the voices of the people that are actually doing the quilting. So those are my feels. There’s more, but it’s all of the same flavor, confusion.

Ada: Same. I mean, the same thing effectively also, is currently, is happening, happened? In Japan, or not Japan, Hawaii. I’m… Larry Ellison owns like, I don’t know, 90 plus percent of the island of Lanai. And the only way to get there is like, chartered plane or boat. And effectively everybody who’s on that island works at one of his two Four Seasons-branded hotels. So it’s like a weird, just weird phenomenon and the people who are there are either tourists or working, visiting and working and so yeah, it’s both similar and different. But the fact that it’s like literally happening now. You’re like, whoa, people can still own islands. But yes, I totally understand the icky and weird fishbowl feels. Like that’s… Even reading it in like, the prep for this episode, I was like, what??? 

Nicole: I know. I know. I know.

Ada: [producer note: Couldn’t make out what she said!] I was like, huh??? Did they…? But folks, that is all we have in part one in our long exploration into quilting through the ages. If you think we missed any examples of quilts from other countries in Asia, please send us a DM so we can share it with other listeners too. As we said in the intro to this episode, part two will cover popular and noteworthy quilts and it’s quite a deep dive and we learned a lot while making that episode, so we hope you will return for part two when it comes out.

Ada: Thank you so much for joining us on this week’s episode of the Asian Sewist Collective podcast. If you like our show, please consider supporting us on Ko-fi by becoming a one-time or monthly supporter, or by buying our stickers and selling labels. That’s right, we have merch – buy the labels, they are hilarious. Your financial support helps us with overhead expenses and will allow us to give back to our all-volunteer team who work so hard to provide you with new content each week. The link to our coffee page is ko-fi.com/asiansewistcollective and you can find the link in our show notes, on our website and on our Instagram account. Check us out on Instagram, @asiansewistcollective. That’s one word, asiansewistcollective. And you can also help us out by spreading the word and telling your friends. We would appreciate it if you could rate, review and subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts or wherever you get your podcasts.

Nicole: All of the links and resources mentioned in today’s episode will be in the show notes on our website, that’s asiansewistcollective.com. And we’d love to hear from you. Email us with your questions, comments or even voice messages if you want to be featured on future episodes at asiansewistcollective@gmail.com. This episode was brought to you by your co-hosts Ada Chen and Nicole Angeline. Thank you so much to the other members of our Collective who made this week’s episode a reality. This is the Asian Sewist Collective podcast and we’ll see you next week.