Listen to the episode
Vacation Fabric Hauls & A Podcast Update – The Asian Sewist Collective Podcast
Patterns & Designers mentioned
Medlow Robe by Muna and Broad
Daphne Maxi Dress by Sewing Patterns by Masin
Fabric Stores mentioned
The New Craft House, UK-based, carries designer deadstock fabric and Pfaff sewing machines, as well as runs workshops/events in their East London shop
Past Episodes mentioned
Episode 24. Batik, Asian Sewist Collective
The Personal is Political: Symbolism in Crazy Quilts, Alameda Museum
The History of the Quilt, National AIDS Memorial
Search the AIDS Memorial Quilt, National AIDS Memorial
For the Record: Rohingya Women Tell Their Stories, International Coalition of Sites of Conscience
Quilt of Memory and Hope, Asia Justice & Rights
Quilting for Justice, A Graphic Novel, Asia Justice & Rights
Gee’s Bend, Souls Grown Deep
The Quilts of Gee’s Bend: A Slideshow, National Endowment for the Arts
Quilts of Gee’s Bend, Wikipedia
Underground Railroad Quilt Codes: What We Know, What We Believe, and What Inspires Us, Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage
Bisa Butler, Stitch Please Podcast
Bisa Butler, Wikipedia
The Genius Behind Bisa Butler’s Vibrant Quilts, Smithsonian Magazine
Nicole: You know, Gen Z didn’t grow up with the Thong Song, so clearly they don’t appreciate…
Ada: Oh yeah!
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. This might be something that I talked about in seasons past. That I was so gonna do it, I probably told you exactly what I was going to do. And it hadn’t happened, but this is actually happening now. This is actually happening. I am sewing myself a Medlow robe from Muna and Broad. I am very excited about it. I bought it when it first came out and what sold me was the, well, how do they describe it? Like, deep criss cross. Like, so, you don’t have to worry about it like, opening up and you could sit down comfortably without like, having to adjust it and I’ve never had a bathrobe that actually like, fits me like a bathrobe should. And you know, I don’t know if you have experience buying, you know, bathrobes and dressing gowns. But if you look into like, women’s, like, bathrobes, they’re all not size inclusive, certainly.
Nicole: They’re all short. They’re all like, knee length, because you know, a sexy bathrobe. I’m like, no, I want to be swaddled in fabric. So I was just really fed up with my size extra large purchased in Valencia, Spain, like, beautiful white cotton waffle, like, robe and I was like, extra large, this should be fine. It’s not, it’s a European extra large. So you know, there’s that. But I am making it from this like, like, dusty pink waffle blanket.
Nicole: So far, it’s a pain in the ass to cut and try to get everything straight, because it’s a, it’s a…
Ada: Probably shedding.
Nicole: Actually, not a lot so far. So it’s not like, exact, it’s not like, traditional waffle and it’s also 50% cotton, 50% viscose. So it’s like, a little bit like, more cooling. But I am trying to get like, all the waffle, the right angles lined up in the waffle. And that takes, you know, like, 20 minutes per piece no matter how, how careful you are. But I previewed the instructions as you’re supposed to do, but I don’t, I just kind of, I kind of skip around. But you know, I did actually read through it to figure out, okay, should I finish all the edges now? Is it going to fray? So far, it’s fine. It looks pretty simple and I’m so excited because I’m definitely, definitely going to live in it. It is a color and texture that I think I could get away with wearing at work meetings without people knowing I’m wearing a bathrobe. Know what I’m sayin’, know what I’m sayin’?
Nicole: It could just be like, a pink cardigan that I have on the back of my chair all the time. But it’s a bathrobe! So, I’m hoping to finish that in the next couple of days. It’s not a pattern, you know, pattern test, it’s not a sew-and-tell, it’s like, finally something for me.
Nicole: So, I’m pretty excited about it. What are you working on?
Ada: I… Mariko was making fun of me before we started this episode because I put it in the chat – we have a group team Slack for everyone in the podcast to work, mostly for working on it but also for sew and chat. And I put it out there as like, has anyone made this pattern before because I need a dress for this wedding I’m going to on Saturday. By the time this episode is out the wedding will have happened, but of course I’m panic sewing at the last minute because I did not realize that this wedding was a formal wedding, formal fall wedding. The only dress I currently already own that would fit the root brief basically, is a floor length strapless gown with like, a trumpet mermaid flair going on and I was, it felt a little too formal for what this is.
Ada: So it was like, kind of in between where you can’t wear the shorter knee length or like, midi stuff without feeling underdressed. But you also can’t wear the full on ballgown because it’s not black tie. So I am making the Daphne maxi dress by Sewing by Masin. And speaking of European sizing, the sizes are not the most inclusive, I will say, 33 inch chest to 54 inch, 35 inch hip to 56 inch, so please, if you’re listening to this, Sewing by Masin, we would love more sizes. But there are cup sizes for this and I’m in the smallest cup size. It’s modeled after that, kind of, Edwardian Bridgerton Look, hence the name. But I decided instead of doing puff sleeves, because I’m doing it in black silk, Crepe de Chine. And I bought…
Nicole: Ooh! Fancy, fancy.
Ada: Yeah. I bought it at The New Craft House outside of London, or I think they’re technically in London but like, further out, when I was in the UK last year. I bought five meters, I just looked it up. I was like, why did I, what did I think I was making with this? And the answer is, I thought I was making black shirts, but really, as I sat on the fabric for a year, and now I’m making a dress, which I’ve swapped, like I said, the puff sleeves for kind of thicker spaghetti straps. So it’s almost got like a, if you remember the early 2000s when the baby doll look was kind of in?
Ada: Yeah. It’s got that, kind of, going because it’s got the bodice that it sits very high waisted, like, it’s above my natural waist. And then it’s just two rectangles for the skirt, which was fantastic. And the only thing I have left because I’ve been panic sewing for two nights in a row is hand finishing the lining to just get it to sit nicely. And I do have a question for you, Nicole.
Ada: So there are no cups in this pattern and it is actually an elastic back, so there is a bit of give, but I actually took the ease down and shrank the pattern piece by about an inch and a half so that I could… It would fit a little tighter and be a little more formal. I do think the piece as-is works really well in the linen versions that are posted on, like, as a sample. There are no cups, it’s just silk Crepe de Chine, interfacing, and another like, silk on the inside as a lining. Bra, cups, sticky pads, what’s the move here?
Nicole: I mean, are you supported enough without a bra?
Ada: I am.
Nicole: Like, in terms of the weight? So if you don’t want your nips showing, I would just do like, what do you call them?
Ada: Chicken cutlets?
Nicole: I suppose, chicken cutlets? Yeah, like, just, I wouldn’t… I don’t know. I’ve never done like, the nipple covers. I feel like, for me, that would be uncomfortable. And like, you could see the outline. But…
Nicole: I did buy some of those like, chicken cutlets, yeah, that are supposed to like, stick to your skin.
Nicole: But yeah, I think for me, I would be the most concerned about underboob support. And if you feel like, the way that you manipulated the pattern worked for you in terms of getting that support? Yeah, I’d just do, I’d just do that. I wouldn’t, um, I was trying to pull up the dress, I think, I don’t know if you’ve seen those chicken cutlets but with like, lift where you can like…
Nicole: Like, haha…
Ada: The stick and squeeze.
Nicole: Yeah, yeah, like the… Listeners, I just grabbed my chest, demonstrated to Ada. Like, but I think that the way that that would work, it, like, would show at the top. But yeah, I would… For me, it’s always about comfort. And so if you’re good with the amount of support, that the dress itself works, I would just say just if… And if you don’t want people to like, you know, your nipples to be coming through the fabric, which some people, some people are cool with…
Ada: Some people are cool with that.
Nicole: I mean, it’s not really my jam.
Ada: I’m a plus one to this event, I would not like to…
Nicole: Yeah, yeah…
Ada: I don’t know.
Nicole: I’m totally fine. I mean, this whole fit. Yeah, I mean, like, just, it’s it’s personal preference that I know is like, societal pressure ingrained into me. Because what am I trying to do? Pretend like I don’t have nipples?
Nicole: Some, if, some people don’t, I do. So it’s like, you know, it’s, when people with panty lines, right? There is a better quote unquote, silhouette, but I’m like, am I trying to fool you into like, thinking I’m not wearing underwear? Like, great if that’s your jam. Maybe once upon a time it was. But I’m like, I dunno, I guess I just don’t take these things that seriously. I’m like, it’s fine.
Ada: I had a conversation with my sister about that too because we were like, the whole concept of a seamless thong under your leggings so that you are wearing underwear but not really showing that you’re wearing underwear when you’re working out, ostensibly – although, you know, I wear leggings all the time – is such a, ingrained, so far in millennial mindsets, but Gen Z has been freed of the butt floss.
Nicole: Okay? I’m unaware of this freedom, but yes.
Ada: We were just like, wow, they really, they’re like, whatever. Or that is the impression that we get from social media. And so I was just like, it would be nice to be freed of that.
Nicole: Like, whatever, they don’t wear underwear anymore or they just wear regular underwear?
Ada: I don’t know. Maybe they wear regular underwear. Maybe they don’t wear underwear under the leggings. I don’t really know, neither, like, nor is it my prerogative to find out.
Nicole: What do I care.
Ada: Yeah, like, whatever, if you’re in leggings, and it’s comfortable to you, go for it.
Nicole: Yeah, yeah. I mean, you know, Gen Z didn’t grow up with the Thong Song. So clearly, they don’t appreciate…
Ada: Oh, yeah!
Nicole: I mean, I never liked them anyway, I’m just kind of like, again, one of those societal things where you know, like, it’s a sexy thing that you’re like, well, first of all, nobody sees that anyway. But then there was that era where in the early 2000s, late 90s, that was a part of your outfit. And I saw that coming back recently, too. And I’m like…
Ada: Oh, yeah.
Nicole: Look, I just don’t want to feel like I have anything extra going on there. It’s fine. It’s all fine. What are we talking about?
Ada: We were talking about what to do about breasts in the Daphne maxi dress pattern which is fairly low cut and does not have built-in support. And now that I’m thinking about it, I’m like, how do you wear a bra under that? Maybe I looked over if there’s an option to add cups or not. But listeners, beware, if you decide to make that dress, you might be asking yourself this question as well.
Nicole: All right, welcome back, everyone. This episode was produced by Mariko Abe, researched by Cindy Chan and edited by me again. Good luck, everybody, for listening. Welcome back to our series on quilting through the ages. You’re tuning in to part two today. And in part one, we covered the basics of quilting, before we jumped headfirst into how it manifested in different cultures around the world. We spent a good chunk of the episode focusing on quilting in Asian cultures specifically.
Ada: And you probably noticed in our previous episode that everyone has their unique reasons to quilt. For some quilting is a way of maintaining a tangible connection to past family, especially when quilts are made of old garments. For others, it is a means to extend the life of garments and other textiles. They can add fabric scraps to areas that are wearing thin and then pass these textile items down to the next generation. Quilting also connects groups of people together. It can give many people an escape from the tedium of their daily lives by allowing them to gather with others and quilt socially.
Nicole: Others choose to use their quilting practice to make an impactful statement that others will hear and see. Today, we’ll look at some popular or noteworthy quilts throughout history. Many of you tuning in have already probably heard of the famous AIDS Memorial Quilt. But that’s not the only quilt that’s worthy of a mention. Hopefully you’ll learn something new from us in this episode.
Ada: So let’s start with a few crazy quilts that were produced between 1880 and 1890 in Alameda, California, Alameda is a small town to the east of San Francisco across the bay and right next to Oakland. These quilts were attributed to a family who resided in Alameda, the Young family. We covered crazy quilts briefly in last week’s episode, but for those of you who might have missed it, a crazy quilt is made by sewing together irregular pieces of fabric with no discernible pattern. The crafter gradually adds to their crazy quilt as they get their hands on more scraps. The quilts attributed to the Young family are currently on display in the Alameda Museum, and normally crazy quilts are apolitical. They were sewn up by elite women in the Victorian era for fun and they weren’t really functional items. However, the unique thing about one of the quilts from the Youngs is that it actually appears to be a personal figurative scrapbook.
Nicole: The quilt was assembled from scraps to form 12 inch squares first, then the squares were sewn together to form a large quilt. But the more interesting aspect of the quilt is the motifs embroidered into it to secure the pieces of fabric together. Some of these motifs include the Eiffel Tower, an obvious symbol of France, various different fresh fruit suggesting youth and vibrance, a penny farthing, a fan and a young girl looking into a mirror which you could associate with young women of that era. There are 2 12 inch squares near the center of the quilt that feature two pieces of ribbon. What makes them remarkable is that they’re placed in a manner that the ribbon hasn’t been cut at all, and features the colors red, white and blue, i.e. the colors of the flag for both France and the United States. Then if we look more closely into these ribbon pieces, there’s more info to unearth. One ribbon has the words quote, Cleveland and Hendrix, end quote, stamped on it. This refers to the 1884 presidential campaign for Grover Cleveland and Thomas Hendricks, who were successfully elected as president and vice president respectively.
Ada: The other ribbon has the following phrase printed on it in French: La France, L’Amerique, La Liberte, Eclairant Le Monde, which translates into France, America, liberty, lighting up the world. Apologies for my terrible accent. Images of the French and American flags, as well as the Statue of Liberty are also printed on it. And this ribbon was actually a souvenir from the third Paris World’s Fair in 1878, which is a significant event because that was when the head of the Statue of Liberty was first made visible to the public. The head was a gift from France to the US, and then it was actually made or constructed by the same man who designed the Eiffel Tower in France. And so the Alameda Museum posits that these various elements in the quilt suggest that it was created by a young woman who might have migrated to the US and was eager to participate. And, I guess scrapbook together in her own way, the social and political fabric of American life.
Nicole: Interesting, I guess, I never thought that the head of the Statue of Liberty was a separate gift than the rest of it, but…
Ada: And it was bronze!
Nicole: And it was bronze back in the day. Not the subject of today’s topic. But you know, I’m always, I’m always thinking, Ada, I’m always thinking. Another notable quilt is one we’ve mentioned already, the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Around the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was at its peak, and it’s still going on to this very day. Many people who passed away due to AIDS related diseases or causes did not have funerals in their honor because of the stigma around the disease that their surviving family members wanted to avoid, or even because many funeral homes and cemeteries refused to handle their remains. The quilt project was conceived in 1985 by human rights activist, author and lecturer Cleve Jones. At the time, he learned that over 1000 San Franciscans had been lost to AIDS. He was in the middle of organizing a march to honor the lives of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, Moscone, both of whom were gay and had been assassinated in 1978. At the time of the march, Jones asked participants to write down names of friends and loved ones who had died of AIDS. Then after the march, he taped these placards to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building with the help of others. The wall of names looked like a patchwork quilt, which is what inspired Jones and his friends to plan a larger memorial.
Ada: I’m gonna throw in some San Francisco context here. So supervisors are like San Francisco city council people. So supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were assassinated at City Hall by another supervisor, Dan White, and the… I swear this has to do with present day, the public announcement of their assassinations was actually made by then supervisor Dianne Feinstein – might ring a bell – who as a result became mayor and then senator, and she was a senator until she passed away very recently. San Francisco City Hall is actually only a few blocks away from the federal building on Seventh and Mission. And so it kind of, it makes sense, if you look at those places on the map as places of gathering, and if you read any of the writing or listen to the stories of the people who lost friends and family to AIDS, that time, it paints a pretty vivid story of people getting sick, kind of, out of nowhere, being ostracized, because they discovered it was HIV and then passing away. And so if you haven’t, kind of, delved into that it’s a really interesting piece of history, recent history that I think still has impacts today. And so, yeah, I encourage you to read up on it and learn more about those stories. The, they’re very touching. And it’s very interesting as somebody who used to live there to kind of, it reframes like your view of the city is more than just a tech hub. But back to quilting. Back to quilting. The first panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt was created by Keith Jones in memory of his friend Marvin Feldman. And then in June 1987, Jones teamed up with several others to formally organize the foundation behind the quilt project, the NAMES Project Foundation, so NAMES is all caps, N-A-M-E-S. Public response to the quilt was immediate and not, not too long after, people in cities that were majorly affected by AIDS were sending their panels to NAMES, who were originally based in San Francisco, and then eventually moved base to Atlanta, Georgia. Each panel celebrates and remembers a person who passed away from AIDS. And what makes the panel even more significant than what it might seem like on paper is that at the time, surviving family members were reluctant, as Nicole mentioned, to hold funerals due to the stigma around AIDS. It, if it gives you any perspective, people just didn’t know how it spread and so there was a lot of stigma behind it and it obviously impacted the LGBTQ community, disproportionately. And so, those family members were afraid of publicizing how their loved ones had passed away. In addition, many funeral homes and cemeteries refused to handle the remains of people who had died from AIDS, or AIDS related causes. I’m getting a little choked up, just because it brings up my dad. And the fact that many funeral homes then, we’re talking in 2021, were just overwhelmed by COVID cases and those who passed away and have ridiculous, ridiculous rules about plexiglass. And so, I can relate. You know, we were able to have an in-person ceremony, funeral, whatever you want to call it, but it had to be outdoors. It was not held at the church that he was a congregation member of. or not was one of the pastors there. It was completely set up outside that, it was literally like two ten by ten tents with like, folding chairs outside, because people didn’t know how, you know, if you could still catch COVID from a dead body, which the answer is no. Or so far as I have researched and experienced the answer is no, but they still put them under plexiglass. So yeah, it brings up a lot of feels and a lot of memories. And it might feel like this history, I think, is a little bit removed from us. But I think it bears reminding that people have experienced similar in the recent past, and may still experience that in the future. Back to quilting, again… Each panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt is made of fabric, and it’s about three by six feet in size or 0.9 by 1.8 meters. And this size was specifically chosen by NAMES, because it’s the approximate size of a human grave. And people often decorate their fabric panels with clothing and other items associated with the deceased.
Nicole: I don’t want to go on without acknowledging what you said and what you shared. So, thank you, Ada, for, you know, sharing that extra bit of context. You know, it relates to what we’re talking about today. It relates to your life, which I care about, and I’m sorry that you know, I mean, that was such a difficult time and that it’s bringing up these types of memories. But thank you for sharing and giving us a little bit more perspective for those who have lost people in times like this, so… I just didn’t want to leave it unacknowledged, and then I also didn’t want to interrupt you. So, thank you, thank you for sharing that.
Nicole: Yeah. So this quilt, this quilt seems, you know, like a really beautiful memorial and the, the quilt itself. It doesn’t have padding or backing fabric, the, the panels, the substance are what’s most important, and they’re simply connected together or maintained as separate pieces. Now, the quilt itself was first displayed on October 11th, 1987 on the National Mall in front of the White House in Washington DC. This was during the ational march for lesbian and gay rights. 1,920 panels were divided into separate blocks consisting of eight larger panels. The space covered by them was larger than an American football field. And in 8, 1988, when the quilt returned to Washington DC, it was 8,288 panels large. Then, in 1992, when it returned yet again it had grown to 20,000 panels. And by the time 1996 rolled by, it had more than doubled to over 40,000 panels.
Ada: In 2012, for NAMES Project Foundation’s 25th anniversary, it was 48,000 plus panels large and to give you an idea of just how many panels that is, if you put them end to end, the panels would span more than 50 miles or just over 80 kilometers, and the whole quilt was too large to display on the Mall. So instead, portions of it were displayed in more than 50 venues around Washington DC. Despite its size and the sheer number of panels that there are, the quilt represents less than 20% of AIDS deaths in the US alone. Most recently, in 2020, the quilt was actually moved back from Atlanta to San Francisco, where the National AIDS Memorial is custodian to the quilt. The quilt is displayed on and off at various locations throughout the year, but if you’d like to see what it looks like or search for someone’s panel, you can do so using the interactive quilt link that we will have in our show notes.
Nicole: Next, we’re covering quilts that were made by Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Over 74,000 Rohingya refugees have relocated to Bangladesh since August 2017, in order to flee from persecution from the Rakhine state of Myanmar. The Rohingya people are a Muslim ethnic minority with their own language and culture. The majority of refugees are women and children. The Global Initiative for Justice, Truth and Reconciliation is a consortium of nine global organizations that work alongside communities in order to amplify the voices of survivors. The consortium began working in refugee camps when they saw a spike in reports of domestic violence. With this, and knowing that women and girls are disproportionately affected by the conflict, they paired up with the Asia Justice and Rights to work with the Rohingya women in the camp. They work on various aspects with the women there from self care to sharing stories and building solidarity among the survivors. In May 2020, an online exhibition was launched by the aforementioned organizations to share stories from Rohingya women survivors told through embroidered panels. The exhibition is titled, quote, quilt of memory and hope: story of Rohingya women survivors, end quote. Sewing was the common pastime for Rohingya women, so they were asked to sew a panel that would express their feelings, hopes, dreams, and memories.
Ada: These panels were brought together as three quilts that don’t have padding or fabric backing. And creating the panels enabled Rohingya women to talk about memories of home and what they hold dear, as well as their demands for justice. Many themes such as isolation, trauma, and the difficulty of having a livelihood show up in the beautiful embroidery. The quilts are an example of how art can unite, heal and provide opportunities to learn from each other. And many of the makers continue to live every day hoping for a better future for themselves, their children and their community. Another quilt project that was started in the summer of 2020, was called quilting for justice during COVID-19. Women in the camps have jumped headfirst into making and sewing stories about how their lives have been impacted by the pandemic and how they feel about it. There is a core group of about 80 women participating which has regularly grown past 100, which shows that there’s no shortage of women who are eager to tell their stories through quilts.
Nicole: If you’d like to see pictures of the embroidered panels from the first exhibition we mentioned, you can find a link to the gallery in our show notes. Each panel is accompanied by the name of the woman who made it and a short paragraph of their thoughts. The organization’s behind the exhibition also created a graphic novel that follows a fictional character, as she shares her story of fleeing Rakhine, and what life in the refugee camp is like for her. The story is also rooted in real life experiences of Rohingya women in the camps, and the images that accompany the story are taken from quilts produced by them. Again, see our show notes to download a free PDF of the graphic novel which is available in English, Burmese and Bangla.
Ada: The quilts of Gee’s Bend are also well known and still around to this day. Back in the 19th century, enslaved women from Boykin, Alabama began quilting for warmth using scraps of fabric and clothing. The area is better known as Gee’s bend, which the name comes from Joseph Gee, who was the landowner of the cotton plantation in this area established in 1816. Quilts kept enslaved women and their families warm in the unheated shacks that they lived in which lacked running water, telephones or electricity. And despite their limited resources, which was compounded by the fact that where they lived was relatively isolated, their quilts had a distinctive style. The quilts these women created may have been influenced by patterned Native American and indigenous or African textiles and they were geometrically simple with a minimalist quality. But many sources that we found online describe these quilts as quote, lively and having a quote, improvised style.
Nicole: Patterns and piecing styles were passed on generations usually from mother to daughter. These persisted through slavery, the antebellum South and the Jim Crow era. In the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement, the women in the community of Gee’s Bend started selling their quilts. This was done so that they could generate income for their families and gain economic independence. Around the same time, a workers’ cooperative called the Freedom Quilting Bee was established and Rehobeth, Alabama which was near Gee’s Bend. They also started selling quilts for income. Many of the Freedom Quilting Bee members were from Gee’s Bend.
Ada: Over time, the quilters of Gee’s Bend gained recognition for their freeform and seemingly improvisational designs and their unique quilts. Eventually, many have ended up in museums all around the US and even today, you might be able to catch an exhibition in person, if you want to see a Gee’s Bend quilt up close. These quilts gained so much traction that in 2016, the US Postal Service issued 10 commemorative stamps that featured images of those quilts. And their quilts are still being sold to this day. Every quilt as you can imagine, is unique and individually produced. So make sure to check out the show notes to visit the resources links that we will have in there to take a look at some of these quilts yourself, if you can’t make it to a museum or your post office have run out of those quilt stamps.
Nicole: I don’t know why, it just put a big smile on my face that the post office was like, let’s issue a commemorative stamp so like… I love that, for some reason.
Ada: The things that they issue commemorative stamps for… Are so… Who makes those decisions? I wanna know!
Nicole: You know what, I want to make those decisions, how do I get that job?
Ada: Hahaha. You, too, could put Buzz Lightyear on a stamp and then a flower next to it.
Nicole: They’d all be Bichon Frises. Hahaha, sorry, off topic again. Such like, a rich topic.
Nicole: Have you gotten your hands on our Asian Sewist Collective labels? They make the perfect gift during this holiday season for your sewing friends and fam. And of course, for you. Our original collection features sayings from previous podcast episodes like, “This was a panic sew,” and our newest collection is made for the sustainably-minded sewist. If you’re not a bedsheet snob, this collection is for you. To purchase, please go to ko-fi.com/asiansewistcollective. Your purchase goes toward helping this all-volunteer podcast keep going by helping with things like editing, transcripts and publishing. Your support is greatly appreciated.
Nicole: Let’s move to covering quilts and the Underground Railroad. Please note that this is almost certainly a myth, but legend dictates that safe houses along the Underground Railroad in the United States would often be indicated by a quilt hanging from a clothesline or a window. So during the 1800s, enslaved people who sought freedom and ran away from their owners would follow secret routes known as the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad would either lead them north towards free states and Canada, or south to Mexico. The railroad had quote conductors who would help the folks running away and were made up of free Black people, white people, Native Americans and formerly enslaved people. The conductors did all sorts of things to help out. They passed messages, provided clothing and food and medicine to those passing by and even taught some enslaved people on the run how to read or write. You may have heard of Harriet Tubman, the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. She herself was a former enslaved person who risked her freedom and returned to the south repeatedly to lead others to safety and freedom.
Ada: Put her on the money.
Ada: Seriously, put her on the money, what do the old white dudes have to say for what they did? Anyways, back to the legend itself. It was said that each quilt would have particular shapes and motifs sewn into it, which formed a code, and enslaved people who were on the run would be able to read the code in the quilt and then understand what immediate dangers faced them nearby or where to head next. Some examples of the motifs include a bowtie, which meant that you needed to disguise yourself by dressing like you were from a higher social status, a bear paw, which meant that you could find food and water if you followed animal trails through the mountains, and a log cabin, which meant you could seek shelter now, since people in your vicinity were safe to interact with. At this point, you’re probably wondering, why the heck are we talking about these quilts when they probably never existed? And we do have a good reason why, because we’re just providing you with some context to start.
Nicole: Prior to 1999, these quilt codes were unheard of, even by the Black quilting community. Then,in 1999, two individuals named Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond G. Dilbert published a book titled Hidden in Plain View: a Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. This book was a hit and was extensively covered by different major news outlets. In fact, the book was so popular, the codes it mentioned ended up being incorporated into school curricula. However, there are no actual sources available to back up what was written in the book. Historians point out that many of the quilt patterns used as codes likely did not exist during the height of the Underground Railroad, which was during 1850 to 1860.
Ada: Some of these patterns included the Drunkard’s Path, which said you should move in a zigzag pattern in case you were being stalked by hounds. The Drunkard’s Path is a quilting block which looks like a quarter circle inside a square and it can be traced back to ancient Egypt but was relatively unknown in the US until much later in the 19th century. Another pattern that may not have been around at the time is the Double Wedding Ring, which meant it was safe to remove your chains and shackles. The Double Wedding Ring design in a quilt is made up of separate blocks that when sewn together look like several circles or rings overlapping each other, and this pattern wasn’t popular in the US until the 1920s, in the late 1920s.
Nicole: Despite the quilt code being a myth, there is a woman who designs quilts inspired by it. Sharon Tindall is a black quilter and educator who is based in Virginia. Tindall’s quilts enable her to sustain a conversation about the people who fought against slavery by running and encouraging others to do the same. They give her a means to talk about this history. Her quilts are made from a large variety of materials to fully convey all components of her narrative compositions. She uses cotton, raw dupioni silk, Swarovski crystals, natural fibers, Malian mud cloth and even glitter.
Ada: One notable quilt is called The Johnson House named after the actual Johnson House which was a station on the Underground Railroad. Today it is a National Historic Site in Philadelphia and the venue has some of her other quilts also on display. The Johnson House quilt depicts the Johnson House at night under a crescent moon and it sits on a grassy field with a dirt path leading to it. The sky is an assortment of blues with a stream of orange running through it and this orange represents life and light according to Tindall. She says that people on the run could feel or sense light as they struggled to get to freedom.
Nicole: Another one of her quilts makes use of a historical quilt block called Flying Geese, which is made up of three triangles connected together so that it looks like a rectangle with a triangle inside of it. Her quilt depicts these geese flying in the sky, and the code is in her words quote: follow the geese flying north; if the sky isn’t clear, look for or listen to the geese flying north in the spring, end quote. Again, though don’t just take our word for it. You know what I’m gonna say, go to the show notes to see the quilts for yourself. And now the last set of popular quilts we will cover today, and we cannot end an episode without at least mentioning them once, are the quilts that have been created by fiber artist Bisa Butler.
Ada: Bisa’s been on Stitch Please – love her and Stitch Please host and friend of the pod, Lisa Woolfork. Of course, she also just celebrated her 200th episode with Bisa on the podcast so give that a listen. And I remember actually seeing Bisa’s impressive quilt of Chadwick Boseman make the rounds on Instagram back in 2021. For those of you who aren’t on the Internet, Chadwick Boseman was the actor who was most known for his role as the superhero Black Panther in the Marvel movies, and he passed away from complications due to colon cancer in 2020, and Butler created that quilt as a tribute to him. For lack of a better way to describe her work, her quilts basically look like a painting, but they’re actually made out of fabric with some of the fabric containing embellishments of her own. There’s no actual painting involved. She took the humble technique of quilting and basically elevated it to high art, and this is done by strategically selecting and placing fibres in a way to create depth and lighting from the shadows in her quilts.
Nicole: I greatly regret not seeing her exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago when she was there.. I think it was summer of 2021 and I actually used to work right by there and I’m just kicking myself, kicking myself. But, I know that our podcast member, our Collective member Aarti, she was in town and I remember having lunch but I couldn’t stay, and she went in, she went inside and I have regrets, but everything just looks so beautiful and incredible, like… Her quilts aim to tell stories that may have been forgotten over time and focus on folks of African descent. She uses Kente cloth, African wax print fabrics and prints from South Africa in her quilts so that her subjects are quote, adorned with and made up of the cloth of our ancestors, end quote. Kente cloth hails from Ghana, it is made up of hand woven cloth with strips of silk and cotton which forms a vibrant fabric with distinctly colored stripes and shapes. African wax printed fabric is cloth that is drawn on with wax prior to dyeing so that the wax parts resist the dye and form a pattern on the fabric. If you’d like to learn more about the wax, wax resist technique, please check out our past episode on batik. Batik is a fabric hailing from Indonesia that is dyed using the same technique. It’s episode 24 and you can find it using the podcast player you’re listening to this episode on right now.
Ada: Butler’s pieces make heavy use of color as symbolism and a good example of this is her piece titled I Go to Prepare a Place For You, which is a portrait of Harriet Tubman sitting in a chair. In the quilt, Harriet Tubman’s skirt is depicted using gold, orange and green fabrics and this is to celebrate her African heritage. Then, cool blue and fiery red fabrics are used to depict her skin, and this captures her need to hide contrasting against her tenacity and courage. Butler steers away from using traditional colors to depict skin tone of black subjects in her quilts and instead prefers to use a variety of jewel tones.
Nicole: For those who are curious, an article we found in our research for this episode has some photos of the process in which Bisa creates her quilts. She starts off by finding a photograph of the subject, and then spends some time studying it so she can understand who they really are or were, since some of these themes show up in her final product. Once she’s happy with the image, she enlarges it and prints it out onto photo paper so she can outline key shapes with a marker. Then comes the fun part. She selects fabrics from her collection of fabric and scraps. She cuts out shapes, pins and layers the fabric until an image is formed. And then, when she’s happy with the resulting quilt top, it gets loaded onto her quilting machine and stitched together with batting and backing fabric.
Ada: Bisa’s work is actively on display at different museums, but if you want to see these beautiful creations for yourself, the links are again in our show notes where we have lots of photos of her many quilts.
Nicole: And per usual, this episode is running quite long, so I think we’re good at stopping at this point, we’ve covered so much. This concludes our two part series looking at the art of quilting, while journeying through time. And I’ve said this many times over the course of this podcast run, but these two episodes have been so chock full of information, like, new information for me to learn, absorb, and I loved every single minute of it.
Ada: We hope you enjoyed part one and part two. And if you’re not a quilter, maybe we can inspire you to get into the craft or give it a try. As you can see, you don’t have to just make a bed covering for warmth or a baby quilt as a gift in my case, if that’s not your thing. You can make wall hangings, bags, floor covers and more, or just a decorative piece if we’re being honest. If there’s anything our deep dive into notable quilts today has shown, it’s that there isn’t a set purpose behind a quilt, you do you.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.