Friday, May 25, 2018

Quilting as Political Action: The Social Justice Sewing Academy

In a previous post I argued for the need of a critical awareness about narratives of comfort and healing that regularly accompany quilts, particularly those displayed or exchanged in public settings. Today I’d like to showcase an organization that uses quilts and quilting as a form of political action that empowers the maker and provides very clear political commentary. The Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) was founded in 2016 by Harvard graduate Sara Trail. It aims to allow youths to “explore, discuss and express modes of oppression, lived experiences and creativity” through the medium of quilts and quiltmaking (SJSA website). The curriculum of the six weeks summer program or shorter workshops “draws on concepts taught in history, ethnic studies, education and sociology” as a means to make students “aware of systemic injustices” and their historic legacies, while at the same time equipping them with the ability to become active participants of social change (SJSA website). Materials in the workshop section is aimed at raising “student’s [sic] level of critical consciousness” and includes “readings from Angela Davis, bell hooks, Kimberly Crenshaw, Toni Morrison, Patricia Hill Collins, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde and others” (Hazlewood). The materials selected hope to counter American public schools’ standard history curriculum which, according to Trail, “is not inclusive, ostracizing hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown people whose history lies outside of the dominant American narrative” and does not acknowledge “today’s social, educational and economic inequality as remnants of that history” (qtd. in Britex). Like many African-American cultural critics - for example bell hooks, Alice Walker and Michelle Wallace - Trail implies that a reclaiming of black history and an understanding of how it was and is being shaped through Western Eurocentric discourses, is imperative to social justice. The second part of the workshop then introduces students to sewing, showing them how to cut fabric, use a sewing machine and create appliqué quilt blocks expressive of social justice issues important to the teenagers (Hazlewood). Students are free in the design of their blocks and only receive technical guidance. The finished blocks are then mailed to volunteers across the US that embroider and embellish them before they are sewn together into a quilt top.


For Trail, fibre is an appropriate medium through which to address social justice issues not only because of its deep connection with African-American history (see Macdowell), but also because of its etymological links to concepts of weaving and storytelling which connect people and tie them together. Stories, in this context, are seen as an essential part of social justice activism, because they can be an important tool in getting people hooked to an issue on an affective as well as a structural level. Hosting many workshops in different parts of the US, Trail herself was struck by how students’ experiences differ regionally (Hazlewood). Concerns around social justice for teenagers in private schools are more likely to centre on issues such as climate change or ending animal abuse. Youths in areas like Oakland and Chicago, however, were concerned with police and gang violence as well as drug abuse because they had been directly affected by them in their immediate environment (Hazlewood). Through sending the blocks across the country to be finished off by volunteers, people for whom social justice is “a far more ‘removed’ concept / theory/ issue” as opposed to those for whom it is a “lived reality” come into direct contact with these experiences (qtd. in Hazlewood). In addition, SJSA’s Instagram feed and website offer everyone a glimpse of the many creations as do the ever increasing number of local exhibitions. Eleven quilts from SJSA were even featured at this year’s Quiltcon, the annual international quilt show of the Modern Quilt Guild in Pasadena, California. These quilts very explicitly addressed topics like Black Lives Matter, immigration reform, sexual assault, and gun violence, hoping to “foster dialogue” among viewers (SJSA website). In this sense, the quilt blocks and finished quilts can be the starting point for an affective investment in a cause as they help orient people towards certain affects connected with the lived experience of others. As such, the quilts also consciously play with generic perceptions of quilts as symbols of comfort and love as they openly engage with discrimination, racism and sexism.

I am suspicious of progressive narratives that connect social change to a radical “rupture of consciousness” which supposedly leads to a rethinking of personal and collective politics and a commitment to social change (Pedwell 2011). Indeed, Trail’s hope of mobilizing people into activists on the basis of having them connect on an emotional level with the lived experience of a marginalized people, echoes this problematic narratives to a certain extent. However, the time consuming process of making a quilt also points to the importance of prolonged practices in social justice movements. I believe there is value in conceptualizing routine practices grounded in the everyday as a way to manifest a consciousness or awareness which can lead to active political engagement and eventually social change because, as T.V. Reed states, “surrounding the drama of social change there takes place much undramatic day-to-day activity that alone can consolidate the work of movements' ‘ritual public displays’” (2005: xix). Ultimately, the SJSA hopes to “create conscious art activists who will use their creativity to change their world one stitch at a time” as opposed to inducing an immediate rupture of consciousness (SJSA website). This means that participants (and also viewers), hopefully, reflect not only on how they are personally affected by social injustice, but also become leaders and organizers in their communities that actively work to address and change these issues (SJSA website). As such, quilts can participate in social justice movements through moments of disruption as well as emotional attachment as they move from the personal sphere of the home into the public as part of quilt shows and gallery exhibitions, through sharing images of them online, and through forms of direct action. The textual hereby shapes those encounters between people and material objects and can cause disorientation through its design, background story or the context in which it is created and placed. As quilts are usually connected to comfort, warmth and familiarity, expressive quilts like the community quilts of the Social Justice Sewing Academy disorient through their outright confrontation with questions of gender, race and identity and how these categories are implicated in African-Americans’ lived experience and political struggle.


Britex Fabrics. “Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) Quilts Made with Fabric from Britex.“ 18 July 2017. Web. 24 August 2017.

Hazlewood, Sandi. “Social Justice Sewing Academy {Make a Difference}.” Crafty Planner.  April 2017. Web. 24 August 2017.

Macdowell, Marsha. Ed. African American Quiltmaking in Michigan. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1997.

Pedwell, Carolyn. “Transforming Habit: Revolution, Routine and Social Change.” Cultural Studies 31.1 (2011): 32-120.

Reed, Thomas Vernon. The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Ordinary Stitches

The everyday is notoriously ubiquitous. It’s everything and nothing. It may refer simply to the ordinary elements of our daily existence, but in a manner that is also “strangely elusive, resists our understanding and escapes our grasp” (Felski 1999: 15). At the same time, it is also the realm in which the extraordinary takes place and the backdrop against which we define the latter (Highmore 2002: 16; Stewart 2007). For me, it's exactly this ambiguous nature of the everyday that makes it such an interesting and promising concept and. My research into practices of needlework as a form of politics is driven by my observation that needlework is regularly placed within some kind of binary, for example: subversive feminist acts versus the affirmation of conservative notions of femininity; art versus craft; alternative modes of production versus mass produced textiles. While the arguments that place the practice and the finished object in any of those categories are certainly laudable in their own right, I don't find them useful as a means to grasp the century-old, multi-faceted and heavily gendered practice of making needleworks. Placing it into any sort of binary, though potentially useful in certain analytical contexts, is ultimately reductive. Such an approach does not acknowledge that a practice firmly grounded within the everyday signifies as ambivalently as the space in which it is performed and in which the finished objects may be displayed.  

Indeed, sewing machines, piles of fabric and unfinished projects, individual balls of yarn and knitting needles often become part of the materiality of the homespace and the everyday. One of my sewing mentors used to always sew on her kitchen table, which meant that all her sewing materials had to be cleared out of the way before she and her husband could sit down to eat. It also resulted in a ruined fabric cutting board that she accidently used as a trivet for a hot pot. Once, I actually ended up with loose threads in my bowl of soup because I was eating in between finishing up a quilt top and, somehow, threads caught on my clothing found their way into my food. For the average maker, the division between the above mentioned binaries is not as clear cut as some scholarship or media coverage may suggest. What starts out as a hobby may lead to a small business selling handmade products at local craft fairs or on online platforms like Etsy. Others progress from reproducing commercial patterns to designing their own pieces which become included in art shows while still continuing to use some of the many readily available patterns. Similarly, many contemporary practitioners of needlework are very aware of its historical connections to femininity and might consciously play with them in their own practice.

I'm interested in how needlework as a practice becomes part of the phenomenological experience of the everyday as “a life lived on the level of surging affects, impacts suffered or barely avoided” (Stewart 2007: 9). The materiality of the practice and the objects it involves like fabric, yarn, needles and pins are hereby as important as “the immaterial material, [that is], affect, emotion and the senses” (Highmore 2011: 140). As such, the process of making is as important as the end product. It becomes part of the rhythm of the everyday as one habitually picks up the crochet while watching the evening news. Likewise, it resembles an ordinary opportunity to pause, reflect and realign as well as to consciously inhabit a space. 

Felski, R., 1999. The Invention of Everyday Life. New Formations, 39, pp.13–31.
Highmore, B., 2002. Everyday life and cultural theory : an introduction, London: Routledge.
---. 2011. Ordinary Lives - Studies in the Everyday, Oxon and New York: Routledge.
Stewart, K., 2007. Ordinary Affects, Durham, N.C. & London: Duke University Press. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Comfort(s) for Whom?

Last summer I interviewed the brilliant Sara Trail from the Social Justice Sewing Academy for my PhD thesis. Her initiative delivers workshops to youths "to empower people to use their experiences and creativity to sew their worlds and how they see problems, and to create opportunities for growth and change." She mentioned that in a recent keynote for a quilters' conference she explored the context in which people resort to quilting as a means to tackle social issues. Sara noticed that, more often than not, quilting is a reactionary practice. Rather than employing it as a form of radical direct action to address social injustices, quilting is what many turn to after catastrophe has struck. Such instances include quilts as part of the relief effort for Hurricane Katrina survivors in 2005 and for hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017. The Missouri Star Quilt Company, a large retailer for quilting fabrics and notions with a massive online following, for example, managed to collect over 3000 quilts to distribute to survivors in the Houston area. Likewise, in 2016, the mass-shooting in an Orlando nightclub known for its LGBTQ+ customer base sparked the Orlando Modern Quilt Guild to commission heart themed quilts in rainbow colors to give to victims' families and to survivors. The narratives surrounding such charity drives are centred around "creating a tangible object of comfort" for those affected by tragedy and loss. Or, as one user on Missouri Star Quilt's Instagram feed puts it: "Wrapping oneself in a quilt is like being wrapped in a hug" - the quilts function as a symbols of love and support from strangers. In this contexts, it comes as no surprised, that people, in fact, used to call quilts "comforts."

Copyright CC BY 2.0

And while these donations are certainly appreciated by those afflicted, Sara makes a valuable point by asking who made them and from what social position this maker speaks. According to a study by sociologist Marybeth C. Stalp (2007), the majority of quilters in the US are white, middle-age and middle-class. These quilters regularly conceptualize their creative activity as a form of carework for their families and the larger community who are usually the beneficiaries of their quiltmaking. For Stalp, this carework is heavily gendered and expressive of women's role as the nurturing and loving carer of the family. It is because of the framework of carework that, according to Stalp, the women can justify spending time away from their other duties and engage in a creative activity they enjoy. Showing love and sympathy for those afflicted becomes a similar form of carework manifested in the physical quilts. Clearly, some of the recipients receive and appreciate the quilts as such tokens of love and support. For example, one user of the above mentioned Instagram feed posted: "I'm from Houston. Thank you for loving us!" 

However, such outpours of love - as nice and well-intended as they certainly may be - are often nothing more than just that: a showcase of one's compassion that does not require any engagement with the context of the catastrophe and the wider social and political structures that make certain groups more vulnerable than others. Making a quilt for a Hurricane Katrina survivor from the safety and comfort of one's own home serves as a means to demonstrate empathy and compasssion without being moved to take any action beyond acknowledging that catastrophe has struck some (but luckily not others). As Jamelle Bouie argues, there exists a sort of "capusule summary of Katrina and its place in national memory" that is built on the assumption of a united America in which all citizens experience disaster in similar ways. As such, "white Americans saw the storm and its aftermath as a case of bad luck and unprecedented incompetence" not related to questions of race or class. This narrative, however, ignores how black Americans were disproportionately affected by the storm and its aftermath. Indeed, "in a city defined by decades of poverty, segregation, and deep disenfranchisement, poor and working-class blacks (including the elderly, and children) would largely shoulder the burden of the storm." In a way, making and donating a quilt to survivors as a demonstration of sympathy and love serves as a comfortable means to "help" others without facing the larger issues at stake. The quilts provides comfort not only to the recipient, but also to the maker. 

This post will be followed by one which explores how quilts can be used as a form of direct political action.