Before I visited Festival of Quilts earlier this year, I was thinking about another world where something other than quilts were on display in a huge, annual competition. I was inspired by Fashion Fictions which Dr Amy Twigger Holroyd introduced in Making Meaning Live where alternative versions of the world are explored where there are restrictions on clothing or fabric production as a way of creatively imagining ways to address over-production and over-consumption.
First of all I pondered a world where it wasn’t possible to buy new fabric to cut up and sew it back together into patchwork… where we had to use scraps to make patchwork for practical purposes if cloth wasn’t so over-abundant and little-valued like it is here and now.
I was also thinking about alternative cloth / sewn things that might have become popular to make other than quilts. Why have quilts become the thing we make for pleasure, creativity or retail? What if patchwork had never grown into the art form it is now? What other large-scale textiles might there be on display? Flags? Sails? Banners? Unique handmade garments?
That led me down a route of thinking about protest banners and political or social banners which were so important in the 19th century and how they are such a small part of our textile world now compared to quilts. Banners were an extraordinary art form in the 19th and early 20th century and an important means for women to use their skills and creativity to further a cause or social issue or promote a sense of belonging for a community. It’s something I keep coming back to myself for my own work – and I’ve started in a miniature way with my Protest Pincushion, a tiny sort of banner! (This was not in the Festival of Quilts because it’s too small and it’s not a quilt.)
Community quilts and group textile project, sometimes with a political or social message, were such a big thing during the pandemic and this demonstrated just how powerful and meaningful collective message-making. I found it so interesting to explore this in the Textiles in Lockdown podcast which I’ve republished as Making Meaning episode 18.
Thinking about this has made me appreciate group quilts and projects more and I’m really interested in exploring what is out there in the world of textile with a message. I visited the banners exhibition in the Textile Biennial in 2019 which was really amazing but it makes me sad and frustrated that banners aren’t as well-explored art form as quilts and there isn’t a place for banners to be shown annually, to be awarded prizes and publicity and where we can come together to make textiles that have a positive impact and use resources consciously.
So let’s imagine a fictional world where using precious textile resources was only acceptable when the finished piece had to say something. It had to be activist, community-made or share a message. Imagine those halls of the NEC full of protest banners or social group banners proclaiming their important social message. There is a competition for the best banner in a number of categories such as activism, community groups, human rights, image-based, text-based, political… and then I thought why aren’t they the groupings that quilts are entered into now? Why isn’t there a ‘statement’ category at Festival of Quilts? I really think there should be.
So with all these thoughts in mind, I visited the Festival of Quilts with the intention of seeing just how many pieces in the open competition had an obvious political, social, personal or community message. I know there will be some I didn’t see and I’m sure there were plenty of others that had a message but it wasn’t visually immediately obvious and was maybe more apparent in the artist statements in the catalogue, but I didn’t have one and very much didn’t have time to read them all.
I was so delighted to find so many with a message ranging from very subtle commentary within quilts to pieces overtly political or with a powerful, meaningful statement. I expected to find pieces made by groups with a strong meaning or message and I was amply rewarded. Quilts have a great history of being used by groups to come together and share emotions or to make a point or a message, partly because of their ideal format for individuals to make a piece which is then assembled into a whole. It really is a great vehicle for community practice and one which I have used myself many times.
The Grenfell Memorial Quilts were by far the most impactful pieces at the show, partly due to the size of them but mainly due to the impact and meaning behind them. I can’t help feeling though that they didn’t get the space, prominence or display impact they deserved, maybe because they are wonky and imperfect and very much community-made which is always a contrast to the perfection of competition quilts. There’s a place for both of course. I would LOVE to see community arts practice given the stage it really deserves in galleries and in society but that’s probably another blog post / life’s work.
The Sophie Hayes Foundation was a brilliant example of this kind of work done really well, and clearly with a bigger budget and structure behind it than the grassroots Grenfell Quilts. These really combined powerful messages, excellent craftsmanship and really good marketing. I don’t mean that I thought they were in any way ‘better’ than the Grenfell quilts, they are just differently produced and presented.
I really enjoyed hunting out pieces with a political, personal or social commentary within the competition quilts. As this isn’t a category of quilts to enter, they were dotted around and I am sure I missed lots. The group quilts category is a good place to look for statement pieces, there are still some covid-related pieces and I am sure I will have missed many of these shown last year when I didn’t attend. There are a number of them in Textiles in Lockdown and I know there are hundreds of them around. What fantastic records of life experience during 2020 they are.
Here are some of the pieces I spotted.
I would love to hear from makers of these or other quilts or textiles with a message. Where do you show and share your work? What’s the place for this kind of impactful textile? How would you change the textile world to allow more space for stitch with something to say?
2 thoughts on “Stitch with something to say”
Hi Ruth, YES to all of that!
I’ve been making quite a few things over the last few years with words/statements on … some happen to be quilts, others are [I’m not sure what], but all are textiles, and whilst I find it cathartic to stitch them, it is tricky to know what to do with them.
Would be so interesting to see an exhibition dedicated to this type of work – I would love to see not just the message, but the expression, the way the words are designed, and shaped and stitched – is this also calligraphy when stitched?
And I quite agree with you about the Grenfell Memorial Quilts – to my great shame, I missed them entirely on my first walk-through – they really should have been in a dedicated space, and after I did find them, I would have appreciated a place for quiet reflection, rather than being immersed in the hubbub on a busy throughway.
And yes, the Sophie Hayes Foundation space was spot on, much more appropriate.
I’ve got so many stitched-word projects in my head that have “quite a lot to say for themselves”, it’s tricky to know where to start!
Thanks Gwen. I think I need to make it happen! I haven’t done a lot of this kind of work yet but it is brewing 🙂