Quilting together at a distance

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Puncturing fabric with a needle and thread is oddly satisfying. Breathing regulates as concentration becomes focused on where to push the needle through next. Worries momentarily slip away as mindfulness takes over. It is a slow, repetitive process that at its conclusion, yields a functional item or an object made solely for aesthetic enjoyment. Often created in close-knit groups, historical images of quilting bees reveal men, women and children sitting around kitchen tables industriously piecing together blocks of fabric.

Before Covid-19, it would have been hard to imagine this quaint domestic activity being off limits. Fortuitously, quilting can be done by the individual as well as the group. From the North American quilts made by the Amish to the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt – started in the mid 1980s and now the largest community folk art project in the world – the process of stitching a single piece of fabric destined for a larger whole can provide a sense of togetherness, even when we feel isolated and alone.

Reacting to Covid-19 social distancing, large scale quilting projects have become the online community project of choice. Using the square grid layout of Instagram to build a virtual quilt, artists Kate Just and Tal Fitzpatrick have started the Covid19 Global Quilt by asking participants to illustrate their Covid-19 experience through craft. “At a time when most of us have been advised not to touch anyone or anything, we wanted to create a project allowing people to feel like they’re joining a quilting bee or knitting circle,” says Fitzpatrick.

Covid19 Global Quilt contributions. Top L-R: Celia Uribe, Natalie Skinner, TYGERMYLK. Middle L-R: Filomena Coppola, Maggie Hensel-Brown, Uta P. Bekaia. Bottom L-R: Loula Katsikapis, Lillis Taylor, Elizabeth Banfield.

Regular uploading of new images has led to the Covid19 Global Quilt quickly gaining traction. And participants hail from local and international locations, providing a global snapshot of shared experience. For many, crafting is a therapeutic activity especially beneficial during times of crisis.

“Methodically looping stitches one after another offers us a sense of control and agency over one small thing, which is a lot right now,” Fitzpatrick admits.

Just prior to Covid-19 changing the way we interact with others, Sydney-based artist Nell had been making plans to travel to New Zealand to participate in a month-long residency at the Colin McCahon House. Originally, Nell had proposed to make a quilt honouring Anne McCahon, the artist wife of Colin, with patchwork pieces constructed during a series of public workshops.

From her home in Sydney, Nell has since reimagined the NELL ANNE Quilt project to accommodate social distancing and restrictions on air travel. Participants are now contributing from their homes, embroidering a piece of recycled fabric with the name of a woman who has special meaning to them. “I really wanted to give people a space to think,” reveals Nell. “While stitching, you might recall a memory you hadn’t thought of in a while. That connection is precious.”

Olyvia Hong, Sook Hee, for the NELL ANNE quilt project.

Once concluded, the pieces will be joined together and made into two quilts full of women’s names. “My projected ideal is to be able to go to McCahon House when lockdown is over, have all the pieces together and invite people to come and help sew them together,” Nell says. “It won’t be done commercially. It is community to the end.”

Like the NELL ANNE Quilt, quilts can be unique objects of remembrance, containing special fabric or embellishments relating to a particular person or experience. Using memory as a core feature in Memorial Flag, artist Lleah Smith is taking a different approach to quilt making by supplying her contributors with pre-made kits containing purple and yellow fabric.

Asked to reflect on loss in any way they choose, contributors are required to trace a cloud in the sky above where they are situated, using the yellow fabric to construct the shape before stitching it onto the purple. Inspired by Vik Muniz’s Diaspora Cloud2017 – a single flag featuring a white cloud on a blue background, produced for the Creative Times project Pledges of Allegiance – the outcome of Smith’s flag will reflect the idea that despite physical distance, we all exist communally under the same sky.

“Clouds defy borders, they roam and run freely,” says Smith. “As countries are in lockdown and borders closed, it felt important to recognise that these are imaginary lines. I want to encourage people to look outside their window at a world still living, breathing and changing around them.” With postal limitations adding long delays to kits reaching their destinations, Smith remains flexible with her timeline, hoping to eventually collate images from Memorial Flag into a book.

A living record of time, place and the people who made it, a quilt provides comfort in moments of need – in all its varied forms. Recalling the construction methods of Louise Bourgeois, Nell sums up the quilting process by reflecting on the cathartic and comforting nature of making something by hand.

“Louise used to say that when she was angry she used to cut things up, and when she was feeling good she would sew things together.

To feel good is about bringing things together, and with quilting you’re bringing a story together. History and personal experiences can be woven together. A quilt is like an anthology.”

Briony Downes