Women in the World: Quilts, Part Two

By Joanna Francis This month, we continue to have a little squiz at some of the various quilts of the world and examine how they have evolved over time. I mentioned in the last post that one of the things that attracted me to quilting was their ability to tell a story and for a quilt to hold a person or a family’s history and pass it on from one generation to the next.

This quality is what has made quilting such a universal and popular art form and one which has become an inherent part of many communities. North America has a great tradition of quilting, some that you may be aware of such as the Amish quilts dating back from the 1870s and the Gee’s Bend quilts which continue to be made today.

Women from Amish communities used simple yet intricate and structured designs, making the most of offcuts of fabrics and meticulous hand stitching to create something useful as well as beautiful, in keeping with their community’s beliefs of hard work, tradition and self sufficiency. These quilts have become more intricate and bold as years have gone on and have become popular in other parts of the country and indeed the world.

In contrast the Gee’s Bend quilts, named after the town in Alabama in which they are made by African American women, use more improvised designs and simple geometrics and make use of old materials such as worn out clothes and cloth sacks.

In both cases, what has become a decorative art began by simple necessity – keeping families warm in places where there was no electricity and few financial resources. In both cases also, the skills necessary to create the quilts were passed from mother to daughter and from one generation to the next and in this way are carried on today.

While the traditional styles of quilting, similar to the Amish quilts, continue alive and well today, the Gee’s Bend style of bold and modern innovation is certainly creating new interest in this old art form and is more inspiring to many, myself included. I love that ancient techniques and skills are being refreshed and brought to a new audience .

Moving back towards the east again, another example of this renewal can be found in the quilts of Yoshiko Jinzenji, a Japanese artist and master quilter who moves between her homes in Japan and Bali. What’s interesting about Yoshiko’s quilts is not only that they are incredibly intricate and beautiful, but that they seem quite organic and ‘pure’ on the surface, utilising her own hand dyed fabrics, but yet they incorporate the very un-traditional usage of synthetics and machine sewing.

She uses those materials around her in order to be reborn in new creations.

I know that quilting can sometimes seem old fashioned and stuffy, but I love that looking at examples of what others are doing around the world can reveal that actually, it's quite possible to turn tradition into something new, to improvise and use materials that are unusual and unexpected and to create original pieces of art that are both functional and beautiful. There are so many examples of people both locally and around the world making refreshing quilts. Have a search, be inspired, and why not try some yourself...

Joanna Francis spends most of her time hanging out with her 18 month old son. But she also works for a children’s foundation and has recently started her own little business making baby quilts. It goes without saying that her house is a mess. In the past, Joanna has worked as an aid worker in several developing countries, and is passionate about the rights of women and children. You can visit her and her blog at www.miettehandmade.com