Women in the World: Quilts, Part One

By Joanna Francis I wouldn’t really call myself a quilter. More of a collector of fabrics, a lover of pattern and colour and an admirer of the art of quilting. There’s something about it that I find fascinating. Perhaps it’s the ability of quilts to hold and tell a story, to be a part of a continuing history. Perhaps it’s the potential for so much individual expression. Perhaps it’s just that they’re so beautiful to look at, and at the same time, so damn cosy to snuggle under!

It probably started as a youngster while watching my mother hand quilting by the light of the evening lamp. And it has grown and developed as I have gotten older and seen the quilting of different cultures, started my own little collection, learnt a little of their history and now, started making my own.

My passion really took off when I was living and working in Afghanistan. I remember visiting a family in a small village in the middle of winter - freezing, absolutely freezing and there was no electricity. To keep warm, the family had a low and wide table under which they put a bucket of hot coals, and over the table was a huge quilt. Everyone, myself included, sat on the floor around the table, with the quilt covering our lap, and keeping in the heat from the coals to warm our bodies. It was just about the most awesome thing I’d ever experienced. From there, I went to Pakistan and in the back of a carpet shop, I discovered the mother load - shelves of antique handmade quilts. I just about had a heart attack. I spent hours looking and feeling, and listening to the stories, and then painstakingly chose the ones I would take home. If you ask me that old chestnut “What would you take with you in a house fire?”, those Pakistani quilts are quite high up on the list.

Since then, I’ve tried to find out more about them, with limited success. But they are similar to the Kantha or Gudari quilts of Bangladesh and India, which are made using old saris and quilted with a striking running stitch. These quilts are made by women who are still using traditional techniques, including wood block printing and hand dyeing of fabrics. They are techniques that have been used for hundreds if not thousands of years, and are being cherished and brought to a new audience today thanks to women such as Australian, Sally Campbell. 

Women such as Sally are keeping these ancient crafts alive and supporting the women who make them, while celebrating the art and introducing them to a new and appreciative market.

I love that such ancient methods of creating, initially intended for purely practical purposes had such a beauty to them that is recognized today and carried on into new generations. Just what quilts are good for.

Joanna Francis spends most of her time hanging out with her one year 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