Passing on History in Stitches
During the 1880s, a luscious and ornamental style of needlework swept the country. Within a very short time, homes across the country were filled with throws and quilts showcasing the use of sumptuous and expensive fabrics along with decorative threads in a style that would come to be known as Crazy Quilting.
Cindy Brick describes the Crazy Quilt style as "Embroidered on every seam (and more), filled with vivid, random shapes and intriguing images, the Crazy became the epitome of elegance. Webster's New World Dictionary defines a 'crazy quilt' as 'a quilt made of pieces of cloth of various colors and irregular shapes and sizes.' Other forms of patchwork rely on tidy patches marching across the quilt, evenly spaced and neatly matched. But the Crazy revels in irregular bits and pieces strewn in seemingly disorganized fashion. The fabrics can be silks, wools, cottons, artificial fibers, or even a mix. But Crazies can also be pieced in other ways, including no fabric foundation at all"!
While Crazies provided the obvious canvas for displaying a woman's fine needle skills, they also allowed for personal expression and storytelling. Quilts depicting themes such as politics, death, celebrations abound and pass on the history of early America. Cigar silks, campaign ribbons, personal clothing scraps, as well as hair were used in the construction of these spectacular quilts that often were passed from generation to generation. Passing on history in textiles continues to this day by women and men around the world.
Recently while visiting the Chicago Quilt Festival, I happened upon a booth selling hand embroidered pictures depicting Venda folk tales by women from South Africa. After chatting with Ina le Roux, the founder of Tambani Textiles, I learned that each of the fabric pieces is hand embroidered by women whose only source of income comes from these colorful pieces of cloth they create.
Venda is a small community located in the very north of South Africa. Unemployment and illiteracy are very high as families often struggle without a husband or father for support. Ina says that "like their few scrawny chickens the inhabitants scratch a meager living from the dust, planting sweet potatoes, chilies, and keeping a few goats".But the Venda women have a very rich tradition of sharing oral stories with the children while sitting around the cooking fires in the evening.
While researching the oral stories of the Venda women, Ina came upon the idea of recording them in textiles. Beginning with one stitch, the chain stitch, Ina let the women create the elements of the stories in the manner they desire onto patches of black or white fabric. Once the women mastered the basic chain stitch, they progressed to more complex stitches to incorporate in their stories. The fabric patches are then sold, and include a copy of the folk tale story. With the money these women earn they are able to pay for food, clothes, and school fees. "This is not just the academic recording of a fast fading tradition, but is the very initiative of a group of Venda women who find themselves on the very periphery of economic life." To learn more about Tambani Textiles click here.