I can’t say why I chose it. Maybe it was because [it was] a one-day, nighttime
class. Maybe it was because the title seemed so odd amid names like
“Intro to Psychology” and “Biology Lab.” What I do know is that something
called to me when I read “Quilts and Community” in Syracuse University’s
course selection booklet. I do know quilting should have repelled me, a
nonartistic girl who picked up pens to write journalism articles but had
never touched a needle. . . . I didn’t know why, even as I walked into Bowne
Hall for the first class.
—Julianne Pepitone, November 2006
Julianne’s reflection on the community of
quilters created through a class, Quilts
and Community, which I taught for the Soling
Program (for creative problem solving
and community engagement) in the College
of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University,
captures what many students felt in their first
weeks: Why am I here? As one class member
wrote, “When the class began in September, I was sure I had signed up for the wrong
course. How was I to make friends with the
women beside me who were at least fifteen
years my senior?” (Randi Spoon, November
2006). And for a class with the word “quilts”
in the title, despite its anthropology listing,
one actually had to read and write! “The
realization that the class involved so much
reading and writing further alarmed me,”
commented a young fashion major, Ciel Pia
Choosing fabrics. Photo: Dick Waghorne
Seeking to facilitate two kinds of learning—
the traditional “book learning,”
aligned with a hands-on experience that
I hoped would also create a community,
however temporary—I, too, was exploring
the possibilities of Quilts and Community.
A group of fourteen women and one man
joined together last fall to explore what
quilts mean and to learn about quilting and
community by making one or more quilts.
(Three students later dropped the class, after
realizing that reading and paper writing
were required.) The class learned what the
AIDS quilt means to the relatives of AIDS
victims. They talked with some of those who
worked on Syracuse University’s Remembrance
Quilt, made to honor the thirty-five
Syracuse University students who died in the
December 1988 bombing of Pan American
flight 103. They explored Native American
quilting traditions: Hopi women quilting for
newborns, Dakota Star quilts, and Hawaiian
quilts with a design cut from a single piece of
cloth. They learned the history of migration,
economy, fabrics, and changing kin relations
as they read about the quilts belonging to
the family of Mary Black, whose ancestors
had quilted in South Carolina throughout
the 1800s. Quilts in African American communities
were explored through their role
in the Civil War, the glorious creations of
Harriet Powers, and the research of Roland
Freeman exploring quilters in the south in
the 1950s and 1960s. The value given quilts
in the African American community was
further enhanced through stories told by
storyteller Frances Parks. And they also
learned to quilt.
Quilts and Community was created to join
scholarship about quilting and the role of
community in quilting with the practice of
quilting, so every Monday night for threeand-
a-half months, the class met for ninety
minutes to see films, listen to lectures, and
generally explore the history of quilting and
some of the many communities of quilters
around the globe. Then for another ninety
minutes, they joined the Hendricks Chapel
Quilters, a group organized by Frances Parks
of Students Offering Service (SOS) at Hendricks
Chapel that worked every Monday
night making child-sized quilts to be given away to the Ronald McDonald House, to
Katrina victims, or to others in need. Master
quilters Jeanne Riley and Candace Crider
undertook the task of guiding this group of
novice quilters through two finished quilts.
And indeed, by December 4, 2006, the final
stitches in the bindings were finished, heart
labels made, and the quilts completed.
Choosing a pattern. Photo courtesy of the author,
Quilts and Community was an experiment—
an experiment designed to test if a
quilting community could be created out of
a random group of students, and if those
in the potential community could recognize
that they had formed a community. The first
day was a challenge. But as Randi noted,
“Through our first in-class group discussion,
I understood that my voice was just as
strong and loud as everyone else’s. People
respected what I had to say despite my young
age and, even more so, they wanted to hear
what I had to say” (Randi Spoon, November
2006). I, too, was daunted by that first class
of (then) eighteen students, ranging in age
from a nineteen-year-old first-year student
to women in their fifties.
Having agreed to teach the course and
bringing to it my training in folklore, anthropology,
and quilting, I still needed to create
over the summer an academically based
course that involved more than learning to
stitch a quilt. A kind guide—Paddy Bowman,
coordinator of the National Network
for Folk Arts in Education—responded to
the somewhat desperate query for ideas and
readings that I had posted on the feminist
folklore Listserv. She suggested that I have
each student make a quilt block on the first
day using muslin squares, scrap fabrics, glue,
and fabric paints. So after discussing the
class goals and reading the poem “Rose of
Sharon,” by Jane Wilson Joyce, we played a
few icebreakers. Then I gave a brief history
of my own dabbling in quilts and showed
my grandmother’s red-and-white quilt that
had adorned my bed when I was a child.
Next Jeanne and I distributed white muslin
squares to each participant and dumped a
pile of fabric scraps, scissors, and glue sticks
on the front desk.
Working on the moon. Photo: Nancy Corgel.
The students were asked to design a
square that represented something important
in their lives. The resulting range
of topics was broad: home, the Colorado
mountains, music. When all were finished, we put them on a large piece of fabric and,
with pins, “made” a quilt, rearranging the
squares into a pattern agreeable to all. The
participants then explained their blocks:
what they meant, why they were made that
way. At the end of three hours, this motley
collection of individuals knew more about
one another than they normally would at the
end of a semester. Laura Scott commented
later, “By the end of the first day of Quilts
and Community, I already knew where some
students came from, what their families were
like, what kind of pets they had, and what
things, people, and places they valued” (November
2006). As Eric McDowell, a senior
musical theater major, noted at the end of
The unification of our class is best represented
by our first classroom project. We
each artistically expressed ourselves with
our individual quilt squares and then
joined them together to make a larger
and stronger quilt made interesting by
the individuality that was expressed in
each square. (November 2006)
Our community had begun to form. But
the students still needed to learn about key
ideas like the vocabulary of specialized folk
groups (“stash,” “trapunto,” and “stitch in
the ditch”); about quilters who used their
quilts to talk back—to governments, illness,
or family members; about color, value, and
hue; and about design and its meanings and
variations across and within communities of
quilters. As I sought readings, I quickly realized
that literature and film were as important
for capturing ideas of quilt communities
as were history and feminist folklore. In that
very first class, we read aloud and discussed
Joyce’s poem, which includes the lines:
And John, too.
He was stitched into that quilt,
him and all the years
we were married.
The times I sat there
loving him, hating him,
as I pieced the patches
Choosing a pattern. Photo courtesy of the author.
After reading short stories and the novel
Round Robin, by Jennifer Chiaverini, I asked
the class to write a traditional academic reflection
paper or to present a piece of creative
literature. Almost all wrote a creative piece.
Most of the younger students had come with
no idea that quilting means something to its
makers, but the combination of Glaspell’s
“Trifles,” Joyce’s poem, and others’ stories quickly convinced them. One poem written
by a novice quilter reads in part:
Tears and fears spun into thread
Other students turned in short stories,
and one presented an illustrated book for
children. Quilts were quickly becoming
more than bits of fabric sewn together into
Aggression and depression all in a
Accomplishments and monuments
Patches of joy made of thread,
Thread made of dread. With each new
Brings more laughter and tucks away
Fabrics full of love, patches made of
And only tiny threads of sorrow
With each quilt brings a new tomorrow.
Reminders of yesterday are all that is
I, only, know what it truly does mean.
(Pamela Kelly, September 2006)
I also encouraged the class to consider
feminist analyses of quilts and women’s
communities, so we read about women’s
coding strategies in the introduction to Feminist
Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Culture,
by Joan N. Radner and Susan S. Lanser, as
well as in Linda Pershing’s article, “‘She
Really Wanted to Be Her Own Woman’:
Scandalous Sunbonnet Sue.” The chapter on
folk groups in Barre Toeklen’s Dynamics of
Folklore left most of the class bemused, until
they realized that they, too, were becoming
an occupational folk group with specialized
We also visited a relatively new quilting
store in our area and talked with the owners
about the communities of women that
had been created due to the presence of
the store. We were entranced by a display
of their summer project: the making of
quilts using the golden brick road pattern
to raise money for a local women’s charity.
More than fifty quilts were ultimately auctioned
off, demonstrating the community of women quilters drawn by the store itself.
Since most members of the class had never
been in a store specializing in quilting materials,
they were a bit overwhelmed. And since
we had just read Round Robin, it was fun to
find a round robin quilt being displayed on
The class’s quilts—almost finished. Photos: Nancy Corgel
Each student had two other academic
projects: first was a review of a book on
quilting history, a project that led us to
discoveries of quilting history in Mississippi
and Ohio, on the Oregon Trail, and
elsewhere. Students also had to interview
and make class presentations on quilters
they met through the class (one interviewee
was an expert quilter who was also in the
class), already knew, or somehow found
through varied connections. These final
presentations gave evidence of the students’
awareness of design, color, community relationships,
quilting space, commitment, and
much more. The students demonstrated that
they knew how to ask questions of quilters
and how to focus on key elements of the
resulting interviews, all using their newly acquired
quilting vocabulary and knowledge. I
concluded, however, that I did not ask them
to engage enough with their readings as they
wrote their final projects, an error I hope to
rectify in the fall 2007 semester.
Then there was the making of quilts. I
split the class into two groups, breaking up
friendship pairings and mixing young and
old. These became two quilting groups,
each responsible for agreeing on a design,
colors, and fabrics and ultimately making a
quilt. The conversations around quilt expert
Jeanne Riley’s personal notebook of easy-to-make
quilt patterns were intense, but each
group reached a consensus before long.
The following week, after a guest lecture
on color, each group sorted through the
bins of donated cloth at Hendricks Chapel
and agreed on a color scheme. One group
chose a primarily appliqué design of stars
and the moon, altering the original pattern
to create a bigger moon. One student arrived
the following week with the enlarged moon
design ready to go.
A square from a group quilt. Photo courtesy of the author.
The novices in both groups had to learn
to cut with a rotary cutter. While the moon
group focused on using Wonder-Under (an
interfacing product) and learning to machine
appliqué, members of the other group each
made their patchwork squares and then
had to agree on the location of each square
within the larger quilt. As one of the older
students who was already a quilter noted,
“I don’t think the more tedious part of the
work, the cutting and ironing, was a favorite
part for some of the group members [who
tended to drift off to chat]” (Nancy Corgel,
November 2006). But with encouragement,
we kept most students on task, despite a
shortage of machines on some days. And
several members of the class started their
own projects as they waited a turn at the
group project. Others worked on unfinished
projects in the Hendricks Chapel Quilters’
stash of almost completed quilts.
The group working on the moon quilt
chose to do hand quilting around the moon:
during the last two weeks, I found them
gathered around a table taking turns doing
the hand stitching, and then working to fasten
down their binding and make their heart
label. The mixture of heads—some gray,
some blonde, some brown or black—all
intently focused on the work suggested
that we had been successful in creating a
quilt community. One student confirmed
In one class, we actually flipped the
quilt over after everyone had taken
a turn hand quilting a section of the
appliquéd moons and stars. We could
easily distinguish which stitches belong
to which member of the group. While
some might try to correct the differing
stitches, we decided that we liked the
personalized feel to them. In this way,
it was clear that the quilt was made by
six of us, and not by just one. (Randi
Spoon, November 2006)
Let me close with some additional reflections
of the class—that is, of the community:
Reflecting back on this semester’s experience,
I have discovered that we as a
class are like a quilt. We bring together
different ages, experiences, degrees of
creativity, tastes, styles, etc., as a quilt
is made of different colors, textiles,
patterns, and threads. This class, like
a quilt, has unified several different
components, like students, into a larger,
stronger, unified piece of art whose
beauty is found in its individual detail.
(Erin McDowell, November 2006).
It is unclear yet if any of the students will
stay with quilting or return to it at some
future time. But without a doubt, they have
an appreciation of quilting that most lacked
previously and many new friendships. As
Ciel Pia remarked, “I actually think that I
like the idea of quilting and the friends I
have made more than the act of quilting”
Susan S. Wadley is Ford Maxwell Professor
of South Asian Studies and associate
dean in the College of Arts and Sciences
at Syracuse University. Her work focuses
primarily on oral traditions, gender, and
social change in rural North India. Uniting
quilting and anthropology is an experiment
in progress. Her fall 2007 section of
Quilts and Community is fully subscribed;
the students will again make two group
Our community had begun to form. But the students still needed to learn about key ideas like the vocabulary of specialized folk groups (“stash,” “trapunto,” and “stitch in the ditch”); about quilters who used their quilts to talk back—to governments, illness, or family members; about color, value, and hue; and about design and its meanings and variations across and within communities of quilters.
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This article appeared in Voices Vol. 33, Fall-Winter 2007. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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