ss Anthropology 300: Creating a Quilt Community at Syracuse University
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Voices Fall-Winter 2007:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Anthropology 300: Creating a Quilt Community at Syracuse University” by Susan S. Wadley here.
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Volume 33

Anthropology 300: Creating a Quilt Community at Syracuse University by Susan S. Wadley

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 (November 2006).

Choosing fabrics for quilt
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 for the quilt
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
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 course:
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
Heart-shaped label on moon quilt.  Photo courtesy of the author.
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
Aggression and depression all in a stitch
Accomplishments and monuments
form patches
Patches of joy made of thread,
Thread made of dread. With each new patch
Brings more laughter and tucks away more pain.
Fabrics full of love, patches made of joy
And only tiny threads of sorrow
With each quilt brings a new tomorrow.
Reminders of yesterday are all that is seen
I, only, know what it truly does mean.
(Pamela Kelly, September 2006)
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 patterns.

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 language.

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 a table.

The class's quilts - almost finished.  Photos: Nancy Corgei
The class’s quilts—almost finished. Photos: Nancy Corgel
Class quilt

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
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 this hunch:
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” (November 2006).


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 quilts.

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.

Required Readings

Chiaverini, Jennifer. 2000. Round Robin: An Elm Creek Quilts Novel. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Fons, Marianne. 1985. Crazy Quilt. In The Quilt Digest, 77-85. Ed. M. Kile. San Francisco: The Quilt Digest Press.

Freeman, Roland L. 1996. A Communion of Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press.

Glaspell, Susan N. 1994. Trifles. In Quilt Stories, 195-204. Ed. Ceclia Macheski. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Hall, Eliza Calvert. 1994. Aunt Jane of Kentucky. In Quilt Stories, 243-56. Ed. Ceclia Macheski. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Hawkins, Peter S. 1998. Confronting AIDS: The NAMES Project Quilt. AIDS Patient Care and STDs 12.10:743-9.

Horton, Laurel. 2005. Mary Black’s Family Quilts: Memory and Meaning in Everyday Life. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Joyce, Jane Wilson. 1994. Rose of Sharon. In Quilt Stories, 193. Ed. Ceclia Macheski. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Kerewsky, Shoshana D. 1997. The AIDS Memorial Quilt: Personal and Therepeutic Uses. The Arts in Psychotherapy 24.5:431-8.

MacDowell, Marsha. 1989. Women, Quiltmaking, and Social Change in America. In Quilted Together, 69-80. Ed. Joyce Ice and Linda Norris. Delhi, NY: Delaware County Historical Association.

——. 1997. North American Indian and Native Hawaiian Quiltmaking. In To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions, 3-92. Ed. Marsha MacDowell and C. Kurt Dewhurst. East Lansing: Michigan State University Musuem.

Manning, Jenny. 2000. The Changi Quilts: Stitching Solace and Comfort in Captivity. Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine (November):37-41.

Medicine, Beatrice. 1997. Lakota Star Quilts: Commodity, Ceremony, and Economic Development. In To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions, 111-28. Ed. Marsha MacDowell and C. Kurt Dewhurst. East Lansing: Michigan State University Musuem.

Milspaw, Yvonne J. 1982. Jennie’s Quilts: The Interface of Folk and Popular Tradition in the Work of a New York Quiltmaker. New York Folklore 8:1-23.

Morgan, Shirley. 2006. Piecing Together a Community: A Late Nineteenth- Century Friendship Quilt from Peterboro, New York. Voices: The Journal of New York 32.1-2:3-9.

Pershing, Linda. 1993. She Really Wanted to Be Her Own Woman: Scandalous Sunbonnet Sue. In Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Culture, 98-125. Ed. Joan N. Radner. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Radner, Joan N., and Susan S. Lanser. 1993. Strategies of Coding in Women’s Cultures. In Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Culture, 1-30. Ed. Joan N. Radner. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 2000. Anatomy of a Quilt: The Gees Bend Freedom Quilting Bee. Anthopology Today 40.4:16-23.

Stalp, Marybeth C. 2006. Hiding the (Fabric) Stash: Collecting, Hoarding, and Hiding Strategies of Contemporary U.S. Quilters. Textile 4.1:104-25.

Toelken, Barrie. 1996. Dynamics of Folklore. Provo: Utah State University Press.

Wood, Margaret. 1997. Contemporary Native Quilt Artists. In To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions, 183-92. Ed. Marsha MacDowell and C. Kurt Dewhurst. East Lansing: Michigan State University Museum.

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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