LGBTQ Quiltmaking in the American South
Through historic research, community engagement and participatory experiences, Queering the Bias, explores the history of quilting and how it can bring people together in physical or digital spaces, embracing the social and cultural impact of the craft on LGBTQ communities in the American South.
In quilting terminology, true bias refers to any cut that doesn’t run along a straight grain, much like the lives and experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people. The project will focus on three primary areas of study: the history of quilting in the South, quilting as a tool for activism and social justice, and exploration of gender and sexual orientation through craft making.
Quilting has historically been a product of necessity, communal activity, family heritage, and even activism. By the early 1700s, quilting was featured widely in costume and bed ornamentation. With the increase in textile production, patchwork developed and by the early 1800s both had developed as essential domestic crafts among the earliest settlers of North America. “Quilting as a social activity was one of the few opportunities many women had to enjoy a productive break from their considerable chores”(The Essential Quilter: Tradition, Techniques, Design, Patterns and Projects by Barbara Chainey, 1993). The craft has undergone many alterations over the centuries and experienced periods of both growth and near extinction. Ultimately, the skills have often been passed down through generations and the product has grown from the need for warmth to a contemporary artform celebrated for its technical detail and design.
I have strong memories of sitting in my grandmother’s house while she was busy cutting patchwork pieces or working at the quilting frame, and that patterning has transferred into my own connection to fiber arts. The patterning and design even found its way into my painting, similar to the resurgence of “barn quilts” in the 2000s. “In the art world today, quilts continue to play a role in the work of artists interested in alternative art-making traditions with ties to histories of gender and race. In addition, new contexts for rediscovery of quilts have emerged, including a revived interest in the history of craft traditions and an embrace of popular and participatory forms of creative expression” (Unconventional & Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar, 1950-2000 by Roderick Kiracofe, 2014).
That sense of tradition and participatory creativity builds the basis for Queering the Bias. There is a deeply personal connection to the craft and both the act of quilting and the product provides opportunities to explore connections we have with the history of craft, specifically in the South, and the opportunity for community-based events that are enhanced by storytelling. When looking at some of the quilts in the National Quilt Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, one can find that “some of the quilts reflect very personal interests and concerns; others express political and societal concerns such as patriotism, anti-slavery sentiments, war and peace. Many quilts in the collection have inscriptions that leave us a textile record expressing the interests and feelings of the makers. Others provided the makers an opportunity for artistic expression in a practical endeavor” (The National Quilt Collection, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, 2019).
Through historic research, community engagement and participatory experiences, Queering the Bias, explores these elements of the craft and how quilting can bring people together in physical or digital spaces, embracing the social and cultural impact of the craft on LGBTQ communities in the American South. The project will seek to increase the accessibility and representation of LGBTQ artists in the field. “Whether bringing people together in physical or digital spaces or both, artists are mobilizing textiles to spur interpersonal dialog and exchange, and to educate, build community, and advocate for social change. Their projects create social bonds and foster new types of community, some fleeting and temporary, and others more long term and durational” (Crafting Community by Lisa Vinebaum and Kirsty Robertson, 2016).
The project examines the reasons why people quilted in the past and specifically explores the use of “quilting bees” to form communal and participatory craftmaking. It explores the importance of family heritage and memory in the ways that quilting has been passed down through generations in the American South.
The project examines the role of quilting in activism and social justice movements in American history specifically exploring the craft as a powerful tool of expression during slavery, as a symbol for feminism, as a part of the black art movement, as a response to war, and in relationship with the LGBTQ rights movement.
The project takes a direct look at the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, one of the most well-known forms of the craft in American LGBTQ history, and projects like Ginger Brooks Takahashi’s project An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail, a collaborative quilting bee project conceived as a form of “LGBT activism rooted in community building” that has been ongoing in homes, galleries, gardens, and other public spaces since 2004.
Finally, the project looks at what it means to be a quilter who identifies as LGBTQ in the contemporary American South and explores how craftspeople are examining the subjects of gender, memory, personal expression, and technique in their work. In the exhibition and book Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community, curator John Chaich stated, that “Loaded with gender connotations and power hierarchies, fiber and textile traditions such as crochet, embroidery, knitting, macramé, quilting, and sewing provide a fitting platform for examining tastes, roles, and relationships socialized within and around gay and lesbian culture” (2014). Queering the Bias will include extensive research and object-finding, interviews and participatory quilting with LGBTQ quilters, community quilting events, and explores the use of social media in expanding the reach of quilting as a social and cultural connector.
Fragment of quilt by Janette Rudisill, date unknown.