Quilting as Metaphor

 Not so long ago, quite by accident, I came across “Quilting on a Budget,” a Facebook group of close to 22,000 members worldwide, dedicated to sharing “tips and tricks and advice on how to save money and just enjoy what we love to do.” I applied and was accepted as a new member. I’d found my tribe.

This group warms my heart. The women members (yes, mostly women, from Equador to India to Iceland and the U.S. and beyond) are not interested in winning prizes at quilt shows or selling their quilts as works of art. They’re in it for love, not money. They make – and share photos of online – such simple, homey, lovingly made items as baby quilts for new grandchildren, lap quilts for ill sisters, bed quilts for friends’ wedding anniversaries, and jeans quilts for teenage sons.

As the group’s name implies, they don’t spend a lot of money on fancy fabrics, choosing instead to save and use scraps from here and there, or tear up old clothes from which to piece their blocks. Many use flannel instead of expensive batting. Their results, we all agree, are charming.

Yes, they share “tips and tricks,” but they also share, from time to time, personal stories that apply to their quilting lives, such as reports of recent back injuries or surgeries that have kept them from their sewing machines. Posts like these elicit outpourings of empathy, condolences and commiseration. Since patchwork quilting is known to be an addiction (a “positive addiction,” that is), everyone can feel for a fellow-member’s withdrawal. This is a support group.

I’ve felt supported by it, too, especially since New Year’s Day when I fell backward onto my bathroom tile and injured my spine (see my recent “After the Fall” post). There’s nothing like knowing that you’re not alone to make you feel better about a painful situation.

And, I believe deeply, there’s nothing like patchwork quilting to make a girl (I use the term advisedly) feel as if she’s sewing the worn, torn pieces of her life back together. It’s quilting as metaphor, quilting as medicine, quilting as magic.

As I’ve written about here before, twenty years ago I taught patchwork quilting as an economic development project in francophone Mali, West Africa, to Malian women’s sewing groups, at the women’s request. (For more background, see my WOW post “Building Blocks” posted last October 13.)

This Patchwork Project was a life-saving, life-changing experience, about which I wrote an entire book: How to Make an African Quilt. (The title of this memoir is itself is a metaphor.)

At that time, I converted one of the rooms in my house in Ségou, Mali, into a classroom, and I decorated the walls with framed patchwork blocks accompanied by inspiring calligraphied slogans in French, such as:

  • Nine-patch block: “Il n’y a pas le developpement sans un changement.” (There is no development without change.)
  • Eight-point star block: “Rien de valeur est facile a realiser.” (Nothing great is easy to accomplish.)
  • Log cabin block: “Quand la vie vous donnez les coupons, faites le patchwork!” (When life gives you scraps, make patchwork!)

The women in this Patchwork Project certainly learned how to quilt “on a budget” because all of us were far from rich. We used scraps of cotton fabric we gathered up from local tailors’ trimmings. We created nine-patch design tote bags, eight-point-star design wall hangings, wild-geese design baby quilts, and much, much more. The women loved it all, and I loved all of them.

Here is an excerpt from How to Make an African Quilt about how I experienced the healing powers of quilting in Mali:

“I seldom gave much thought to my distant past, especially while in Mali, which was so far away from it all. But at times, when I was alone in the evenings sewing in my study, that past would creep up on me.

“At the bottom of my deep need to keep creating and recreating a reason for being – by being of some service to others – I realized, was the memory of my father’s frequent, belligerent words when I was a child, ‘… DO something useful around here! Justify your existence!’

“It had never been enough for me to BE: I’d always had to DO – make things that weren’t there before: words on blank paper, bread from my oven, now colorful fabric remnants stitched together to make something beautiful and new. In Mali, especially, I found that the joy these creations brought was healing. Wounds, it appears, can be patched. Torn hearts can be sewn.

“I began work on a new quilt project in the evenings – a star quilt wall hanging. … This new quilt would tell the story of my new life in Ségou: I chose adobe-brown fabric to represent Mali’s soil and traditional architecture; dark-green fabric for the myriad mango trees’ foliage; light-green bazin, a gift from Centre Benkady [the women’s center I worked with]; a burgundy-yellow-and-green floral print to represent my home and garden. I laid these out in a patchwork design of stars, to depict Mali’s starry sky…

This was the first quilt I made in Mali, when I began my economic development project there, “The Patchwork Project”

“I worked on this new wall quilt every night in my study, while listening to French language tapes. The tiny, precise quilting stitches taught me patience, as life in Africa in general teaches patience.

“Hand quilting, I soon discovered, is far more than mere sewing. It’s a story, a statement, a commitment, a legacy. Making a quilt is actively committing to life, one small, breath-like stitch at a time. This is what I’m doing, I said to myself, I’m committing to the patchwork quilt of my life, and Africa is teaching me how.”

 ~ ~ ~

[For more on my economic development effort in Mali, please go to my website’s Home page and scroll down to How to Make an African Quilt: The Story of the Patchwork Project of Ségou, Mali (Nighthawk Press, 2013): www.bonnieleeblack.com. ]

12 thoughts on “Quilting as Metaphor”

  1. Beautiful Bonnie. You remind me of how my own passion — horseback riding — is a metaphor for me. It is freedom, daring me to let go and yet become evermore attuned to my perceptive equine partner. Abrazos.

  2. A friend forwarded me this essay. I love your words and am inspired by your experience and perspective. I am a “fancy fabric” quilter (Kaffe Fassett), but also look forward to the day when I don’t select fabrics, I just grab and sew letting the design emerge on its own! Thank you.

    1. What a joy to hear from you, Alicia! Thank you for taking the time to comment. I’d so hoped that this post would find its way into the larger quilt community (or “sisterhood,” as I like to think of it). Best wishes for your own quilting, fancy or not.

  3. Dear Bon,

    Art brings people together. I think women know that more instinctively than men. It’s what you did so often in Africa, and why it was such a mutually wonderful learning experience for all who were involved.

    Love,
    Paul

    1. Thank you, dear Paul. And thank you again (and again!) for sending the book to me in Mali (“Hidden in Plain View”) that became such an inspiration for my work there. You are my angel. — xx

  4. So glad we crossed paths. This happened after I left, so reading about it is my experience with Ségou patchwork. The stories have now formed a patchwork in my mind, as I imagine your home and garden, your creative, industrious energy, and your commitment. And your patience. Now I have my own African quilt! xoxo

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