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What’s the Word?

Read a good quilt lately? It seems like a lot of quilts have something to say these days, and this month’s StoryBee guest, Chawne Kimber, gets a lot of the credit. Of course, as I’m sure Chawne herself would tell you, she isn’t the first quilter to use her quilts to send a message. American quilters have been incorporating words into their quilts for two hundred years now. From quilts like Maria Cadman Hubbard’s The Pieties Quilt (1848) and Lena Moore’s Psalm 23 (1930), to Jean Ray Laury’s Listen to Your Mother (2000) and Kathryn Uptis’s Some Things Are Not Easily Seen (Poverty) (2019), words in cloth have been used to galvanize, educate and amuse.

In recent years, quilters have been inspired by Toni Ricucci’s Word Play Quilts (That Patchwork Place, 2010) to spell out their thoughts and feelings in fabric (Kimber cites Ricucci’s work as being influential in her own lettering technique). Others have incorporated Denyse Schmidt’s approach to the alphabet, including Krista Hennebury, whose quilt, Blackbird Fly, broadcasts lyrics from the beloved Beatles’s song. Like many quilters who use words in quilts, Krista found a message so meaningful that she just had to write it down—on a quilt instead of paper.

Looking for inspiration for a quilt to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, Christina Blais came across a quote from Rosa Parks that was so powerful she knew it would be at the heart of her quilt. “I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night,” Mrs. Parks said about her famous 1955 bus ride, and Blais used those words in her quilt, “Determination,” which was shown at the 2015 Sacred Threads exhibit.

 At that same exhibit, viewers found Penny Gold’s quilt, “Self-Portrait, Year 2: Beneath the Surface.” The 68” x 94” quilt’s white background makes its simple statement even more powerful. “I Am A Woman Whose Child is Dead,” the quilt proclaims. It is one of a series of quilts Gold made to help process the death of her only son in a car accident.

Quilts also serve as message boards for humor—the quilts of Jean Ray Laury come immediately to mind—and poetry, which you’ll find in Kimber’s quilt, “Autumn is Wistful,” a long poem about what the quilter misses most about her childhood home, including greens and fried okra and “the sun on my face and grass on my skin.” 

The Baltimore Modern Quilt Guild chose to make their 2016 QuiltCon charity quilt about the beautiful side of Baltimore in a modern Baltimore Album quilt. My Baltimore celebrates the wonderful things about a city that is often known more for its darker side. American Visionary Art Museum is appliqued on one block, while others tout Edgar Allen Poe, Chesapeake Bay and the Orioles.

It’s been my experience that quilters are often readers, and as these quilts make clear, many are writers as well, writers who have taken that age-old admonition—Use your words—to heart.

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