Quilts and Human Rights

By Marsha MacDowell, Mary Worrall, Lynne Swanson, and Beth Donaldson. 2016. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 232 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8032-4985-1 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Shane Rasmussen, Northwestern State University of Louisiana

[Review length: 1613 words • Review posted on March 22, 2017]


[Cover ofQuilts and Human Rights]

The production of Quilts and Human Rights evolved as a response to a 2008 quilt exhibition of the same name held at the Michigan State University Museum. All of the authors, Beth Donaldson, Marsha MacDowell, Lynne Swanson, and Mary Worrall, participated in the curation, management, and exhibition of the 2008 exhibition. Both the exhibition and the book Quilts and Human Rights find their foundational ethos in “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948,” which declares that the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (xiii). While both the exhibition and book function as a means of displaying quilts as artistic material culture, the general emphasis of the discussion is focused more upon how these quilts serve as calls to social action, rather than as examples of art. Dedicated “to all those who have used their needles to express their experiences with human rights injustices and to prick the conscience of others in calls for awareness and action” (v), the text’s foreword by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Desmond Tutu celebrates these quilters as “artist activists” whose work has the potential to catalyze “collective action” (xi).

After a brief preface, the written text of the book largely consists of a 72-page essay, “A Quilted Conscience.” The essay provides an in-depth historical overview of the ways that quilts have served as attempts to catalyze social action. Quilts advocating for abolition, women’s suffrage, and a wide variety of other social causes are discussed. The scope is international, with examples of quilts from Haiti, South Africa, Palestine, Germany, Lebanon, Thailand, and other places, in addition to North America, including those by Native Americans. The essay documents the immense popularity quilts and quilt making have taken on when tied to social action, such as the 250,000+ quilts, both “newly made or family heirlooms” (11), donated to support the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, with the quilts either given to Union soldiers in hospitals or on the battlefields or sold to raise funds. Perhaps not surprisingly, when the need for social action is most widely felt, quilters have risen to the call. When in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries the popularity of quilt making declined due to the increase in manufactured blankets, the onset of World War I galvanized a quilting revival as volunteer quilters made quilts to be sent to soldiers overseas. The essay also provides a detailed survey of notable “human rights quilt projects” in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Examples include the Boise Quilt Project that highlights the threat of nuclear war, and includes the National Peace Quilt, which “features a child’s drawing from each of the fifty states, on the themes of peace,” with the intent to, in the words of the quilt makers, “approach power brokers and policy-makers on a very personal level” (31). Sixty-seven U.S. senators have slept beneath the quilt for a night. Perhaps the most famous example is The NAMES Project Foundation AIDS Memorial Quilt, with its tens of thousands of coffin-shaped panels made by volunteers to commemorate their deceased loved ones as well as to increase AIDS awareness. While some of the projects reach beyond raising consciousness and memorialization to more utilitarian results, the motivation is still rooted in an awareness of a social need or injustice. For example, My Brother’s Keeper Quilt Group works internationally to make sleeping bags for the homeless. Designed in a pragmatic manner with little attention to aesthetics so that they can be produced quickly, these quilts are often referred to as Ugly quilts, “but they are warm and can make a difference by supporting survival and dignity for a homeless person” (35). While not prized for their aesthetic beauty in a conventional sense, these quilts are nevertheless certainly beautiful in the humanistic solidarity they so clearly evidence. Other quilts are simply awe inspiring, such as Portrait of a Textile Worker. “Based on a photograph of a young textile worker in Bangladesh,” this quilt by Therese Agnew “makes one person among millions of unseen workers, visible. Her image was constructed with thirty thousand clothing labels stitched together over two years” (108).

“A Gallery of Quilts” follows “A Quilted Conscience.” All told, the book features well over 100 quilts, each photographed in full color with high-resolution clarity, with even the small-stitched print often being legible. While few of the quilts are abstract in design, with most being representational, as the authors note, “we discovered that there is no one visual or technical style of quilts related to human rights” (xv), and the quilts display a great diversity in styles, materials used, adherence to traditional patterns, and tones. The impact of each quilt is increased by giving quilters a space beside their quilt to talk about their piece as well as their motivations for making it. These words of the quilters themselves stand as brief but powerful ethnographic witness as well as signs of the creative power of artistic and social action. Quilter Debbie L. Ballard observes about her piece, War=Unraveling Society: “I did not want the words or the quilt to be ‘pretty’ but wanted them to be crude and harsh. War, any war, is crude.... My hope is that [this quilt] will make people stop and think of the lives impacted by the war. The making of this quilt let me work out my own feelings. It is very cathartic to work on a quilt of this type. It seems like it just had to be made” (35).

The quilts are powerful. I found myself looking closely at every panel of every quilt out of a sense of duty, not merely as a reviewer of the text or a consumer of a book, but because the subject matter threaded so eloquently and movingly into the quilts not only merited but also demanded my undivided attention. For some viewers, encountering the quilts has proven to be an overwhelming experience. Topics such as domestic violence, South African apartheid, homelessness, Abu Ghraib, racism, violence against LGBT people, terrorism, gun violence, school shootings, and others have caused discomfort for viewers. The authors observe about their own 2008 exhibition Quilts and Human Rights: “We realized that the exhibition packed a surprise for those who regularly seek out any exhibition on quilts; the images and stories associated with this set of quilts were not the typical heartwarming ones they were used to seeing. These quilts and their stories spoke of difficult experiences, of difficult events, and of the darker side of human life” (xvi). A quilt such as Her Name Was Laura Nelson, which depicts in photographic realism the lynching by hanging of an African American woman, is unsettling to say the least, partially because of the striking incongruity of such a drastic injustice displayed so starkly on an object mostly associated with warmth, comfort, security, and, often, family. Even more potentially unsettling are those quilts included in the book that endorse the violation of the human rights of others, such as quilts that are openly pro-Nazi or pro-KKK. The incongruity of such hate-driven sentiments on a quilt brings to mind Mary Douglas’ distinction of pollution being “matter out of place” (Douglas 1966, 40). That the authors include these quilts in their discussion speaks to their courage as well as their confidence in the intelligence of their audience. The authors have refused to bowdlerize the wide varieties of the human experience inherent in the text’s own subject matter, and in order to cope with this subject matter the text demands that the reader/viewer move beyond romantically sentimentalizing the folk and their lore as being inherently essentially good. However, those employing this book in their classes should be cognizant of the needs of students to discuss and unpack their experiences after having been exposed to these quilts, much as the authors did in their own 2008 exhibition: “As a means of navigating the sometimes difficult subject matter of human rights quilts, when the MSU Museum held its Quilts and Human Rights exhibit, the entryway included a label explaining that the exhibit included sensitive material, talking points were created to help the museum’s public staff explain to visitors the intent of the exhibit, and a place was provided for viewers to sit and write down their reactions to the exhibit’s content” (68). This is a book that will be sure to spark discussion in any educational environment.

Critic and science fiction writer Gwyneth Jones has observed about science fiction that “If [science fiction] were an education scheme, the report card for the human race would always read ‘could do better’” (Jones 2003, 170). Given the many injustices documented so fiercely and so compellingly in Quilts and Human Rights, it is hard not to agree with Jones’s judgment even if applied to the reality of the human race outside of the realms of fiction. However, this text and the quilts documented within it stand as witnesses to the power of ordinary persons using common means to effect change through speaking truths that are too often ignored. Quilts and Human Rights is a testament to those working to change the grade, an effort to balance the ledger. It is a remarkable addition to quilt studies. I look forward to assigning it to my students.

Works Cited

Mary Douglas. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Praeger.

Gwyneth Jones. 2003. “The Icons of Science Fiction.” In The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, 163-173. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.