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Quilting: Cradle to Grave

Last week Helen presented at a seminar at the University of Bristol organised by the fantastic Ann Rippin who collaborated with us as a member of Bristol quilters in organising interactive cushion production at our conference. Ann is an academic in Management Studies who works closely with the Bristol Quilters on a number of projects. Ann has Mary Beth Stalp  visiting as a Benjamin Meaker Fellow who has worked extensively with quilters  in the US.  The seminar last week was a great opportunity to talk about Tangible Memories to a different audience and the other presentations really gave us food for thought, especially in relation to taking the project forward using textiles and quilting.

Ann blogged about the event so for those interested do read below – and if you’re really interested do visit Ann’s blog in which she talks about all kinds of fascinating events.

Ann’s blog post: Quilting Cradle to Grave

The day started with a great presentation from Tom Keating who is a PhD student in Geographical Studies at the University of Bristol.  He was talking about the work of Josh Barnes, who is working on putting together technology and textiles for children in hospital.  The technology will enable children to get video messages from their parents while they are in the ward so that they can keep in touch.  They do this by scanning a code on the quilt and seeing the message on an iPad or iPhone (other smart technologies are available).  I thought, as he was talking, that this links with academic writings on portraiture, that they allow the absent other to be present – so a monarch can be present in 2D form in any part of the kingdom or empire, and this helps to maintain presence and thus control over the subjects.  Hence, as Simon Sharma was telling us on tv last week, there are so many standardised and ritualised portraits of Elizabeth I.

This departure was interesting because it allows children to play and move around, and gives them the comfort of the quilted textile.  It is active because children are playing with it, and passive because it remains a watching and listening activity.  What was so great was that Tom was dealing with high-end, difficult theoretical work but adapted it really well to an audience of non-specialists on Deleuze and Guattari.  I think he also loved meeting quilters who gave him the kind of fearless critique of his work that only women of a certain age can give, but which was constructive and positive and helped him think through some of his ideas on making.

Next up was our very own Val Dixon from Bristol Quilters who talked about the work that the group does providing quilts for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Southmead Hospital in Bristol.  We make tiny, light and bright quilts for premature babies and fabric covers for the incubators.  Val said that we had made 200 a year for ten years, and as we saw at the group’s AGM later on in the day, there are still plenty more to come.  Every baby gets a quilt and regardless of whether they survive or not, parents get to keep the quilt.  I was interested with my academic hat on about the uses that the incubator covers have.  They are backed with dark fabric to protect prem babies’ eyes, and they make the room much less stressful for the mothers, but they also have what is described as user-determined uses.  They are used as playmats when the babies go home, and also as physiotherapy mats as some of the babies require so much care.  What came across to me from Val’s excellent presentation was that the quilts are as much a gift to the mothers as to the babies, and, to use the academic jargon, that are very tangible actors in an economy of care.  These are the very first possessions of these tiny babies, and although they are sometimes buried with them, the quilts are always theirs.

Marybeth came next and talked about quilts as life bookmarks.  They keep the pages on our special life events and memories.  Although most quilt scholarship is about the objects themselves and their histories, Marybeth is interested in the living, talking makers and the circumstances which we think are special enough to make quilts to mark.  She is sometimes controversial in her claim that ‘Quilting causes tension in the home’, but she has found that when older women take up quilting or when a woman has plenty of domestic obligations and duties, the time and space the hobby requires can cause tension.  This is along the lines of, ‘I know you are making a family heirloom which will last generations, but where’s my dinner?’  She showed us something of the shadowy side of quilting with a fundraiser quilt for the KluKluxKlan, and some break-up and divorce quilts.  We also had a look at the cartoony ‘The Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue’ which is a piece in which in every panel poor old Sue is killed in another fiendish way.  Marybeth showed pieces from her own history and career, and introduced me to a new idea: a Solomon’s quilt, which is where when someone in the family dies one of their quilts is cut up and made into another set of smaller quilts and given as a keepsake to their relatives.

I then showed some examples of ersatz memorial quilts that I have made to demonstrate my latest talk, oh, and my wedding quilt, made for me and the Medieval Historian by my mother.

Finally, the wonderful Helen Manchester talked to us about her work at the other extreme from the babies, the very elderly and end of life people in care homes.  This is part of a project to look at enhancing their experiences and helping them to capture their memories and it includes textiles as they can be such a source of comfort.  So the lovely thing about this is that it might finally prove a way into inter-generational work as young people are very familiar (usually) with the technology such as smart phones and the older generations have an existing creative repertoire of quilting, stitching, knitting and so on, which can come together to form talking cushions and so on.  Helen described her project as thinking about moving from physical care into relational care through textiles, and building a community through stories about coping with loss.  I love Helen’s project because it is so imaginative and helps me to feel a bit less terrified of a lonely and isolated old age.  It is full of optimism and I love the fact that the quilts are part of that.