It’s 2012, and Trayvon Martin has just been shot dead in the street. The 17-year-old African-American’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch vigilante, lit a spark in the American consciousness. Protests engulfed the streets, race dominated conversations. A new era in American racial history began.
For many, this new reality was like snapping out of a dream. Things weren’t as they seemed, or as they had always been. For others, nothing was surprising — it was just another day in the life of the black American experience.
For some, life took on a new meaning. Sara Trail was a quilting prodigy at the time of Martin’s murder, having published a sewing book at 13 and sold her own instructional DVDs at 15. But the death of a boy just two weeks older than she, in a gated neighborhood similar to the one in which she grew up, with skin color similar to hers, changed something within Trail.
“Until Trayvon Martin, I was the one making wedding ring quilts, flying geese quilts. I was sewing just for the love of sewing,” she says. “But he could have easily been my brother. That really hit home, Trayvon’s murder.”
It was then that Trail — and other quilters — turned her talents to activism. “It’s not necessarily easy being a person of color in America,” she says. “So if I’m going to spend my extra time making art, my art needs to have a meaning and my art needs to have a purpose.” That meaning and purpose is breathing new, socially aware breath into the traditional domestic art of quilting.
“Quilting has always been such a community-focused activity.”
According to Carolyn Ducey, curator of collections at the International Quilt Study Center and Museum at the University of Nebraska, activist quilts are nothing new. “We’ve seen quilts with deeper messages as far back as the 1840s,” Ducey says.
Since the 1960s, though, Ducey has seen a rise in politically-minded quilts. From the women’s rights movement to the social justice movement, from 9/11 to President Donald Trump’s inauguration, she says protest quilts are increasing in boldness and in numbers.
Need proof? Look at The Modern Quilt Guild, or MQG, an international organization with chapters across the country, was formed in 2009 as a way for fans of modern quilting — often categorized by graphic prints, bold colors, improvisation, and fresh takes on traditional quilt styles — to connect. Since 2013, it has hosted QuiltCon, which they claim is the largest modern quilting event in the world. A 2018 QuiltCon Best in Show winner was a quilt emblazoned with the phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted,” a popular feminist saying . The second place winner in the Applique quilt category, called “Black, Brown, and White in Orange,” featured vignettes of characters in orange fabric behind prison bars. The first place winner of the Youth category illustrated rows of schoolchildren in front of scenes like the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally.
Quilts are an effective tool for political messages, Ducey says, because quilting’s place as a traditionally feminine art positions social justice-minded artists to reach an audience they otherwise wouldn’t reach. “Quilting has always been such a community-focused activity, and women talk as they’re quilting,” Ducey says. Quilting something political or social justice-focused can lead to more conversations about those often-taboo topics.
“In the United States, there are no boundaries”
Chawne Kimber isn’t afraid of taboos — at all. Another quilter-turned-activist, she was also inspired by the murder of Trayvon Martin and countless other African-Americans. Her quilts feature everything from racial epithets to curses to self-portraits to poems. She uses them as a coping mechanism; a way to process the events happening around her and channel her emotions, especially anger and frustration, into something creative. But her family’s history with quilting and the materials that make them is a fraught one.
“I’m from an old family in Alabama,” Kimber says. “My ancestors picked cotton, so quilting is a part of our lives.”
She finds that the textural aspect of quilting is what makes it a useful communication tool. Everyone sees quilts as warm, comforting objects to cuddle up in, but when they hold a deeper message, people don’t quite know what to make of them. As a response to the use of the “n word” at her workplace, Kimber made a quilt featuring that very word, front and center. “The word (is) placed just so that you can’t wrap the quilt around you without covering the word,” she says.
That led to questions about censorship — about what is and isn’t appropriate to put on a quilt. Some traditional quilters tried to exile Kimber from the community. “They’re kind of trying to give me boundaries,” Kimber says. “And I insisted that, in the United States, there are no boundaries.”
Traditionalists even tried to argue that Kimber’s quilts weren’t quilts at all. “There are other sectors of society that were telling me that I was ruining the quilt world, that this wasn’t actually a quilt because it had these words on it,” she says. “I’m like, ‘No, it’s three layers, with a front and back and a nice, warm inner layer.’”
“Art is like a talking piece”
Sara Trail has been taking on the traditionalists in a different way. After getting her Master’s in education at Harvard, she founded the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) to educate youth on social justice and provide a platform allowing them to express their creativity and frustrations.
“Ninety-nine percent of our workshops are done with low income kids of color. Or not even kids; it’ll be college students,” Trail says, “but all very marginalized people.”
Her goal is to give these often-underrepresented groups a voice and help them understand their place in the world. Participants in SJSA’s workshops design their own quilt blocks — the squares that, when sewn together, make up a quilt — using fabric, scissors, glue, and markers. The quilt blocks are sent off to volunteers across the country for embroidery, then finally sewn together to make a cohesive quilt. The quilts are then shown across the country in museums, galleries, and quilt shows.
And while the quilts themselves start conversations, Trail hopes the act of making the quilts sparks some chatter. When she sends quilt blocks out to be embroidered by her volunteers, she hopes they’ll talk to other sewers and quilters in their communities. “(Sewing) an SJSA block in public, in particular, allows people to have conversations that they wouldn’t normally be able to have,” Trail says, “because art is always like a talking piece.”
SJSA volunteers come from across the country, and they stumble upon the program in a variety of ways — word of mouth, social media, friends’ influence. Trail finds it valuable to involve a demographic — generally white moms — who aren’t otherwise outwardly active in social justice.
“We have a lot of young moms,” Trail says. “These are low-key, stay-at-home moms who care about social justice but are housewives to a degree or they’re working professionals. They sew for fun and they sew because they care, but they have hearts of social justice and they care about race, equity, and inclusion.”
The volunteers aren’t just coastal liberals, either, despite appearances on SJSA’s social media accounts. “The biggest location of our followers are New York, Boston, L.A., San Francisco,” Trail says. “Which is funny because those are all liberal cities. But if I look at our volunteer list, I’m sending blocks from Idaho to Oklahoma, to Nebraska, to Texas.”
Kimberly Russell is one of those SJSA volunteers. A Portland-based executive administrator at a nonprofit, Russell is a self-taught sewer. She’s embroidered about 10 blocks for SJSA by hand, and has convinced friends to donate fabric as well. “Most people in my circle are really interested in it,” Russell says. “We often talk about what the blocks say, what the creator was trying to say with the blocks.”
Russell takes her SJSA blocks with her to her quilt guild meetings. She finds that embroidering them there helps bring up discussions that otherwise likely wouldn’t be happening. “I think that art plays a really big role in facilitating discussion,” she says. “(It’s) finding a comfortable way to bring things up for people who might not otherwise think about things that are challenging others in the world.”
Volunteering with SJSA, particularly in light of the election of Trump, has given Russell an expanded frame of reference. “The world is kind of a little bit wacky,” she says. “It’s hard to say whether it’s wackier than it’s ever been, but I think a lot of us are super aware of how wacky things are.”
She’s taken it upon herself to understand the experiences of others with different identities than hers. “I’m a white person, and as a white person, it’s becoming more clear that (there are) things that I didn’t know and things I wasn’t paying attention to,” Russell says. “I’m trying to do a better job of paying attention and figuring out how I can be a better person and help break down some of the systems that seem to be choking (people of color) right now.”
Her expanded social awareness has inspired her to get involved in social justice in other ways, too. “I’m involved to the extent that I’m trying really hard to expand who I’m listening to and what I’m reading, and I’m working hard in local elections,” Russell says. “Working hard is probably an overstatement, but I’m involved in a way I haven’t ever necessarily thought I would be.”
This is one of Trail’s goals with SJSA — not just to give the underprivileged kids she works with a voice, but to make those voices heard by people who wouldn’t typically have access to them. She wants to make a positive impact on the kids lives, and encourage her volunteers to do the same. “Sewing has this intergenerational aspect,” Trail says, “of older people teaching younger people, and you can never know it all when it comes to sewing. It’s a continual process of learning.”
One of her favorite parts about SJSA is that the art often goes farther than its participants could ever imagine. “I have kids in Chicago who have never left the state of Illinois, whose art has been seen in California. It’s been seen in Cambridge, at Harvard. It’s been in a show in Florida. Their art is going to go far beyond the class.”