How Quilts Can Teach Materiality

Students, and readers, may be skeptical to understand these quilts, therefore, as a “way of knowing” because of their utilitarian purpose. But, we must emphasize to them that “above all, these quilts are statements of identity and individuality, as well as objects of utility and tradition” (Livingston, 2002, p. 58). A possible comparison to other forms of utilitarian literacy or the use of an example with which the instructor is more familiar could certainly be used in exchanged for or in compliment to quilting. For example, most students have heard the phrase “computer literacy” and understand its connotations. Instructors could have students discuss or journal about the various ways their material surroundings have affected the way they have become computer literate. Answers will no doubt vary from students who cannot remember not having a computer at home to do schoolwork and IM friends with to students who must use the university's computer labs and help technicians on a regular basis to those who grew up using pencil and paper and so prefer to use it. A discussion about computer literacy would certainly be useful as the students begin creating their own new media texts.

An instructor could also provide examples of material literacy that comes about not from poverty, but from middle- and upper-class socio-economic standing. The names, styles, and fabrics of couture fashion could be used; individuals not involved in that community are probably not literate in the vocabulary found within, more than likely because of economic constraints. Outdoors activities like mountain climbing, white water rafting, or kayaking also have their own vocabulary and set of rules and communications that an individual must become literate in in order to participate in those activities safely. To know the difference between bilays and biners, harnesses and holsters, or oars and paddles a person must become literate in the vocabulary of these adventure recreation sports, and they must have time, money, and resources available to them to participate in these activities and purchase (or even rent) the necessary equipment. Author Roorda (1997) even discusses how these are related to writing. She says, “The devices may even be fetishized, as so much is in the modern recreational “gear” industry, so that one's experience is configured by one's equipment, and one only goes out in order to handle the gear.  The same goes for writing” (p. 394).  She suggests here that our composition is directly related to our relationships with the materials of that experience. If the teacher can begin to give students the examples needed to make these cognitive connections, the students may perhaps be better equipped to understand how their own literacies have formed, and express those literacies through new media texts.

Therefore, an important element to the students' understanding of the rhetoric of quilting is a basic explanation of the way quilting works; many will be completely unfamiliar with the process. For the zealous teacher, a physical showcase of a completed quilt or quilt in progress may work well. To begin with, pieces of fabric are placed face-together and then sewn together on one edge. Piece by piece the pattern comes together and when the quilt face is completed, the back will be attached (sometimes the back is also a pattern, sometimes one large piece of fabric). A middle layer—what is called batting—is placed between the two outside layers. The three layers are then stretched out together, and sewn together; this is the actual quilting. Last, the binding (or edge) is attached. As a novice quilter myself, I would bring a current project into discussion and explain to the listeners how the pattern works in conjunction with the contrast of the colors. Patterns are very important to an understanding of how a quilt can speak: they even have names like Log Cabin, Rail Fence, Irish Chain, and Le Monte Star. Traditional quilting requires that a well-made quilt be as symmetrical as possible, both in pattern and stitching. Small, equally-spaced stitching paired with straight, even lines in the pattern and quilting are the signs of an expert quilter. Moreover, materials like denim and corduroy, often used by the Gee's Bend women, are more difficult to quilt than cotton, for example, because of their course, stiff, thick nature. Any quilter, novice or expert, is going to be able to “read” the stitching, pattern, and material of a quilt. When students are given this information, then, they should be able to read the rhetoric of quilts as well, albeit on a very basic level.

Upon viewing pictures of the Gee's Bend Quilts—I recommend the book The Quilts of Gee's Bend (2002) one of the first things the students should notice is how they deviate from these “norms” of quilting as explained above. The women used the difficult-to-manipulate denim and corduroy because that was what was available to them. Their lines are not straight, nor symmetrical; their colors do not follow traditional ideas of contrast or matching. Museum director Marzio (2002) says: “The quilts pulsate with a disciplined beauty that is rooted in both symmetry and a conscious decision to deviate from that order” (p. 7). Wardlaw (2002) eloquently explains, "Each [woman] has approached quilting as an art form to be made into her own expression . . . The call and response among the quiltmakers, however, cannot be ignored. Women with the same material use it in different ways. A certain pattern or method becomes popular for a time. Each woman has established her own vocabulary of forms, stitches, and approaches, and these approaches are shared with family members, creating circles of expression within family groups" (p. 16, emphasis mine).

These quilts are a means of expression and communication with each other and those outside the community, and they are a way of knowing that is undeniably created out of the material realities of the women. A particularly poignant example of this is “A quilt Irene Williams made of fabric printed with the word 'vote'” made during the Civil Right Era. In its existence the quilt not only physically and visibly says “vote”, but “becomes at once a social commentary for all to see and a witness to the never ceasing imagination of the quiltmaker” (Wardlaw, 2002, p. 15). She used her material surroundings to create a statement—a statement that intends, in turn, to help facilitate the change of her material surroundings. Students may see in this example the potential for the use of material literacy to change one's circumstances. This quilt is truly a reflective, new media text.


About the Author