Quilted Essays by Sarah Minor
Quilting is best known as a domestic art, but traditional quilts follow deeply coded patterns that communicate much more than comfort and artistry. A quilt’s surface can often be “read” through linguistic and graphic cues. In many cultures, quilts act as historical documents that preserve narratives about place and identity. The scholar Mara Witzling writes that quilts historically “enabled women to speak the truth about their lives” by joining many disparate fragments, which when read together make a specific and often subversive “utterance.” In 19th century America, quilts made many different utterances: they could transmit a local history, recount one version of a family feud, or physically connect living women to their ancestors by combining inherited fabrics. Before women’s suffrage arrived, American women also made quilts to express their political sentiments. Many examples of political quilts, like those credited with securing the presidency for William McKinley, joined campaign ribbons with fabric and other text-based materials. These quilts gave a voice to women who could not yet legally submit their votes.
Like every quilt I’ve started but never finished, many traditional quilted patterns begin in the middle. First, the quilter chooses the centerpiece and, then, works outward, attaching sections of fabric with even stitches as the blanket begins to expand. Colors, textures, and weights are joined gradually to develop a composite image. Quilters call this process “piecing.” As a material metaphor for nonfiction, writers interested in new forms might consider “piecing” sections of text as a means of working outwards from a kind of center. This center could be the most significant or challenging moment in an essay. From there, the process of “piecing” a text, rather than writing it in a straight line, could free the writer from concerns about repetition, foundations, and chronology. In a quilted essay, a newspaper headline might fall beside a personal scene, and beside other diverse materials that build gradually toward a larger complex “utterance.” To talk about a quilted text, we writers might admire the variety and contrast of the materials an author chooses or the way a writer situates sections carefully, in conversation, so we readers can still keep our eyes on the center.
This fascinating essay came to me via Kate McCahill.
Photos of Chinese tribal dowry quilt, editor’s collection.