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The Power Of Quilting

The Presentation - courtesy of Tina BaumungThe Power of Quilting - Project week in a Frankfurt school
The Presentation - courtesy of Tina Baumung

The Power of Quilting took place as part of the project week at the Helmholz Schule and at the invitation of the Heussenstamm Stiftung in July 2023 in Frankfurt. Together with twelve students of the 9th and 10th grade and with the great support of the art teacher Mrs. Baumung, they got acquainted with the rarely used possibilities offered by textile handicraft methods from all over the world. In particular, they focused on the creative and artistic qualities of patchwork and quilting.

It is close to my heart to pass on this underrepresented knowledge. By learning hand-me-down craft methods, we can soak in the myriad experiences of many hands in working with fibers and textiles. For me, they are like a treasure chest of collective knowledge that goes back to our very beginnings. Women are the protagonists of this barely told story.

The Power of Quilting - Project week in a Frankfurt school
Courtesy of Tina Baumung

I began by introducing the fantastic quilts of Gee's Bend, the women who sew them, and the incredible Rosie Lee Tompkins with her improvised quilts. How are they made, what makes them stand out, and what can I do with needle and thread and the used fabrics that were piling up on the table? We eschewed sewing machines and sewed exclusively by hand. It's an intimate, slow and creative process.

First, the students sewed a leather thimble and learned how to make the quilters knot. Then they each cut four small rectangles, which were sewn together in precise sequence. This created a sculptural shape, a juggling ball, which also served as a pincushion for the girls and boys. This took up the first day. By Thursday, twelve individual patchwork blocks were sewn and presented on a homemade cord. The relaxed concentration in the room was always palpable, the results amazing to the trained eye. Some blocks featured figurative appliqué, others utilized abstract reverse appliqué and embroidery. Others incorporated sheer fabrics like lace, as well as velvet, polyester and existing fabric patterns. One student overdyed the fabrics, making them her own. Another littered her block with countless monochromatic stitches and focused on the quilting itself.

The Power of Quilting - Project week in a Frankfurt school

The materiality of the fabrics makes textile art a special art form that moves at the interface of painting, sculpture and craft. As always in making pictures, colour played a major role, as well as composition.

The material is also in the context of cultural history, economics and society. I would like to write more about it.

Making textiles is one of the first inventions of mankind.

But why is it common to ridicule textile handcraft and to hardly reward the work of people in cotton plantations, weaving mills and at the sewing machine? Why has textile art only played a role in the Western, contemporary understanding of art for a few years?

Fabrics do not last forever and were accordingly rarely survived the grip of time. The first cords were used to knot nets for fishing, to transport things, and to tie arrows together. It was a groundbreaking discovery. The oldest surviving garment is a fringed skirt. It did not warm, nor did it cover the pubic. It is a significant piece and speaks to the fact that textiles are always symbolic in nature. In school we learn nothing about the textile findings and their meaning.

Other reasons why we know little about it are economic and political. These reasons harbor violence and exploitation of nature and people. Textiles are what we live in and with. It is a huge market.

Wars were fought to secure access to alum, which is used for dyeing. Red silk was as expensive as gold, and whoever possessed it as a commoner was punished by death.

With the guilds began a process in which textiles made in the home were devalued, and with them the work of women in general. It was considered important that the people who made textiles receive as little as possible of the profits that were earned from textiles en masse. Eventually, women themselves became disenfranchised and lost all ability to farm independently. We call this period the Age of Reason. [1]

The enslavement of people from Africa and South America for the labor-intensive cultivation of cotton in the New World must be seen in this context, as well as the imperialistic activities of the East India Company (1600 to 1874!), which, with its own army, drove the once prosperous Indian weavers into continued exploitation in cotton farming. They became the replacement for the lack of slave labor after the Proclamation of Liberation in North America. The spinning wheel is not without reason the symbol of the Indian independence movement around Mahatma Gandhi.

Feminists usually categorize textile work as an "instrument of oppression" invented by men. This perpetuates the disregard for these works.

It is this narrative that we ignorantly and uncritically agree to. We blindly consume more than we need and dispose of the smallest stain. So it is only logical to no longer give our children the option of being able to sew their own clothes, not to mention spinning, weaving and cord making. We think it's irrelevant and have lost sight of it ourselves.

I want to do something about it.

Art is a language that speaks from heart to heart and mind to mind.

Alan Moore

As soon as I sit down and pick up the needle, I look forward to creating cuddly things in tranquility. These cuddly and touching things, which have been and are still being designed in exuberant variety, are intimate and personal.

It is worthwhile to keep the needle and thread as a living tool of communication, to combine the useful with the creative. In this way, we not only recognize the tremendous achievement that women have made in our human history, but we can also point to it with pride.

We can use it ourselves to express ourselves creatively. We can share the know-how with our children, and the children with their children.

Quilts were born out of these human conditions, the need to make do with what is there, the utility, the togetherness, and the desire for connection, for meaning, and creative joy. The women of Gee's Bend and Rosie Lee Tompkins paint a vivid picture of this.

It was an intense week. I thank sincerely for the opportunity, for the great commitment of the students, the support of the school and Mrs. Baumung and the Heussenstamm Stiftung!

Carolin Kropff

August 2023

[1] Worn – A People´s History of Clothing von Sofi Thanhauser, 2022

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