For centuries, women have been sitting down and quietly stitching their hopes, dreams, stories, and artistic visions into quilts, then putting them on beds and walking anonymously away. But today, quilters are voiceless no more. Quilting is a $3.6 billion industry, with 20 million adherents and a passionate cadre of fans. And thanks to exhibits like “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” these homey, hauntingly evocative creations have been lauded by critics as “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”
Quilts are finally beginning to get the artistic respect they deserve – thanks in large part to the efforts of The Alliance for American Quilts, a tiny powerhouse of an organization that is fanatically committed to preserving, archiving and promoting quilters and quilting online. Its most sumptuous treasure is the Quilt Index, an online database of more than 50,000 quilts from museums and state documentation projects (in a collaboration between the Alliance and Michigan State University Museum, plus MSU’s MATRIX: Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online).
The Quilt Index allows readers to log on and see a Tennessee quilt from 1850, then zoom in and compare it, stitch by stitch, with a quilt from Massachusetts from the 1950s. It’s like unlocking the treasures of every basement, attic, museum warehouse, and hope chest – along with the hearts of each woman (or man) who stitched these quilts together.
If every quilt is an expression of love as well as a work of art, you can honestly claim that every stitcher tells a story. So the Alliance for American Quilts has also pioneered a grassroots oral history project called Quilters’ S.O.S. (for Save our Stories) to document the living history of over 1,000 current quiltmakers. Interviews are conducted by volunteers across America (much like the Story Corps project) with noteworthy quilters and their “touchstone” quilt, and archived at the Library of Congress. Anyone can interview a quilter by downloading the protocol online and working with the Alliance staff, and the results are poignant, funny, touching and profound. Clearly, quilting is an international language that speaks from the heart and expresses itself in fabric, design, visual narrative, and the tiniest of stitches.
Working on a slender skein of donations and foundation grants, the Alliance makes the most of every gift, but a recent matching challenge grant will double every dollar given up to $30,000 until October 31. That’s a transformative pot of money for a feisty, frugal organization with a tiny staff and big ambitions.
In honor of my grandmother, a gifted quilter, I’m privileged today to offer my $100 to the Alliance for American Quilts and all those anonymous women who took up their needles and sat down to create something beautiful, something timeless, something that they would be remembered by. To join me in making sure their legacy is documented, preserved and widely shared, click here!