From the ridiculously snug (and second-hand) patchwork number A$AP Rocky famously wore to this year’s Met Gala, to the blanket on your grandma’s bed — a quilters’ talent is turning scraps of material into treasured slabs of snugness. Painstakingly-stitched blankets have been passed down through generations for hundreds of years and have been keeping us cosy for thousands. But there’s far more to quilts than just snuggling up. Often, they’re tactile places where important stories are told. One of the earliest ever preserved examples – a 14th Century bed cover from Sicily – recounts the legend of two tragically-doomed lovers called Tristan and Isolde through its careful stitches. It’s the Medieval answer to watching a rom-com.
Often pieced together from otherwise unwanted scraps of material, there’s also a political history to quilting which goes under the radar. In many cases these humble blankets have been crafted to protest, celebrate, and give voice to marginalised communities. From the hand-quilted banners sewn by campaigners fighting for women’s right to vote to the anti-slavery fundraiser quilts that were collaboratively stitched by groups of abolitionists in 1830s North America, the medium’s carefully-woven history shows how sewing skills can be used to spread a message.
It’s for this reason that Jess Bailey decided to start Public Library Quilts. Originally from California, she currently works as an art historian in London, specialising in work made in the European Middle Ages. Growing up, Bailey was surrounded by creative makers; her grandma taught her to sew when she was a child, and her dad would make brightly-coloured nylon kites to fly on the beach in her home state of California. On the shelves in their house, volumes on establishment abstract painters like Mark Rothko sat next to books about the Gee’s Bend quilters; a community of Black women in Alabama who have passed their bold, experimental quilt-making methods down through three generations. “I was very lucky to grow up in a family where there was no question whether quilts were art or not,’ Bailey explains. “I was steeped in that patchwork and sewing culture, and sleeping under the quilts that my relatives had made.”
Outside of her home, however, Bailey noticed that quilting was often ignored or falsely sidelined as a harmless pursuit of housewives and community sewing groups. “It's a medium that traditionally doesn’t serve patriarchal values, and works against normative power structures,” she explains. “Quilts are so often community-made, and that’s something that really challenges the patriarchal structures of art history. Those structures depend on a singular genius narrative: the artist who was a genius as a child and became fully-fledged as an adult. That’s the trajectory, but it presumes a lot of privilege around how art is integrated into your life. A lot of people just have a bit of time after their kids go to bed. I love that quilts are often made by more than one person!”
Quilts are so often community-made, and that’s something that really challenges the patriarchal structures of art history.
“Being an art historian I just couldn’t resist sharing the history of quilting that I was coming across,” she says, “for me, if you’re going to invest in an artistic practice [like quilting], it’s important to know where [it] comes from; to embrace the power in these legacies, and the foremothers and forefathers who have carried it forward. There’s so much power and joy in that.”
Unlike the paintings that hang on the walls of the world’s biggest galleries, out of reach next to a “do not touch” sign, quilts can be useful household objects to snuggle up under every day. Making a quilt for somebody is often an act of love and collaboration to keep future generations warm. One of the pieces Bailey spotlights in her zine Many Hands Make A Quilt celebrates Black joy and power – in The Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles, artist Faith Ringgold imagines eight figureheads of Black liberation (including Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells) gathered around a bright floral quilt of blooming sunflowers. The image suggests the present is nurtured by their past activism. Bailey, meanwhile, recently sewed a memory quilt for the family of a woman named Negar, who was killed when Ukraine International Airlines’ flight PS752 was shot down in Iran last year – the finished quilt incorporates pieces of Negar’s most treasured clothes.
For Bailey, the softness of quilts is inextricable from their political significance. “When you’re a community affected by some kind of trauma and you have this great burden of trying to tell people without that lived experience about that trauma, that’s a really exhausting and horrible task,” she says. “Doing it in a way that is an art form, which is also loving, is really powerful. I see these political quilts as being things that are both about telling a really needed story to the outside world, and then simultaneously the process of making these quilts I think is actually deeply healing for the people who need it the most.”
“The quilts that I grew up around were made by the women in my family really from whatever they had, in the spare time they had after work,” Bailey says. “There’s this foundational feeling among quilters that you already have what you need to make a quilt. That’s something really beautiful that’s threaded throughout historical quilts. They take things that other people don’t see the potential in. With it, they create beauty and comfort.”
Want to know more? Here are two more political quilts to check out:
Traditional Queer Double Wedding Ring Quilt, Angie Wilson (2009)
“There have always been queer quilters, and I think the way that resistance is visible obviously changes depending on the artist and the moment in time,” Bailey explains. “With this quilt by Angie Wilson, she’s showing the beauty of queer love through taking a traditional symbol: the folk double wedding ring pattern. That pattern is used in the quilt that my great aunt made for my parents when they got married, right, it’s one of the quilts you will make in your lifetime as a North American folk quilter, and is this very storied symbol of interlocking wedding rings. Angie Wilson’s quilt is this fabulous mid-2000s, lush, velveteen pink quilt with vagina shapes encoiled between the wedding rings. It’s an expression of queer love. It’s so powerful for queer artists to claim the richness, love and privacy of domestic space.
Star of Bethlehem pattern variation quilt, Ellen Morton Littlejohn and Margaret Morton Bibb (1837-50)
“There’s a quilt I adore in the Metropolitan museum in New York, made in the late 19th century by two enslaved women, Ellen Morton-Littlejohn and her sister Margeret Morton-Bibb,” Bailey explains. “They produced this exceptionally beautiful quilt with the Star of Bethlehem folk pattern, and beyond it being this really challenging art object because it indexes the abuse of slavery and the conditions under which they were forced to make it for their enslaver, they found a really powerful way to note the conditions. The batting [insulating layer] of the quilt is actually not wool, it’s cotton. The quilt has pattern-piecing like you would expect in a folk quilt, but in between the stars, pieced in different colours of silk, is this textural quilting, where the stitching is what actually makes the design and pattern. It produces this sort of stuffed, three-dimensional shape. They produced images of local plants. Between the choice to use cotton - which is obviously such a storied and troubled medium within North America, and was being produced on the plantation where they lived – and incorporating imagery of the land around them into the substrate of the quilt…I thought it was such an incredible artwork.”