Creativity and Crisis

Quilting Bee

Reflections from the Festival: Quilt-Making Magic

By Katie Cardenas

Tradition, practice, and legacy unite seamlessly into the stitches of each panel that comprise The AIDS Memorial Quilt. While no two panels on The Quilt are the same, certain sewing methods and quilt production techniques are universal throughout the practice of quilting. From the most basic running stitches to elaborate weaving designs, an entire textile culture exists around the creation of quilt panels. However, fabric and thread are not the only elements involved in the ritual of Quilting Bee. The relationships forged in the panel-making process represent the memorable, intangible aspects of the quilting ritual. The ability to help others is often the most rewarding part of working at The NAMES Project Foundation. As a panel-making facilitator, Christopher Locklear knows the basics of engaging those hoping to start a panel. “Eye contact is the initial step. After that, it is all about letting them tell you their story and gaining their trust slowly.” Experienced panel makers comprehend the value of listening and creating a safe space for people to share intimate details of their lives, loves, and losses.

By walking potential quilters through the steps of planning, picking fabric, and learning the basics of sewing, facilitators provide space for participants to open up about the loved ones they have lost. “One thing I always do with someone after I gather supplies is go on a walking tour of panels, to see what techniques other quilters, seamstresses, artists, and regular Joes have created. Our willingness to give up ourselves totally as creative inspiration and as a listening ear seems to be just the ticket to make someone say I can do this,” said Marquetta Bell-Johnson, another panel maker.

At the 2012 Folklife Festival, visitors were invited to take part in Quilt ritual by assisting in stitching, design, and repair — adding their own creative flair to pre-existing panels. With each personal contribution, “you become part of history,” states panel-making facilitator Stephanie Laster. “When you see it on the news tonight, or in eighty years you can say I took part in that.” By generating a safe space to create, grieve, and remember, the hands-on rituals of the Quilting Bee tent proved a cathartic outlet for all those touched by the AIDS pandemic.

Katie Cardenas was an intern for the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Creativity and Crisis: Unfolding The AIDS Memorial Quilt program. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt University, where she studied Anthropology, Global Health, and Spanish.

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A Festival visitor works on a panel at the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Photo by Francisco Guerra, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution