Healing Through Stitch
Words by Faye Oakenfull
'Why Quilts?' is the question I get asked most regularly. Luckily I can pinpoint the exact moment quilts came into my life. It was 1996 and I was 5 years old. I was introduced to the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt through my mother, who had been working for North Yorkshire AIDS Action since the loss of her uncle in 1993 (read about Walter here). Following a trip to Washington DC to see the worlds largest display of the Memorial Quilt earlier that year, Mum had been involved in organising a smaller display of the quilt for World's AIDS Day in Spurriergate Cafe in York.
"The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, often abbreviated to AIDS Memorial Quilt or AIDS Quilt, is an enormous memorial to celebrate the lives of people who have died of AIDS-related causes. Weighing an estimated 54 tons, it is the largest piece of community folk art in the world as of 2020."
I have clear memories of the days spent back and forth from home to the cafe for the set up. The cafe was situated in an old church and the quilt panels were suspended from the ceilings as well as laid out across the floors. Although I was only a young child at the time, it was clearly a profound enough experience to have always stayed with me. I'll never forget learning about the quilt, as well as meeting the makers of the panels and the unforgettable, emotional and cathartic atmosphere that this beautiful expanse of artwork brought with it.
Newspaper cutting of Mum and the North Yorkshire panel made for the quilt.
Panels are sewn together in collections of 8.
The AIDS Memorial Quilt being displayed in it's full entirety for the first time in Washington DC, 1996.
Photos mum took of quilt panels in 1996.
The Aids Memorial Quilt.
The Names Project Exhibition poster designed by mum's best friend Jason in 2000.
The AIDS Memroial Quilt.
Leaflet from the 1996 Display of the Names Project in Washington D.C.
Fast forward to 2009 and The AIDS Memorial Quilt makes it's first appearance in one of my University essays about the sentimentality of objects. By 2012 I was creating garments in digital prints of quilts that have been in our family for generations (scanning an entire quilt piece by piece into an A4 scanner is an experience I will not be repeating again anytime soon) and in my first year at the Royal College of Art (2013) I created a project around the story of the Wandsworth Prison Quilt.
"The quilt commissioned for the V&A was both sewn and designed by inmates across the prison estate of HMP Wandsworth... The aim of the quilt was to convey the experience of incarceration through stitch – both individual and collective responses to 21st-century prison life... The diversity of subject matter across the hexagons reflects personal stories and communal issues, as well as commenting on the prison system itself."
By the time of graduating in 2014, I decided it was finally time to tell the story of my Great Uncle Walter through visual celebration in my collection 'A Story for the Quilt', much like the panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
Digitally printed family quilt.
Wandsworth Prison Quilt
Quilted Men's Trench from collection 'A Story For the Quilt'.
Newly printed quilt fabric.
The irony being in all this love of quilts - I had never made a quilt myself. Queue a global pandemic (thanks 2020) and finally I made my first. It turns out quilts are just as fun to make as they are to look at and have quickly my favourite kind of project.
So back to the question 'Why Quilts?'. Quilts tell stories. Whether it's stitching for rehabilitation, or a family heirloom passed down through generations, darned and repaired with old curtains or childrens outgrown clothes, or even a healing, commemorative piece for someone no longer here, they all have a history. I would like my quilts to be cherished in the same way, a practical piece of art - used, worn and celebrated for it's imperfections and the memories it holds.
In a time of mass consumerism, fast fashion and climate crisis, let's enjoy some sentimentality.
"Have nothing in your houses you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful"