From The Vault
by Joan E. Killem
The roots of American quilting can be traced to the earliest settlers of Jamestown. By studying a myriad of quilts and quilt patterns, social historians glean information about the living conditions of the past and about the lives of women of earlier times. As a means of personal and artistic expression, shared mostly by women, quilt patterns portray and memorialize an array of lifetime events and significant passages. Perhaps the most commonly recognized quilt is the Double Wedding Ring pattern, used to celebrate love and marriage. However, a plethora of patterns exists which express themes such as patriotism, political ideals, ethnic and cultural traditions, friendship, family, and mourning. There is virtually no subject orThe AIDS Quilt
event for which a quilt cannot be made. The recent appearance of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, started in 1986, is a grand scale approach to commemorating the lives of AIDS virus victims and drawing attention to the need for a cure for the disease. A thirty foot tall electronic quilt consisting of seventy-two electronic patches of pictures and text will be the centerpiece of The Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future scheduled to open in October 2000 at Fair Park in Dallas, Texas.
In the movie, How to Make an American Quilt, based on a novel by Whitney Otto, the members of the Grasse Quilting Bee stitch pieces from the stories of their lives as they each reflect on the significant passage their quilt block portrays. Finn Bennett-Dodd, portrayed by Winona Ryder, is a twenty-six year old graduate student at the University of California at Berkley who decides to spend the summer at her great aunt's home in Grasse, California to finish her thesis, her third attempt after quitting two times. She says the more she knows about something, the less she wants to know about it. Her current thesis topic deals with how women's handiwork in various tribal cultures reflects a sense of ritual. Ironically, Finn arrives just as the Grasse Quilting Bee is setting up for their traditional meeting at the home of her Aunt Gladys Joe Cleary (Anne Bancroft), which she shares with Finn's widowed grandmother, Hyacinth or Hy Dodd (Ellen Burstyn).
Newly engaged to her boyfriend, Sam, portrayed by Dermot Mulroney, and the product of hippie era parents who divorced when she was very young, Finn brings along for the summer emotional baggage that weighs heavily on her. Still unsure why her parents' marriage failed, she wonders if perhaps it is no one's fault when marriage fails. Love simply dies. Years of watching her mother discard an endless string of boyfriends have taken their toll on Finn's confidence in her own choices. Imprinted in her mind is a recent conversation in which her mother proclaimed that lifetime commitments are impossible and that "serial monogamy" is the only way to go. Finn's worries about the future are robbing her of the joy of her engagement.
Sam has driven Finn to Aunt Glady's, and they agree he will pick her up in September. He plans to spend the summer renovating their future home, tearing down partitions, building new walls, relocating plumbing, and creating an office and an extra room. Symbolic of stripping away layers of the old life in preparation for a new one, Sam's actions seem healthy and indicative of confident choices for the future. Finn, however, struggles with how you merge into a couple while still keeping yourself intact. She seems to ask this question figuratively of Anna Neale, portrayed by Maya Angelou, the leader of the quilting bee. Is Anna trying to harmonize the different elements of the quilt blocks, made by different hands, to create a kind of continuity within the piece? Anna quips that she just doesn't want "a damn ugly quilt," and she announces to the group that the theme for this quilt will be Where Love Resides. Each woman will create a quilt block to express her view of where love resides. Anna's challenge will be to bring the varying elements together in a balanced and harmonious design. When completed, the quilt will be the group's wedding gift to Finn.
The history of the Grasse Quilting Bee women, Gladys, Hy, Anna, Sophia, Em, and Constance, is seen through flashbacks and through their private conversations with Finn. Aunt Gladys and grandmother Hy have struggled to resolve their feelings about a sexual encounter between Hy and Gladys' husband. Apparently a spontaneous event, a lonely Arthur had comforted Hy as her husband, James, lay dying in the hospital. Learning of the encounter, a furious Gladys headed to the hospital to tell James. The fact that she found Hy lovingly attending James calmed Gladys briefly, but in a burst of hysteria later, she broke everything in sight. Seeking a self-induced therapy, Gladys painstakingly plastered the pieces of the broken objects all over her laundry room wall since "self-expression heals the wounded heart."
A friend of Gladys and Hy, Sophia Richards, played by Lois Smith, is an established member of the quilting circle. Sophia had frightened Finn and made her cry as a child. While on an outing to the local swimming pool with Hy and Gladys, Finn discovers that Sophia once loved to dive. A youthful Sophia had met Preston Richards, a geologist fascinated by water and rock, who was enchanted by her diving. Her zeal to escape an overbearing mother drove her to an early marriage and dreams of traveling with Preston and diving throughout the world. Preston continued to pursue his dreams after the birth of their first child extinguished Sophia's dreams. Ultimately, he abandoned her with three young children.
Another friend, Em Reed portrayed by Jean Simmons, recounts how her husband Dean, cheated on her from the first month of their marriage and later did it publicly. She remembers the passion they shared as he painted her nude portrait in the studio cottage. Later Dean would paint "other students." Once she tried to leave him. Although she stayed only two streets away at her parents' home, it took Dean three months to find her. In fact, her parents had packed her things and called him to come and get their pregnant daughter. Em believes that Dean is typical. In the sexual relationship, the female keeps the nest while the male flaunts his feathers. Em confides her intention to leave Dean after all these years but admits she does not even have the strength to tell anyone.
A new arrival to the group, Constance Saunders, played by Kate Nelligan, is still an outsider. She just shows up and sews. Rumors of an extramarital affair make the women apprehensive. Moreover, the yellow patch of the quilt she calls Chickie's garden is throwing off the color balance and Anna's sense of harmonious design. Constance voluntarily quits the project. Walking home with Finn, she confides that her late husband, Howell, had been the love of her life. She reminisces about happier times when they had made home movies in the garden and about their dog, Chickie, who is now buried near the yellow rose bush. Constance goes on to say that Dean started coming by to "see if she needed anything." She thinks the hardest part of being a woman is having women friends.
The master quilter and leader of the group is Anna, who once worked for Aunt Gladys. Yet all the women seem to work for Anna now. She is proud of her own ability and of her quilt collection. Anna's Aunt Pauline had passed down The Life Before quilt made by Anna's great, great grandmother. It is a story quilt, one meant to be read. Every night when Anna was a little girl, Aunt Pauline told her the story of how her great grandparents met. When slavery was abolished, Anna's great grandmother went in search of her parents. After several months on the road, she noticed a crow sitting on a fence and instinctively followed it. When the crow led her to a young man working his land, she knew she had found the man God intended her to marry.
As a child, Anna dreamed that one day if she watched for the crow it would lead her to her true love, too. The Life Before had stayed in the family until Aunt Pauline was forced to sell it for a mere $12.00 to buy shoes and schoolbooks. The new quilt owner's son, Winston, played by Mykelti Williamson, returned home that summer, and their affair left Anna pregnant. Taking her family quilt, Anna left to work with the Rubens family. Their two daughters, Gladys and Hy, would become lifelong friends of Anna, who taught them to sew and to love quilting. When her daughter was born, Anna refused to give her up for adoption. As the infant grew, Anna realized that she, too, was part of the quilt story.
At the conclusion of the film, the Grasse Quilting Bee worked seventy-three straight hours to finish the wedding quilt. As the camera pans across each quilter, the viewer sees each woman's remembrance of where love resides. Em runs her hand over her quilted artist's palette as she remembers the texture of the red velvet chaise in the studio cottage. Sophia's diving girl quilt block includes a fabric of tan seashells and wavy blue seaweed from the dress she had stripped off before diving into her favorite swimming hole to tease Preston. Constance has come back to the group and signals her effort to make "women friends" by adding one pink and one blue flower to Chickie's garden. She remembers clowning around with Howell in the garden near the yellow rose bush. Anna stitches a boy and girl similar to those on her inherited story quilt as she recalls her daughter's birth.
Gladys Joe has quilted a flower vase with two drooping flowers, one on either side of the vase, for she and Arthur had slept apart for years before the incident with Hy. In contrast, Hyacinth's quilting block of interlocking wedding rings with intertwined branches illustrates her happy marriage to James. To symbolize their kinship, Gladys Joe shares her needle threader with Hy, and the viewer sees their blocks are placed side by side in the completed project. All the women's facial expressions reveal their celebration of the joy of love while reconciling its loss.
Finn's grandmother covers her with the finished quilt where she has fallen asleep near the window. When she awakes, Finn lays out the quilt, admiring each block and reflecting on its meaning. A noise at the window distracts her, and Finn wraps herself in the quilt as she goes outside. She follows a flying crow through the citrus grove, anxious about whom it might lead her to. Covered by the wedding quilt, Finn and Sam reunite. Sam has come to know and accept Anna's good advice: "You have to choose your combinations carefully. The right choices will enhance the quilt of life. The wrong choices will dull the colors and hide their original beauty. In life, there are no safe rules. You have to go by instinct. You have to be brave."
Although the New York Times Book Review says How to Make an American Quilt is "a remarkable first novel," the book and the movie may appeal more to quilters and those who love quilts than to others. Women of all backgrounds can appreciate and relate to the weaving of the women's personal lives into the threads of the quilt blocks.
Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard is a fascinating new book which gives historians a great deal of insight into the success of the Underground Railroad movement. The names of ten different quilt patterns served as metaphors in a secret code of communication. As the quilts were displayed on a fence, one at a time, fleeing slaves would know what action to take next. There are many other interesting and informative books about the history of quilts and quilt making including:
The History of the Patchwork Quilt: Origins, Traditions and Symbols of a Textile Art by Schnuppe von Gwinner, translated by Dr. Edward Force
Stitching Memories: African-American Story Quilts by Eva Ungar Grudin
Stitched from the South: Slave Quilts from the Ante-Bellum South by Gladys-Marie Fry
The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort, 1750-1950 by Roderick Kiracofe
And Quilts, A Living Tradition by Robert Shaw