When Sarah Harris left her 20-year-old home in Ireland to return to her native Colorado, she brought with her the quilting business she had started in County Wicklow, making orders for “memory quilts,” patchwork patterns consisting of baby blankets, graduation dresses. or old clothes of deceased relatives. Before making it into a business, quilting was something she did for herself – a way to connect with her mother and grandmother, both quilters in the United States, in spirit and in the practice.
“My mom and I would make two of the same quilt,” Harris said. “We would start it together [in Colorado] when I visited them and would continue to make them separately when I got back to Ireland, working on them at the same time, so that we each have one – the same, but separate. “
Quilting with her mom on FaceTime or Quilting Alone and knowing her mom was working on the same project, Harris was part of a centuries-old tradition, using quilts to connect with family across time and distance.
In the past year of pandemic lockdown, Harris has been in an increasingly robust business as she and others have turned to the internet – and Instagram, in particular – to embrace the profession as their “pass.” pandemic time “of choice. Many people have found the quilt to provide a meditative departure from anxiety or grief, an outlet for pent-up creative energy, or “an act of cultural recuperation and narrative-building,” like a quilt in Toronto, inspired by the practice of the patchwork of his great-grandmother. , put it in a recent essay on how the hobby gets him through the pandemic.
According to Valerie Wilson, curator of textiles at the National Museums of Northern Ireland, Irish and American quilting culture is deeply intertwined. Together, they reveal a rich cultural tale of scarcity, hardship, ingenuity, persistence, and – particularly relevant to the rise of the hobby pandemic – the human connection.
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In the 19th century, Wilson explains, Irish immigrants to the United States took their customs with them, bringing comforters to wrap and transport their belongings, to use them for warmth and comfort on their journey, and to remind them of their home- them. Putting names and personal stories to this story, Roselind Shaw, a quilting ethnographer in Belfast, documented the tales of North Irish families of quilts washed and laid out to dry on beach rocks when immigrant boats reached the American coasts, or sending quilts from Derry. as wedding gifts to young immigrants making their way into the New World.
In turn, Irish settlers in the United States would send patterns, fabrics, and finished quilts to their families back home – or use them to wrap gifts perhaps more valuable than the quilts themselves.
According to Wilson, who oversees the historic quilt collection at NMNI Ulster Folk Museum just outside Belfast, new styles began to emerge in Irish quilting in the 1870s that showed this American influence – among them, the Log Cabin, Kaleidoscope and Irish Chain designs, the latter of which may or may not be originally from Ireland. In this exchange, Irish and Irish American families created a transatlantic correspondence of culture, design and tradition that has continued for generations, blurring the lines between Irish and American designs and styles and reinforcing the importance of quilting in both cultures.
The quilt was a 19th century version of a bachelorette party
As key as the quilt is to bonding families in Ireland and the United States, Wilson added, it also united local communities. As immigration to the United States increased and the quilt exchange continued, quilts became much more than just a utility of warmth or decorative items to dress up a room: with “quilt parts”. The very act of quilting has taken on a central role in the social life of rural Irish communities – a reason as important to come together as a wake, but under much happier conditions.
“The social aspect of the quilt has been very important here in Ireland in the past and still is,” Wilson said. For example, the 19th century Irish version of the bachelorette or bachelorette party was entirely quilt-centric: quilt frames were loaned between households; the women gathered to make a quilt for the bride together; the host put food and drinks as a thank you; and once the quilt was finished, it became the centerpiece of a number of customs. For example, Wilson said that participants gathered around the edges of a quilt and that the cat in the house – every rural house had a cat, she noted – would be thrown in the middle of the quilt.
“The cat would obviously jump up and run out the door,” she said, “and the unmarried girl closest to the cat would be the next person to marry.
Over the past 100 years, throwing cats on brides-to-be quilts has gradually given way to other types of gathering. Before the pandemic, community quilting culture was on the rise, both in the United States and Ireland, where local quilting and quilting guilds thrive and quilting exhibitions are among the most frequented events. folk museums. Especially in Northern Ireland, the practice is thriving. For a look into the past, the NMNI is home to the largest collection of quilts and quilts in the country. For a glimpse into the present, independent quilt shops across the country offer courses with a local character (and, in some cases, local threads, from Bangor to Ballymena to the annual Quilt Fayre in Belfast. And now, during pandemic, a growing number of quilters around the world – both expert and inexperienced – are finding community in virtual circles.
In “quilt-alongs” or “to sew“On Instagram, a group of quilters commit to doing the same project together for a set period of time, using an event-specific hashtag to share their progress as they go.
“Instagram has been an amazing community,” said Sarah Steiner, a self-proclaimed “pandemic quilter” in northern Indiana who first took over the hobby last July and says it has helped her. find calm, focus and relief. “I had no idea that so many creatives have accounts and publish their quilts. My mom, aunt and I did a sewing together and it gave us something to talk about other than Covid.”
This digital version of the quilted bee is also what attracted Amari Thomsen to San Francisco to this craft. “It’s like a book club, but instead you have a finished quilt at the end,” Thomsen said of the quilts. “I thought this community building activity was so smart, so I joined one and instantly got hooked.”
Thomsen’s relationship in the quilting world grew rapidly. “The online quilting community has no demographic or geographic boundaries, and you can learn something new from every quilter,” she says.
Pinterest recently reported a 100% year-over-year increase in searches for ‘Irish quilt patterns’
Some of these virtual quilt-alongs are intimate – a group of friends meeting virtually rather than in person – while others offer a glimpse into the grand scale of participants. The month-long Instagram Quilt Festival (held every March to celebrate National Quilt Month) had 10 times more posts at the end of March 2020 than in March 2019, and in the first 10 days of the 2021 edition, it had almost as many posts – over 10,000 – as those shared throughout the March 2020 #IGquiltfest combined.
Meanwhile, Pinterest recently reported a 100% year-over-year increase in searches for “Irish quilt patterns,” like the Celtic Twist and Connemara Star – many of which are more popular with Americans who make to connect with Irish culture only with the Irish. themselves.
While quilting in a strictly virtual world offers new opportunities for human connection, the age-old tug of war to engage face-to-face attracts even newcomers.
“Buying supplies online and learning new techniques through virtual video tutorials is all I know,” said Thomsen, as she finalized her 10th project in seven months – a quilt at half-square triangular pattern that she created from recycled chambray. shirts she pulled from her wardrobe during the quarantine spring cleaning – and posted her progress on her Instagram, nextgenquilting. “I can’t wait that I can set foot in a local fabric store or join a local quilting guild and interact with my peers in person.”
Some come for the community and stay for stress relief, others vice versa – but for most quilters, these benefits go hand in hand.
“Fifty percent of the reasons quilt meetings are done is to have a cup of tea and a piece of cake, discuss and solve the world’s problems,” said Stephanie Green, who has left her home. nursing career just over ten years ago. to open the Green Acres Quilts store, which operates in its home county, County Donegal, Ireland. “It’s probably only 20 minutes or half an hour that we stop during three to four hours of sewing, but it’s just vital.” At Green’s store, classes recently resumed with masks and social distancing measures in place, and tutorials moved on to local TV shows.
Back in Colorado, Harris still misses his local quilting company in Ireland as well as his local quilt shop, owned by a mother and two daughters a few towns from his old home in County Wicklow. But it’s flowing everyday, especially this year, turning to hashtags and comments for a virtual quilting community to replace, for now, the one it once had.
“I incorporated a lot more Irish designs into my quilts, which I never would have done in Ireland – they would have laughed at me, [saying] “It’s so American!” She said. “Funny, when I was in Ireland I didn’t want to be associated with America at all. But now I do a lot of Irish writing on my quilts. I think I’m homesick. . So I see it a little differently – and I reflect that in my quilts. “
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