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The joy of finishing Rita’s quilt
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The joy of finishing Rita’s quilt 

The women may have been connected by social media, but Tiffany, who has also brought the youngest person in the room with her – her daughter Aeowyn, aged 12 – says the sewing bee is a welcome break from the digital onslaught of modern life.

“There’s so much isolation right now. You have children playing video games. We’re so separated from each other. So this is the epitome of coming together. Especially because this quilt is of the states. We have so many different opinions and belief systems. But none of that matters in this room.”

The embroiderers have, however, added their own little tweaks.

Tiffany has taken the artistic liberty of adding wild rice to her hexagon to represent native communities in Minnesota.

Photo of Rita Smith

In fact one of the stitchers who isn’t at the sewing bee, but contributed another of the hexagons, said she had contemplated including the land boundaries of the native communities living in the area at the time it became one of the US states. 

Shannon says she applauds the use of the quilt for that conversation, but also feels when completing projects that she’s acting as the “hands” of the project originator who may not have wanted to change the pattern. 

“I do want this to be a conversation we’re having though, and I’m glad that’s started online,” she says.

Romanian Laura Najemy, who wasn’t at the sewing bee but took part in the the project, told us by phone that it gave her a connection to her own grandmother, Minodora Boriga, 85.

She is an “amazing textile artist,” Laura said, “but at the age where she can’t do it any more”.

“The idea of helping someone of her generation was so moving,” she added. “My grandmother taught me everything – how to sew, knit, and crochet. And she also taught me about those moments when you do a textile project and your stresses vanish. It’s just you and the work you’re doing. It’s very powerful. It’s a way of practising mindfulness and meditation – and I wish more people knew about it. They would be so much more balanced. You sit down with your thread and you don’t even realise you’re resting.”

But when Laura showed Minodora her hexagon over Skype – the state of Delaware, her adopted home for the last six years – her grandmother had some reservations. 

Laura Najemy’s finished Delaware hexagon

“She commented that the beak [of the bird] didn’t look right,” said Laura, an artist and lawyer. So I redid it.

“By elevating women’s textiles as art, you elevate my grandmother’s work. She has created things that would take your breath away.”

Shannon says it is important that the project be seen in this way. She says that handicraft has been historically viewed as “right down the bottom of the hierarchy of art”.

“Rita represents so many people and so much more than this one quilt. It’s become synonymous with a larger piece of women’s art and legacy.”

Shannon herself uses embroidery to create provocative art work, stitching slogans on fabric and posting photos of the pieces on social media because she finds it more effective than words and images alone. 

“It stops people in their tracks because it’s so unexpected,” she says. 

Although Rita’s quilt is more traditional in design, finishing it has nevertheless fulfilled Shannon’s other aim in her work of building community.

“For each person, the meaning has been so different.” Some have reconnected with family, some have sewn for the first time, she says. “It’s so layered. Everyone has their own connection to it.”

Jewellery designer Vanessa Walilko, who is also helping out with the sewing bee, sees the importance of finishing a piece of work. 

“My boyfriend Ed Siemienkowicz passed away a couple of years ago. He was a comic book artist and a tonne of his friends – more than 100 – got together to finish his book. They were just moved by it. Someone carrying a project to the finish line is important.

Vanessa Walilko

“He had finished the script and illustrated the first page… Everybody knew it was his life’s work. All of his friends, who loved him so much. The day after he passed, they said ‘We’re finishing the book.’

“So, when I heard about Rita’s quilt, it resonated. I couldn’t do anything for Ed’s book – but my grandmother had taught me to hand sew when I was six. This felt important.”

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