It’s sad to think that after the Supreme Court’s ruling on Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that this quilt is even more poignant than it already was. It makes writing about it during Women’s History Month a bit bittersweet.
Where Women Stood (A Stitch in Time)
One of the most stunning finds of my textiles career, this dated (1986) and multi-person documented quilt is so full of history I almost don’t know where to begin.
The core of the piece is about females — women’s health, women’s reproductive rights, women’s dignity, the phases of a woman’s life, the female place in American society.
The significant amount of historical notation on the piece, along with its unique subject matter, makes this rare quilt a collector’s dream for anyone seeking a truly unique vintage expression of American gender politics in fiber art. Supporters of women’s rights, textiles collectors, and even collectors of signifying Americana will find this irresistible.
The hand-sewn quilt is identified in fabric pen on the back with:
“This quilt was made in 1986 by the women listed on the blocks. It was assembled and quilted at the Women’s Center of Montgomery County, PA. The quilt was raffled on Mother’s Day, May 11, 1986.”
The raffle event was to celebrate the center’s 10th anniversary, as it was founded in 1976, during the nation’s 200th birthday, adding another historic layer to this remarkable piece. Montgomery County, Pa is a densely populated suburban and rural county outside Philadelphia.
Two of the quilt blocks speak to the center’s anniversary. One depicts a rotary desk phone in appliqué, the center’s hotline, with a phone number. Under this is 1976-1986. In two corners are the astrological/alchemical Greek symbol for females. On the back it reads “Hotline” by Donna Leichner.
The other block referencing the anniversary is titled “The Women’s Center is Born” by Linda Collins. It’s mixed media — appliqué and fabric paint — with the female symbol planted as a sunflower, and in fabric paint it reads:
“The Women’s Center of Eastern Montgomery County
Open Meeting— Monday-February 16, 1976 — 8:15 P.M. — Abington Free Library 1030 York Road
We Need Help Organizing A Variety of Services for Women.”
Here are a few shots from the piece:
Reproductive Rights in Late 20th Century America
Several blocks distinctly represent women’s reproductive health matters in a different ways:
- An appliqué and silver embroidery piece featuring the top of the Statue of Liberty with the words “Freedom to Choose” in silver embroidery thread titled “Statue of Liberty.” By Marge Weigner.
- One appliqué depicts a nearly full term baby in the womb. Titled “The Family is One.” By Delphine Sherrin.
- “Women — the Real Guinea Pigs” by Donna Sayer is an appliquéd guinea pig with embroidered names of women-centric medicine, contraception, and surgeries whose results and/or impact weren’t always known until after use or implementation — IUD, The Pill, Mastectomy, Hysterectomy, Flagyl, Dalkon Shield, ERT (estrogen replacement therapy), and DES (Diethylstilboestrol) are mentioned.
- “Women’s Center Logo” by Barbara Mortenson features three appliquéd female symbols interlocked and represents the health services offered by this center.
Other blocks highlight significant female figures:
- A fabric painting homage to artist and women’s advocate Kathë Kollwitz’s 1916 “Mother with a Child in her Arms.” Titled “Kathë Kollovitz.” By Jeanette Cooper.
- An appliqué of the scales of justice with one female figure on the left and eight male figures on the right. The piece is titled “Sandra Day O’Connor.” By Eleanor Kanach.
- Rosa Parks is depicted in fabric painting with quilted definition. The year “1955” and her name are embroidered in black. Titled “I Am Not Going to Move” by Donna Leichner.
- “Betsy Ross” is rendered in appliqué with two flags embroidered above her and the years 1776-1986. The Liberty Bell is embroidered on this square, too. By Martha Gerhart.
- “Native American Moon Goddess” features a dancing Indian woman in fabric paint and quilt outline along with some surviving beading detail. By Linda Collins.
- “From Bloomers to Labels” by Kay Patton features a pair of appliquéd doll bloomers with rectangular labels and the painted names of significant female designers — women like Coco Chanel, Anne Klein, Laura Ashley, etc.
Remaining blocks include:
- “Women Overcoming Obstacles” by Shirley Smith features an appliquéd woman with an American Sign Language hand and a wheelchair symbol. The words “Overcoming Obstacles” is embroidered around this.
- The International Women’s Peace Logo of a cross, dove with olive branch, and landscape. By Barbara Kalar.
- “Hull House” by Claire Boritz depicts in appliqué a house flanked by potted flowering plants. Referencing early female political organizer Jane Addams’s Chicago Hull House which was founded in 1889 to provide care, assistance, training, and more to women.
- “Love is a Decision” by Betty Sayer features two doves carrying garlands around a heart in which are two embroidered interlocked rings. While not featuring two female symbols, this may have referenced gay and lesbian rights, albeit depicted obliquely given the times.
- A block with Korean writing, the Korean flag, and the year 85, is titled “Korean Women’s Support Group.” By BoKyong Kim.
- “Womantree” by Ginny M Koutsouros features a gold-capped woman as a tree. She emanates love from her eyes and the word WOMAN is embroidered as an acrostic reading “Work Organize Mediate Affection and Needs.” Also embroidered on the square are Bible verses: Ezekiel 47; Galatians 3:28; and Proverbs 31.
- “Dove of Peace” by Pam Godfrey is a simple appliqué of a calico dove.
- “The Spirit of Volunteers” by Gwen Staffieri has appliqués of a goose, basket, and hearts with the embroidered saying, “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”
The quilt back is off-white cotton with permanent marker notations of contributors’ names, dates, and square titles. The front is largely mauve and baby pink with a border in crimson red. The rest is multi-colored fabrics and paints with mostly white quilting thread.
At 73″ wide x 89.5″ long the quilt makes a significant visual statement. I advise hanging for display or museum showing rather than use.
A Hidden Gem That Was Almost Lost
The piece is almost 40 years old and was in need of TLC when we sourced it from under a box in Nelson County, Virginia. We cleaned and restored it as delicately as we could to maintain the fabric pen notations and the integrity of the art and stitching. All the quilting is in fine shape. There is a little fading of the paint and the fabric marker. There’s also the occasional fraying of some appliqué but nothing major.
Retailing on our Etsy shop for $3,500, this reproductive rights quilt is a unique piece of activist folk art by women makers. It’s as timely today as when it was created by their skilled (and amateur) hands. The project was inspired by warm hearts and sharp minds in a time of hope. It ships for free, fully insured, to anywhere in the United States.
A rare and unusual find, this quilt offers a slice of American womanhood at a time when women’s rights and reproductive rights were on the ascent.
You know, back then.
— Lindsay Curren, Lady Virginia Vintage