Stitching the Human Story
by Esther Bryan
What stories can a stitch tell? What parts of our lives are carried in fabric and thread? QUILT OF BELONGING is a project that records the unique cultural beauty of all of Canada's people, in textile and in words. The finished quilt measures 120 feet long and stands 10 ˝ feet high. The quilt has 263 blocks, representing all First Nations, Inuit and Métis groups and every nation of the world as all are part of Canada's social fabric.
This quilt is Canada's largest and most comprehensive textile art project. There are the fibers that connect lives, trace history, reflect personalities and gender, honor religion, celebrate climate, and shelter and warm us.
My adult life was centered on painting, family and church in Williamstown, a quiet Ontario village of 250 people. In 1994, I took a trip to Slovakia with my dad to gather the lost threads of our own family's story, finding precious family and memories that had been locked away in Slovakia for almost 50 years. Once home, I combined remnants of embroidered fabric I had been given on the trip with painting, photography, and storytelling to produce a one-woman show called "Return." The public response to that work led me to begin QUILT OF BELONGING. I went from working alone in my studio to collaborating with hundreds of volunteers and traveling thousands of miles.
QUILT OF BELONGING is an immense family portrait, a vision of humanity the way it was originally designed to be where everyone is equally valued as a precious part of the whole. The blocks are bordered in jewel-colored fabrics and shaped like hexagons to symbolize the carbon molecule, the basic element from which all life stems. Special cording between blocks allows space for the individual beauty of each block to shine while still being linked with its neighbor.
The project began in 1998. The dawn of the new millenium was chosen as the time reference - a time of hope, a time to shape a clear vision of the world that we want. The project was completed by hundreds of volunteers from near and far.
Finding and working with each of the 263 groups was the most challenging and labor-intensive task in the project, as current privacy laws limit access to personal phone numbers and ethnicity. Africa alone has 54 countries. There were 22 Arab nations to find. The former Soviet Union had recently split into fragments, and Yugoslavia was being torn apart by brutal strife. Sudan, Sierra Leone, and others were caught in violent civil wars. How does one earn the trust of political enemies or convince people who face terrible problems that telling their story in a textile block might make a difference to them as well as others.
As for Canada's First people, many are just reestablishing their identity, reclaiming and writing their own history for the first time. Past histories were often skewed as they were written by outsiders.
The search for all the threads in our family portrait led us to countries that were so small or so new that they didn't have embassies. Appeals were made by letter, on radio, television, and in the print media. We visited churches, immigration centers, universities, English as Second Language classes, ethnic shops and restaurants-anywhere that we might find those "needles in the haystack."
Extensive research and interviews were conducted for each of the 263 cultural groups to assist in making the blocks and writing the histories and stories for our Web site and book. While working with the people, the same question kept recurring: "How will others see us and what do we want people to know about us?" Becoming involved in the lives of the block makers and hearing their stories was the most valuable part of the journey. Participants shared the whole range of human experience, and no matter how tragic or nightmarish the past memories of some were, all chose to portray hope and the underlying beauty of their people and land.
The sealskin blocks of the Nunavik and Kivalliq remind us that beauty and innovative skills are present even in harsh cold and isolation. The delicate butterfly wings artfully arranged in an African block depict a peaceful scene of women preparing food, belying the chaos caused by years of a brutal dictatorship. The gorgeous carpet designs that inspired the Afghan block tell of their rich and ancient history. The colorful kente cloth in the Ghanian block proudly reclaims traditions lost during decades of slavery, while the intricate designs in the Iranian piece are part of a great Persian legacy.
The blocks are as varied as the people themselves. Materials range from silk, satin, and intricate handmade bobbin lace to 200-year old homespun linen, mud cloth, deer hide, and grass skirts from Oceania. The impressive array of techniques includes embroidery, gold work, knitting, beading, quillwork, and weaving. It is a humbling and moving experience to stand in front of such diversity and creativity.
So what can be told in a stitch and what tales are carried in our threads? Perhaps the story of the whole world!
The QUILT OF BELONGING will make its U.S. Debut in Houston later this year. For more information, visit www.quiltofbelonging.ca