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Meditative Quilting

            My Mom is a quilter, and while I’ve followed her into crochet and knitting and even doll clothes and mending, at different times in my life, I have never wanted to learn how to quilt. Until recently.

            A few weeks ago, she took a Zoom workshop on a style of African quilting that was billed as “mindful, improvisational, and intuitive,” and my ears perked up. The class focused on how to make Kawandi quilts, made by the Siddi, an African ethnic group in India. Kawandi quilts are traditionally made out of worn out clothes, either from family and friends or bought in bulk at a used clothing market. The fabrics are usually bright and light, to bring some joy into the darkness, and the various pieces can be cut small, or left recognizable as clothing, with necklines or buttons or sleeves as part of the design. They are made using an applique technique, traditionally using a cotton sari as the quilt’s backing, with the pieces of fabric sewn on top, overlapping to different degrees, depending on how warm of a quilt they want to make.

The quilter starts to sew at one corner of the sari and works their way around, usually in a counter clockwise direction, fixing the patches in place with a running stitch that eventually covers the entire quilt. In this way, a quilt can become a document of the family’s history, and when the quilt begins to fall apart it can be mended with new patches of old clothing. The final step is to sew a folded square patch at each corner of the quilt, a multi-layered triangle called a phula, or flower. The phula serve no function, but are an important finishing touch to each quilt, so that the quilt won’t be left “naked.”

“Mom’s Kawandi-style quilt

            The math of quilting usually intimidates me; matching edges and hems and stitches, and dealing with sewing machines and patterns is too much for me. But the Kawandi quilts, at least as taught by Mom’s teacher, looked doable. I could choose my fabrics as I went along, without any need for the pieces to match in size or shape or color, and I could tack them onto a backing, instead of having to plan ahead and work according to a pattern.

“I suggest this fabric.”

            I especially liked that there would be no set artistic goal in mind, and no pressure to make things perfect. And yet, immediately I started thinking of ways to make it useful and productive, like maybe making quilt squares of the Hebrew letters so I could use them in my classes, as a sort of touch and feel, three-dimensional object to learn from.

“I can help!”

            The official Siddi quilts are much bigger than anything I would try to make, and they often include religious symbols and decorative flourishes in the middle that would be too advanced for me. I will leave it to the experts to make the kinds of beautiful quilts shown in exhibitions and sold for thousands of dollars. All I want is a small square to work on, a needle and thread, and some bright colored fabrics, so I can fall into the quilt and forget about everything else for a while.

from the Soulful Stitching exhibition on display at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College (photo by Celina Colby)
Another Kawandi Quilt from the Soulful Stitching exhibit (not my picture)

            I’m not good at sitting mediation: I get distracted and self-conscious and my mind fills with all of the worst images I can imagine. I’ve always done better with walking as meditation, or writing as meditation, and my hope is that quilting as meditation will be in that category. There’s something deeply satisfying about making something with my hands, and I will need a lot of stress relieving activities this summer, to help me recover from a year of hybrid teaching, so that I can, eventually, wind myself back up for whatever comes next.

“All quilts are mine.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

97 responses »

  1. That is a beautiful quilt. I like the patterns on it, and how Kawandi quilts can be pieced together without a perfect plan. Of course, if quilting is relaxing, it’s one of the best activities you can do.

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  2. That looks like a great project! My mother made quilts, and I loved watching and later on doing some hand sewing as she was finishing up. Those quilt pictures fare like nothing I have seen before now.

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  3. I made a log cabin quilt for my son’s bed when he was a child. One of the dogs destroyed it years ago. Quilting can be quite soothing. Bet wishes with your new hobby.

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  4. Pretty cool: and my style, since I really dislike these modern electric sewing machines (I learned on an old Singer foot treddle, and with needle and thread sewing by hand)!
    Thank you for sharing this, Rachel!
    Shavuah Tov

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  5. I have found that sitting meditations are, for me at least, difficult due to the interruptions and chatter in my head. So I can understand how quilting would be an excellent meditation.

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  6. You have a lot of patience if you like hand sewing! Great idea about sewing the sari, patch by patch.

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  7. What a fascinating quilting technique. With fabrics selected by your wren and Ellie and Cricket offering help along the way, I’m sure your quilting adventure will be one that is memorable with a warm, comforting end product.

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  8. I like the idea of Kawandi quilts. They remind me of the quilt a friend made out of old ties.

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  9. As a quilter, I have to say that looks like fun and wonderful therapy, too. That kind of effort really is meditative. 🌷

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  10. I find working with the textures of fabric to be very relaxing, so is having a tangible result.

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  11. Really awesome quilts, Rachel!!!👍

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  12. I would like to see it done in a video…your book sounds intriguing too!

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  13. I think it’s a great idea!

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  14. Rachel, You have been making quilts for a long time – with thoughts and words elegantly presented. Thank you! Shavua tov!

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  15. That sounds fun and very relaxing, I had never heard of those. The antidote to the mathematical precision of some quilting. I always have to have knitting or something on the go when I’m watching television.

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  16. My sister-in-law is a quilter and she’s made some fabulous pieces but I rather like the idea of these Kawandi quilts. Not that it’ll encourage me to start quilting, I am so *not* into anything remotely crafty, I find it stressful rather than relaxing. Cycling’s my thing.

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  17. I’d never heard of this style of quilting. Thanks so much for writing about it! Is there any sort of batting between the layers, or is it just the front and back layers?

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  18. That’s beautiful. I would love to take up that kind of quilting one day. I guess I should start saving up scraps of clothes now!

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  19. I love the colours that you have chosen – or I mean that the doggy has chosen of course! This method looks far more manageable than geometric shape quilting which I’ve tried in the past and given up on.

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  20. I never knew much about quilting until this year when a friend explained it to me. She and a business colleague are based here in Canberra; however, almost all their business is in the United States.

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  21. Your mom’s quilt is stunning!

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  22. Your mother’s quilt is lovely. Creative crafting can be a very spiritual past time.

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    • I’ll pass along the compliment! I think she would agree with you about the connection to spirit. Quilting and gardening are much more her spiritual practices than prayer.

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  23. I love this post, Rachel. I am a quilter, but I’d never heard of meditative quilting or of these African techniques. Thanks for sharing

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  24. Those are beautiful colors in the quilt your dog is resting on. That will be very nice when you are done with it. The only quilt I ever made was without a pattern, while I was down for a month due to over stress. I hope your quilting is relaxing for you too. May you have a blessed Shavuot.

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  25. The quilts are gorgeous. And I was looking in the ‘p’ section of Joy of Cooking today for potato recipes, and saw to my surprise that there’s a recipe for pawpaw pudding…

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  26. This sounds like a wonderful idea. I have never wanted to quilt for the same reason as you but this sounds great. I will look it up. thank you.

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  27. These quilts are amazing!

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  28. The quilts are fabulous!

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  29. Beautiful. Thanks for sharing. I have a pile of old, torn clothes and didn’t know what to do with them (the landfill is not an option!). Wishing you a lovely week ahead. x

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  30. Everything about these quilts is wonderful – repurposing the clothing, creating something new and beautiful and then the benefit of quieting a mind.

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  31. “all quilts are mine” 🙂
    Love that!

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  32. They look wonderful! Happy quilting, and I hope you’ll share a photo of your first completed Kawandi-inspired effort with us.

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  33. Lovely. When you think of it, our lives are very much like these quilts. We may have a pattern in mind at the outset. But circumstances, more often than not, intervene. Worn and broken spots have to be repaired. Yet somehow there is great beauty in the whole — a beauty surely God can see, if we do not. ❤

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  34. Fabulous! Love those bright colors; they made me smile as soon as I saw them. Nice job!

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  35. Your mom’s quilt is lovely – such a rich tradition.

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  36. Sometimes I compare quilting to scrapbooking. I appreciate the idea of using materials artistically or beneficially– instead of necessarily tossing so much purposeful stuff into a landfill. Should help with your meditation, Rachel.
    Art

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  37. I am loving your mom’s design–really colorful and just gorgeous!

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  38. I can’t wait to see what you make! I’m sure it’ll be awesome!

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  39. In our visits to India the intricate color designs of Saris captivated my attention from being depressed by the surrounding poverty I saw at the time.You might say that these quilts have a similar quality of brightening ones day when it’s needed.

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  40. Pingback: Meditative Quilting — rachelmankowitz – formefacebouche

  41. A very interesting post Rachel. The quilts are beautiful. You will need to make one for you and on for your cute little dog!
    Dwight

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  42. Enjoyed Rachel, as always. As a teacher who retired long before Covid, I can’t imagine virtual instruction. I can’t imagine not being with my students. That was the whole point.

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  43. Beautiful quilts, and a beautiful idea for calming the mind and spirit.

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  44. A material that is commercially produced but is very popular throughout the African people of Southern Africa is Shweshwe. It comes in a variety of strong colors. I wouldn’t call the colors bright but the material traditionally has patterns of tight geometric designs that definitely brighten it up. I don’t quilt or sew but my wife does and has used Shweshwe in a few quilts.

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