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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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?