Soulful Stitching: Background

The Quilters

Women, especially older women who can no longer work in the fields, are the most numerous quilters, but younger women who have learned the skills from their mothers or female relatives, may also become well-known quilters. Those with the best reputations are sometimes commissioned to make quilts for friends and neighbors in exchange for goods or sometimes cash.

The Creative Process
Soulful Stitching: Quilter working, Gunjavati village

Quilter working, Gunjavati village

The women gather pieces of old and worn-out clothing from family members and friends and bundle them together. When they have enough to make a quilt, they go to the market to purchase several items: a cotton sari (traditional dress of Indian women consisting of a piece of fabric usually five to six meters (6’- 9’) long that is draped around the body); thick, white cotton thread and needles; and additional bundles of used clothing or cloth remnants if needed. At home, they begin the work sitting on a shaded verandah, or inside the house near a window or doorway with enough light. Sometimes several women (friends or relatives) will work together to create a quilt. At other times they may work alone whenever they have a free moment during their long labor-filled days. Whether working alone or in groups, they sometimes sing, choosing from a large repertoire that has been passed down for many generations.

If they want to create a large quilt, they may sew two saris together to make a wider piece that becomes the backing for the patchwork facing of the quilt. Then they begin to select pieces of cloth for the patchwork design, sometimes cutting or tearing them to different sizes, sometimes using them unchanged. They start at one of the corners of the sari and begin to work their way around, usually in a counterclockwise direction, fixing the patches with a running back stitch that eventually covers the entire quilt, both patchwork top and sari bottom. Some women create running back stitches that are closely-spaced (1/2 inch apart) and small, others spread them farther apart. The stitches exhibit a distinctive rhythm that is part of the “visual signature” of the artist along with the colors, sizes, shapes, and designs/arrangements of the cloth patches.

Some women incorporate parts of garments uncut, like the neckline of a child’s blouse, or an old shirt with some of its buttons still attached. Others cut small square or rectangular patches of brightly colored cloth (tikeli) to place on top of other larger patches in contrasting colors. One woman favors a kind of step pattern of small squares that descends diagonally across a field of large multi-colored rectangles. Others decorate their corners with a series of parallel chevrons that end in small detached squares, a design said to be favored by some Muslim Siddi women.

Depending on need, a quilter may choose to create a thicker or thinner quilt. To create a thicker one, she does extensive overlapping of her patches as she works inward toward the center of the quilt, or slight overlapping to keep it thin. As she works, she will take care to smooth down each piece so that it lays flat on the sari backing and the other patches already attached by the running back stitch. Sometimes she will fold under the uneven or ragged edge of a patch, but at other times, she may choose to leave it rough-edged. When she is nearing the center of the quilt and the end of her creation, she may include a “design flourish.” Sometimes a Catholic Siddi woman will sew one or more crosses. A Muslim quilter may incorporate a crescent or mosque silhouette. Others will vary or intensify the straight-lined running stitch with a cluster of stitched patterns in the central patch. Occasionally a specially selected cloth from a favored discarded garment, or highly decorative sari with sequins, will be used in the center.