Soulful Stitching: Background

A Siddi quilt/kawand is the visual history of a family and its fashions. A quilt documents the well-worn, discarded clothes of family members over the previous years. Mixing together vibrant array of patterns, colors, and textures from all kinds of fabrics, this patchwork summarizes the fortunes and the styles of family members as they embody the artistic sensibilities of their makers – the women of Siddi communities.

History of the Siddi Quilt Project
Soulful Stitching: Quilter at Mainalli village

Quilter at Mainalli village

In February 2004 while documenting Siddi expressive culture (performing and visual arts) and living with a Siddi family in Northern Karnataka, I noticed the beautiful quilt I was given to sleep on. Then, as I visited Siddi communities, I began to see them hanging out in the sun to dry, and women sitting on shaded porches beside bundles of old clothes, sewing them into marvelous creations. I learned that my Siddi “grandmother” was a well-known quilter and I asked her to make one for me. She contacted two close friends and together the three of them gathered the materials and began to create a large “family” quilt which I documented with video and photos.

From this humble beginning, I began to wonder if these family quilts could become an income-producing activity, especially for older women or those who stayed at home to raise a family. A Catholic order founded in Switzerland in the 19th century and very active throughout India, The Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross (a social service ministry devoted to social, educational, economic, and health empowerment), has been working with Siddis and other marginalized groups in Karnataka for more than nine years. With the invaluable help of these Indian Sisters, and several Siddi women leaders in three communities, as well as assistance from another Catholic service organization (Loyola Vikras Kendra) founded by the Jesuits and inspired by an Indian adaptation of Liberation Theology, we began to discuss the establishment of a Siddi Women’s Quilting Cooperative. This has now been accomplished. An initial grant paid for the first group of large quilts (24) was made in August 2004. The project was then extended to two other Siddi communities and an additional grant paid for 45 baby (crib-sized) quilts. All income from quilt sales (after expenses) is sent to the Siddi Women’s Quilting Cooperative and used for projects determined by Cooperative members meeting as a group. To date, these include such needs as seeds, school uniforms and books, medical expenses, farm equipment, and livestock.

Anyone interested in supporting this non-profit project or in obtaining more information about Siddis and their quilts can go to or contact Henry Drewal at: or Department of Art History, Elvehjem Building, UW-Madison, 800 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706.