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The Social Justice Sewing Academy : Blending Art and Education to Tackle the Inequalities

Updated: May 25, 2021

The story of the Social Justice Sewing Academy started in 2017 when Sara Trail quilted a piece in memory of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed black teenager shot and killed by a policeman who deemed him suspicious. “The "Rest In Power Trayvon" quilt is the first time I mixed my passion for quilting with social justice art, a mix that has made the Social Justice Sewing Academy what it is today,” she explains.

Since, the Social Justice Sewing Academy has organized workshops in schools, community centers, and prisons. They not only teach participants to sew but also have conversations around current politics, socioeconomic inequalities, gender, racism, and sexual orientation. Students are encouraged to create a quilt that tackles the issues that matter to them and to write a personal statement. “Many of our young artists make art that explores issues such as gender discrimination, mass incarceration, gun violence, and gentrification”. They find their own voice and are given a chance to be heard, as the quilts are later exhibited throughout the United States.

We share some interesting examples of quilting combined with social activism below.

With the American Scream (2019) for instance, Audrey Bernier utilizes the American flag to evoke the harassment and detention of immigrants, in particular those of Latinx origins. In her statement, she details the legal history of racial profiling, that led to the possibility of asking anyone within 100 miles of the border for their citizenship proof. She also highlights the links between the development of private prisons and the monetization of human captivity.

Art Behind Bars, Volume I, was done by a group of 16 inmates from the San Francisco county jail, in a workshop led by former prosecutor Emory Christian. The process started with conversations around racism, sexism, homophobia, and the viewing of documentaries on art and activism. It was followed by the participants sketching and sewing their own ideas. The piece, therefore, became “a window into social justice as seen from the perspective of the incarcerated”.

The Social Justice Sewing Academy is part of the longstanding tradition of craftivism, that brings social and political militancy together with artistic and textile practices. Betsy Greer popularized the expression of craftivism in the early 2000s. According to her, craft skills were bypassed by modernity when mass production made it unnecessary for women to clothe their families. They were later reclaimed recently by the third and fourth wave of feminism, through various kinds of individual and collective initiatives.

Among them is the Pussyhat project of Krista Suh et Jayna Zweiman, which inspired thousands of Americans to knit pink hats for the 2017 women’s march. The design and the name were inspired by a quote from Donald Trump. The experience was successful and more than two million people worldwide ended wearing a handmade hat as a sign of their convictions. But beyond the visual, media impact, craftivism also demonstrated its ability to engage individuals in collective actions.

Women’s March on Washington on January 21. © Wikimedia Commons

Yet, quilting as a means of communication and as a political tool goes way back in history. This may be because as a traditional woman's activity, this practice was more accessible and more socially acceptable than other forms of engagement. In 1836, women from the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society were quilting and selling their work at the Anti-Slavery Fair in order to raise funds. The Cradle quilt below is one of them. In its center is inscribed an abolitionist poem attributed to quaker writer Elizabeth Margaret Chandler.

"Mother! when around your child/You clasp your arms in love,/And when with grateful joy you raise/Your eyes to God above,-/Think of the negro mother, when/Her child is torn away,/Sold for a little slave-oh then/For that poor mother pray!" E. M. Chandler

In 1867, Lucinda Ward Honstain's Reconciliation quilt blended depictions of the artist's everyday life with her hope for a post-Civil War society. In both of these cases, the quilts became precious testimonies, allowing us to know about the experiences and opinions of those who are often forgotten in history, by lack of documentation and because they were not politically represented.

More than a century later, quilts can still play a key role in recognition and remembrance. Hence, the AIDS Memorial Quilt was exhibited for the first time in 1987 at the National Mall, Washington DC. This patchwork, which is now the largest folk art piece in the world, represents the lives of those who died from AIDS. At a time where the disease and those who were suffering were largely invisibilized, this collective artwork forced the American society to face the reality and the scale of the epidemic.

Since 2002, quilting has had its own festival, the QuiltCon, which exhibits about 600 art pieces every year. In 2019, the Social Justice Sewing Academy presented 15 works and won the 1st and 2nd youth awards. Empowering the new generation, blending art and education in order to make changes: SJSA represents the future of craftivism, and Woman Interwoven intends to follow along with their initiatives.

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Iris Favand is a fashion designer based in Paris. Before pursuing a fashion degree at Parsons, New York, she studied humanities and art history. Her practice is driven by her love of fashion history and by her convictions on gender equality.

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