Until this year, I didn’t know much about quilts. But Maris Curran’s 14-minute video “While I Yet Live” (2018) showed me the beauty that I was missing, painting a subtle, intimate portrait of the women living in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Much has been written about these asymmetrical, abstract quilts that are unique for their fame as contemporary pieces of craft in the art world, but this was the first account I had come across where the women spoke and sang for themselves. They describe the calm feeling that washes over them as they do their painstaking, hand-stitched work and the connection they feel not only with each other, but also with God. But it’s plain to see that despite all of their fame, many of the community members still struggle to make ends meet.
Patchwork, the craft of stitching smaller pieces of fabric into a larger finished piece, has been relegated to the shadows because it is seen as women’s work. It is also a largely working-class art form, one that is colorfully celebrated in Catherine Legrand’s new book, Patchwork: A World Tour (2023).
The pages are filled with brilliant photographs of spellbinding needlework. You can spend hours pouring over the swirling patterns of mola blouses crafted by the Guna people of Panama and Colombia, or the maze of indigo swatches in a rural Japanese futonji. I was delighted to find Hungarian sheepskin detailing on clothing that would have been worn by some of my own family in Transylvania. These are just a few of the many overlooked crafts featured in the book, which sets out on the ambitious journey of taking us around the entire world to spotlight patchwork art and artists.
The text of the book, however, does not capture all the vibrating magic of its images. Legrand has impressively detailed some of the intricate processes for many of these craft traditions, but her descriptions are both too technical for the layperson and too simple for textile nerds. While there are indeed references to some of the powerful symbols sewn into these works, such as the stunning bats that decorate some Miao baby carriers, long believed to protect children, the flat tone of the language does not convey the deep meaning carried by many of these pieces. The descriptions could have benefitted from quotes from the craftspeople themselves. Perhaps if we heard more first-hand accounts, in the style of Margaret Courtney Clark’s Nbdele: The Art of an African Tribe (2002) or the more recent In Bibi’s Kitchen (2020) by Hawa Hassan, readers could gain a deeper understanding of patchwork’s spiritual, cultural, and even political significance.
Despite these hang-ups, I’m happy this book is on my shelf. Legrand has introduced me and many others to dozens of overshadowed practices I would have otherwise not known about. This book is an important step in the direction of finally giving patchwork the appreciation it deserves.
Patchwork: A World Tour by Catherine Legrand (2023) is published by Thames & Hudson and is available online and in bookstores.