This case study explores a participatory textile making project by Caroline Aldridge. To see more case studies or find out how to contribute one yourself, click here.
Title of case study project or workshop
Stitches of Friendship Quilt
Name(s) of practitioner(s) and institution/organisation, if any
Caroline Aldridge and members of the Rock Buns and Rolling Pins Women’s Institute (WI)
Context for project
An informal collaborative ‘friendship’ quilt made by a small, rural WI
When did the project take place?
The project was started in September 2019 and completed in September 2021
Background(s) of the practitioner(s)
Caroline is a social worker, lecturer, and author of He Died Waiting: Learning the Lessons- a Bereaved Mother’s View of Mental Health Services. Caroline uses quilting as a means of managing and expressing emotions.
Aims of project
To use sewing as a ‘therapeutic’ and relational activity.
Description of project
I was invited to speak to a WI group on using quilting for positive mental health. I showed examples of my quilts. I read a chapter from the book I was writing that described how I used quilting ‘therapeutically’ when my son died. I gave members envelopes containing backing squares, random pieces of fabric, ribbons and buttons. They were invited to create a square that represented wellbeing and bring it to their next meeting. I answered questions and gave technical tips and encouragement to those who wanted it.
The first squares inspired others and the women decided they would like to make them into quilt. I moved home and joined the group. Over the autumn, I went along to a crafting sub-group where the women worked on their squares and I started machine piecing the quilt. Those who did not want to make squares were happy to hand sew pieces for the border, applique the lettering, or offer encouragement. “There’s chatter in every stitch!”
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
The WI group were unable to meet but the quilt continued. It became a tangible connection between the women and reflected their commitment to each other: “It brought us together at a difficult time”. The lockdowns were felt keenly by the members of the group who were isolating. Handing over completed squares, or the quilt for a turn at hand-quilting, became an excuse to have walk and a socially distanced doorstep conversation. It symbolised hope: “Seeing the quilt finished, when we are allowed to meet again, is something to look forward to.”
The quilt was completed in time for the first face-to-face meeting. The sense of pride was palpable: “I felt proud to be part of something special”, and “I’m very proud of every single contribution…’
Why did you choose to work in this way?
I did not anticipate coordinating making a quilt but the enthusiasm of the women swept me along. As a new member, I was mindful that I did not want to impose on the group. It was important to let them make decisions about the quilt design.
The project developed increased meaning and importance as it progressed.
The women shared stories that were prompted by their sewing. I was privileged to hear deeply personal stories relating about the women’s lives and families: “I used material that I used to make a headscarf for my grand-daughter who lost her hair after she had chemo…”
One woman talked about her mother, who had been a skilful seamstress, and her worries that her square would not be ‘good enough’. The feedback from the group about her square was positive. It led to another square and then (to my delight) to her making a dress.
I observed how the quilt got people talking to each other and enabled newer members to build friendships: “It gave me a chance to chat to WI members I hadn’t spoken to before”. Established members strengthened their relationships as they discussed their squares meaning. I made friends too.
What did you learn from the project?
I learnt about the power sewing has to build relationships, open up conversations, and convey meaning.
Co-ordinating this, has developed my skills and confidence as a facilitator. I thought about who holds power and how to be inclusive. For example, finding ways of including all contributions (from women with variable sewing skills) in a way that was aesthetically pleasing to the group. One woman told me she had no confidence in her sewing skills but with encouragement she made a square. She had misread the instructions and my first thought was, ‘how am I going to incorporate this?’ I used invisible stitching to secure it to a backing fabric so it could be joined in a way that preserved the integrity of the piece. It gave me a thrill when someone said it was their favourite square because I felt I had honoured the work of the maker.
There are squares that are abstract, where the colours or fabric choices represent wellbeing and others that are more literal (such as reading, the beach or enjoying nature). “It’s amazing. The colours and different squares and the diversity of all the different ideas.”
The group are exploring where their creation can go on permanent display. Their sense of accomplishment in the quilt and their WI was a thread in all their feedback:
“It really is splendid. It shows what love and friendship can do.”
“Just so special and I enjoyed every stitch. Stitches of friendship”.
I have multiple influences from the quilting, therapeutic, and textile artist/activist worlds.
I am undertaking a Professional Doctorate in Health and Social Care. My research, into the lived experiences of parents bereaved due to their child’s mental illness, will use a participatory textile-making methodology in the form of a collaborative quilt. I will use the Stitching Together Good Practice Guidelines (2020) to address ethical and practical issues.
I have a website where I blog about my activities www.learningsocialworker.com