More than 600,000 people in the United States have died of coronavirus since the pandemic began, a number that is incomprehensible. Few people understand the magnitude of this loss more than 14-year-old Madeleine Fugate. Since April 2020, the eighth grader from California has spent her weekends constructing the Covid Memorial Quilt, a tribute to the casualties of the virus.
“It’s important for me to document people who have lost their lives because they were more than just a number,” said Fugate, who began the quilt as a school project. “They need to be remembered as someone who had memories, friends and family — as someone who loved things.”
Since the project began, Fugate has received hundreds of quilt squares from people across the country. Each package comes with a letter from someone in mourning describing their loved one: a Polish priest who loved animals and the Phillies. An artist who was always willing to educate people about her wheelchair. An aunt who taught her niece how to wrap tamales.
Fugate encourages people who can’t sew to send photos, patches, poetry or old T-shirts that remind them of the person they lost. She uses these keepsakes to construct memorial squares herself — often with the help of her mother, Katherine, who she cites as her source of inspiration.
More than three decades earlier, Katherine was a college student who spent her Friday nights sewing squares for the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the largest piece of community folk art in the world. Like Fugate, she was moved by a desire to honor those who the government considered expendable. “During the AIDS crisis, my friends were dying and the government wasn’t doing anything about it, so the quilt arose from a place of activism and anger,” Katherine said. “We were saying, ‘See us. Recognize us. They’re worthy of a name.’”
Though the AIDS Memorial Quilt is the most famous example, quilts have been utilized as a medium for protest, storytelling and preserving a people’s version of history for centuries. Because fabric strips can be handed off to individuals and assembled later, quiltmaking is a uniquely communal art form. This makes it especially powerful for building collectives and bringing people together.
“Quilts are a very American thing, and they document history the way that tapestries used to,” Katherine said. “They’re also long lasting, and they can move from place to place. There’s also the beauty of something being made with someone’s own hands — quilts are really an act of true love.”
Stitching ‘a people’s history’
There’s a saying that “history is written by the victors,” but quilts are created by those who are far from centers of power, most often women and people of color. Because of this, they offer a unique forum for pushing back against official narratives and centering struggles for justice and human dignity.
One example dates back to as early as 1893, when the United States sponsored a coup in the Kingdom of Hawaii to further American business interests. After the overthrow, Queen Lili’uokalani, the Kingdom’s rightful monarch, was convicted of treason. She was sentenced to imprisonment in an upstairs bedroom of her palace, where she was confined for nearly eight months.
During that time, she created what is now known as the “Queen’s Quilt,” an impassioned political statement documenting the islands’ traditions and culture. Stitched into the first panel of the quilt is a message: “Imprisoned at Iolani Palace … we begin the quilt here.” Throughout the quilt’s patches, Lili’uokalani embedded the story of the imperial coup and land grab she had endured — a particularly poignant act of resistance as the United States government did everything in its power to censor the island’s true history.
Lili’uokalani is far from the only person to preserve the history of her people through fabric. In 1934, community leader and educator Ruth Clement Bond started a “home beautification project” for Black women in Tennessee. The goal of the project was twofold; it sought to improve the quality of Black women’s lives by teaching self-reliance and craftsmanship, while also celebrating the role of Black people in transforming the South.
At the time, the federal government had just established the Tennessee Valley Authority, a New Deal jobs and development program that harnessed power from America’s rivers to create cheap electric power in the region. At the heart of this electric revolution were Black workers, some of whom had formerly been sharecroppers.
While their husbands were at work constructing the Wheeler Dam, the women of the home beautification project constructed a series of quilts, an art form that many of them had been taught by their enslaved ancestors. Though each quilt had its own spiritual and cultural resonance, there is one that stands out: It depicts a Black fist breaking through soil, clutching a red lightning bolt. The design signified the electric power that Black men were providing to one of the most impoverished areas of the rural South — but for many Black laborers in Tennessee, the fist represented something far greater.
They called it the “Black Power” quilt. Thirty years before the dawn of the Black Power movement, it became an emblem of Black unity and strength — a symbol that liberation was well on its way. “We were pushing through obstacles, through objections,” Clement Bond said. “We were coming up out of the Depression, and we were going to live a better life through our efforts. The opposition wasn’t going to stop us.”
Providing for the community
Beyond preserving a people’s telling of history, quilts have also served a more practical purpose: raising funds for social movements and mutual aid. In the past, quilts have been auctioned off for every cause from abolition to rebuilding a hospital in Vietnam that had been bombed by the U.S Air Force.
In 1966, a group of rural Black craftswomen established the Freedom Quilting Bee Cooperative, a female-led quilting collective in Rehoboth, Alabama. Because the quilters were active in the civil rights movement, many of them faced eviction, loan foreclosure and jail time. The cooperative quickly became a means of distributing mutual aid and raising money for the movement.
Through art auctions, commercial partnerships and museum exhibitions, the womens’ quilts were able to reach a national audience, enabling many of them to send their children to universities and install indoor plumbing and electricity in their homes for the first time. Their most popular quilts featured ragged denim jeans that had been worn by family members working in the cotton fields.
Female-led quilting collectives also became a means of generating income in Chile during the 1970s and 1980s, after the U.S. government instigated a military coup and installed the brutal right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet. During his regime, various Catholic Church groups organized underground quilting workshops for Chilean women, many of whom had been left impoverished by widespread unemployment and the forced disappearances of their husbands and children.
Gathering in basements illuminated only by candlelight, women protested Pinochet by stitching arpilleras, quilt squares that openly condemned the many abuses of his regime. The squares documented scenes of bones, body bags and individuals being imprisoned and interrogated by military police. Women also included depictions of their family members who had been kidnapped or murdered.
The quilt squares were smuggled into and out of jails to express solidarity with dissenters who had been imprisoned. They were also sold outside of Chile, raising international opposition to political repression in Chile and generating critical income for the women who created them. Though most of the women involved in the workshops had not previously been involved in politics, they were radicalized by conversations about the shared experience of losing loved ones to the regime. Many of them began to further educate themselves by attending political lectures, and were later galvanized to lead marches and hunger strikes.
Because quilt making is a deliberate, creative and collaborative process, the work can be healing, especially for those who are opposing state violence and mourning its victims.
Quiltmaking has been used to honor casualties of gun violence and police brutality, as well as to show solidarity to domestic violence and rape survivors. A number of quilting programs have also been started in prisons, giving incarcerated people an opportunity to express themselves and give back to the community. Often, the quilts are donated to hospitals or people experiencing homelessness to continue the cycle of healing. In other programs, incarcerated mothers — many of whom experienced the trauma of giving birth in prison — are taught how to sew blankets for their infants by hand.
“It’s a powerful medium, because quilts are seen as very comforting,” Madeleine Fugate said. “It feels like you can just wrap yourself in a quilt and feel safe — so it’s a good thing to use to help people heal.”
She and her mother plan on taking submissions for the Covid Memorial Quilt until everyone who was lost from the pandemic is remembered. Since they began working on the quilt, panels have been displayed in an exhibit on public health at the California Science Center. From Aug. 20 to Oct. 16, panels will also be featured in an exhibit called “Trying to Make Sense of It: 9/11, Loss and Memorial Quilts” at the International Quilt Museum in Nebraska.
“Making quilt squares during the AIDS crisis felt almost magical,” Katherine said. “It was like the Velveteen rabbit — it brought people to life again.”
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When Fugate first embarked on her project, she consulted activist Cleve Jones, the founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. From him, she learned how to construct panels that would stay intact while they were hung and displayed.
Jones also gave her some advice: the panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt were 3 feet by 6 feet, to represent the size of the average grave. To ensure that the Covid Memorial Quilt could be stored with more ease, he recommended that she make the panels smaller this time. Fugate settled on eight by eight inches, “because when you flip an eight by its side, it becomes the infinity symbol, to show that energy keeps going.”
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This is a fabulous article about the power of quilts. Currently several of my friends from church and I are making a memorial quilt for the family of a 14-year-old girl who died in June from complications of acute leukemia. We feel a great sense of love and comfort in constructing the quilt, which we hope it will convey to the girl’s grieving family. Thank you for lifting up this extraordinary craft.