Friday 2 December 2011

Story Quilts

I recently attended a one-day ‘Quilt Making’ workshop in Boho Community Centre run by the 3 Cap Project – Three Communities Advancing through Peace. Roberta Bacic, a Chilean researcher in human rights & exhibition curator and Deborah Stockdale, textile artist facilitated it. The quilts in question were Arpilleras (pronounced ar-pee-air-as,) colourful 3D appliquéd South American textiles. These small tapestries of everyday life often have big messages, as Deborah puts it,

“Both domestic and universal, sometimes confrontational in message, they engage the viewer and the maker in a special journey

During the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in Chile (1973 – 1990), many Chilean women made tapestries depicting the harsh conditions of life and the pain resulting from the disappeared victims of Pinochet’s repression - the sons and husbands of the women themselves. Arpilleras came to symbolize ordinary women’s protest against the brutal dictatorship. Although these women worked quietly using a traditionally feminine method, their arpilleras had wide influence within Chile and internationally. The arpillera workshops brought about solidarity amongst the woman, empowering them to speak out and become politically active in opposing the regime.

I was quite unprepared for the profound depth of the experience that followed in the creation of my own story quilt. Having watched a short film about the history of the craft, and looking at a selection of works we were shown a newly created Arpillera by women who had been subject to Robert Mugabe’s campaign of ethnic violence. We were then let loose on Deborah’s large collection of fabric, beads, threads and embellishments.

Detail showing the burning of a church depicted
by the women who had witnessed it

My own creation was a personal look into my journey of grief that followed the deaths of my parents, both from cancer and both too young - in their early 50’s. The process of making the quilt was a gentle, healing and creative act – a way of symbolically portraying my story, and also a way of deepening my own understanding of where I am in that journey. The result is simultaneously a cosmology, a spiritual unfolding, an act of gratitude for and an acknowledgment of my parents and also the ancestral line which proceeded them, right back in time to the cosmic unfolding of the universe – a big story indeed for such a little quilt!

This is my finished Arpillera which includes beads, shells and some holy medals
Here you can find a list of current and future exhibitions curated by Roberta Bacic.
On the 13th of March 2012,  International Women's Day will be celebrated at the Verbal Arts Centre in Derry with a taster of all the exhibitions that have been there non stop since 8th March 2008.


  1. Brilliant Niamh! I saw the info about this but couldn't go. I knew it would be awesome so am delighted to read about it. I have had an unfulfilled plan for a life story workshop with a quiltmaker friend...and this absolutely confirms what I already sensed. Fantastic. I'll send the link to her and maybe we'll do our workshop yet... Blessings, Susie x

  2. Hey Susie, There's something special in stitching a story into being... I got totally hooked and just had to spread the word! I hope it inspires your workshop into being. ~Niamh

  3. Lovely article Niamh...yes, they certainly bring out deep emotions and stories for the people who make them as well as view them. So glad you had such a meaningful experience. Deborah