Way back in 1907, Vitagraph Films released a silent short called “A Crazy Quilt.” In it, a man goes to sleep under a crazy quilt made by his mother-in-law. Wacky dreams ensue, including phonographs, huge beasts and trousers that surround him and “move around mysteriously.” The man awakens, ditches the quilt in favor of his overcoat and goes to sleep peacefully.
If this wasn’t the first time a quilt was used so prominently and metaphorically in a film, it certainly was one of the earliest. Since then quilts have shown up in many films, usually as part of the set dressing but occasionally in more prominent positions, such as in How to Make an American Quilt.
Perhaps it’s because we just taped 12 new episodes of Quilters Newsletter TV: The Quilters’ Community last week, in which we conducted interviews with quiltmakers as well as demonstrated techniques, but lately I’ve been interested in how filmmakers have told the stories of quilts through documentaries. I know this list I compiled isn’t complete, but I think it covers a comprehensive range over the past four decades of quilting, covering traditional quilters, art quilters, and those who use quilts as means of outreach or protest (or both). Simply put, there’s something here for every quilter.
I included short trailers for some films where I could, and included links to other websites where you can either view the entire film for free online or find out more about how to get ahold of a copy if you desire.
1) Women’s Work (early 1970s)
Actually, this first entry on my list is one that I doubt many have seen. In the July 1973 issue of Quilters Newsletter, founder and editor-in-chief Bonnie Leman closed her editor’s letter with the following paragraph:
Those of you who would like to show a quilt movie at your next club meeting might like this information. Available for rent from Leslie Hill … is a 16 mm color film about quilts called “Women’s Work.” I question Miss Hill’s choice for a title, but the film has been well received by numerous women’s groups across the country.
That’s about as much as I know about this film, but I would love to see it someday.
2) Kathleen Ware, Quiltmaker (1979)
Kathleen Ware, Quiltmaker (1920–2001), (dir. Sharon R. Sherman) captures both the folk art of quiltmaking and the personality of an individual folk artist. Located in the coast range of Oregon, the Ware home sits by the side of a well-traveled highway and attracts numerous quilt enthusiasts. The film shows Kathleen Ware’s daily life and includes interactions with customers and family members. The film covers the economic aspect of quiltmaking in addition to personal aesthetics, and shows Ware as she takes a commission for what turns into a large, beautiful lone star quilt. She chooses fabrics with her customer, then cuts the patches using a cardboard template and scissors and machine pieces them (seemingly without pressing her seams, but maybe that happened off-camera). It was also interesting to see how she added mitered borders without measuring or pressing, how she loaded the quilt into a hand quilting frame suspended from the ceiling and then finished the binding entirely by machine, all the while surrounded by her family in her home. The entire half-hour film is available for streaming on the FolkStreams website.
3) Quilts in Women’s Lives (1981)
Quilts in Women’s Lives (dir. Pat Ferrero) is described as “a series of first person portraits of seven quilt makers, including a Mennonite, a Bulgarian immigrant, an African American, and two Midwestern sisters provide insights into the inspirations for their work and reveal their passion and love for an art form that reflects their values and philosophy of life.” It offers a wonderful view into quilting at the tail end of the 1970s, a decade when it soared in popularity both as an art and a craft. Visit the FolkStreams website to view a longer 15-minute excerpt from the documentary.
4) Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989)
This Academy Award-winning documentary (dir. Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman) is probably the best-known documentary concerning quilts. Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, it tells the powerful story of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. through the evolution of the now-iconic NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. http://tellingpictures.com/films/show/common_threads
5) Georgia Quilts: Stitches and Stories (1998)
Whether made from scraps and feed sacks, or from fine cottons and silks, every quilt tells a story about its maker and the times in which he or she lived. In Georgia Quilts: Stitches And Stories (prod. Carol Fisk), we see how quilting fashions have changed during the 19th and 20th centuries, families share the moving legends of their heirloom quilts, and we meet some of Georgia’s current traditional and contemporary quilters. Hand piecers and quilters in particular will be interested in the shots of quilters at work with needle and thread, and anyone with an interest in quilt history and/or U.S. history will appreciate the many stories told. The entire hour-long film is available for free viewing on the Georgia Public Broadcasting website; click here.
6) America Quilts (1999)
This PBS film (dir. Laurie A. Gorman) celebrates the artists, the quilts and the powerful stories woven into them. The program examines quilts from three perspectives — as historical records, symbols of family and community, and works of art.
7) A Century of Quilts: America in Cloth (2001)
In 1999, International Quilt Festival in Houston, in conjunction with The Quilt Alliance, the American Quilt Study Group and the National Quilting Association, conducted the ultimate search to find 100 of the most acclaimed quilts of the 20th Century. That fall the selected quilts were together for the show of a lifetime, and PBS cameras were there to meet the quilters and to record the stories of a Century of Quilts. The documentary is a companion to the book The Twentieth Century’s Best American Quilts (Primedia, 1999), edited by Quilters Newsletter’s editor-in-chief at the time, Mary Leman Austin. www.pbs.org/americaquilts/century/index.html
8) Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend (2005)
Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend (dir. Celia Carey) explores the extraordinary lives, inspirations, and history of these artists, and also follows them on a poignant and sometimes very comical bus journey to see their quilts exhibited at The Milwaukee Art Museum. The entire hour-long documentary is available for free viewing on the Alabama Public Television website.
9) The Great American Quilt Revival (2005)
In The Great American Quilt Revival, a cast of today’s well known quilters, including producer Georgia Bonesteel, plus historians, collectors and designers such as Barbara Brackman, Jean Ray Laury, Jinny Beyer, Yvonne Porcella, Jeffrey Gutcheon and Cuesta Benberry, discuss their art and role in the revolution of modern quilting. Tracking early quilting innovator Marie Webster, on to the influence of Amish and African American traditions, and finally to the outpouring of quilts in response to the 9/11 tragedies, The Great American Quilt Revival captures the story of this landmark movement.
10) The Quilts of Gee’s Bend (2006)
Originally produced as a companion to the book of the same name, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend (dir. Matt Arnett & Vanessa Vadim) accompanies the major 2002 exhibition of Gee’s Bend quilts. Set in the quiltmakers’ homes and yard, and told through the women’s voices, this music-filled, 28-minute documentary (available for viewing above) focuses on the quiltmakers themselves.
11) The Art of Quilting (2007)
The Art of Quilting is a journey of color and inspiration, a visual feast of imagination and expression. With highlights from Quilt National, Art Quilts Philadelphia and profiles of the Chicago School of Fusing members, The Art of Quilting allows viewers to discover how the boundaries of traditional American quiltmaking have expanded.
12) Stitching Together: 35 Years of Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show (2010)
This documentary (dir. Kara McGinn) was made to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show, now considered the largest outdoor quilt show in the world. The DVD was available at one time but appears to be out of print now.
13) Stitched (2011)
“Behind every stitch, there is a story.” Stitched (dir. Jenalia Moreno) is a fun-filled documentary following three quilters racing to complete their entries for International Quilt Festival, the largest quilt show in the nation. The Houston show draws more than 50,000 quilters including three artists who created some controversy with their work. Quilting legend Caryl Bryer Fallert was the first to win a major prize for her quilt made with a sewing machine. She mentored Hollis Chatelain who caused a stir when she won an award for a painted quilt. And Hollis mentored Randall Cook who sparked controversy with his quilt of a male nude. In this 72-minute documentary, these quilters create their pieces to compete in the 2010 quilt show. www.stitchedfilm.com
14) Why Quilts Matter: History, Art & Politics (2011)
This fascinating nine-part series from Shelly Zegart and the Kentucky Quilt Project explores quilts in fresh new ways by taking you behind the scenes to reveal the unique position of quilts at the center of American culture. You’ll go on an amazing quilt journey from function to art, to women’s empowerment, economic clout, American politics and beyond. www.whyquiltsmatter.org
15) The Quilted Conscience (2011)
The Quilted Conscience (dir. John Sorensen) is the story of a group of 16 Sudanese-American girls – refugees from the genocide in their homeland – who are thrust into the disorienting new world of Grand Island, Nebraska; of a quilters guild of local women; and of a famed African American quiltmaker, Peggie Hartwell, who travels a thousand miles to bring the two groups together by means of a “culture-blend” fabric-art project: the creation of a wall-size mural, composed of dozens of small story-panels created by the Sudanese children with the help of the local women.
16) The Last One (2014)
Now more than 50 miles long were it to be laid out end to end, The AIDS Memorial Quilt is too large to display in any one location. Yet, even at this size, it does not begin to reflect the number of people who have succumbed to the pandemic. As the film (dir. Nadine Licostie) traces The Quilt’s history and continued growth — 25 years since Common Threads was released — it examines how stigma, discrimination, social status and the lack of access to care exacerbate a disease that has already claimed the lives of roughly 30 million people and currently infects another 34 million men, women and children around the globe — including 50,000 new infections a year in the U.S. alone. The film takes its name from a quilt panel that was donated anonymously and that Quilt organizers will not add to the full quilt until the last known death from AIDS has been recorded.
17) 1200 Quilts Across America
This documentary focusing on Quilts of Valor appears to exist so far only as a trailer, with the full-length film yet to be released.
So take some time to watch some of these films and perhaps learn something new about quilting. And when you’re done, you can check out current episodes of Quilters Newsletter TV: The Quilters’ Community episodes, our own contribution to the ongoing video documentation of quilting, on Quilters Newsletter.com, QNNtv.com and on the Quilters Newsletter YouTube channel. New episodes are free to watch for one week; after one week the episodes are available as part of the membership package on QNNtv.com. Monthly and annual memberships are available.