Inspired by Tradition
Sankofa, which means "Learn from the Past" by Donnette Cooper. The quilt features the Adinkra symbol called Sankofa. According to Wikipedia,"The Akan people of Ghana use an Adinkra symbol to illustrate the proverb, 'It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.' It symbolizes one taking from the past what is good and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress through the benevolent use of knowledge."
Masks and Stripes by Donnette Cooper.
Donnette Cooper, an Assistant Attorney General for the District of Columbia, is a Jamaican-born quilter who finds inspiration in both African textiles and traditional American quilt patterns, combining the two to form a style that is uniquely hers.
Although she does not come from a quilting background, Cooper feels at home around anything to do with textiles. The daughter of a tailor, she grew up around fabric, and her grandmother taught her to sew. Her brother is a promoter in the fashion industry in the Caribbean, and she and her sister are both “fashionistas” with a special love of indigenous textiles, particularly those from Africa. An inveterate traveler, she collects fabrics whenever she visits different countries.
“Piecing fabrics together—we call it patchwork—is very much a part of life in Jamaica,” Cooper says. “We make patchwork spreads that are knotted and tied, but we don’t use batting to make a quilt. It’s too hot!”
According to Cooper, batik is also very popular in Jamaican culture. “I learned to do batik in high school, and then I taught elementary students to do it as well when I worked as a teacher.” Since Cooper began quilting, she also uses batiks and other fabrics that she dyes herself in her quilts. In addition, she employs such traditional elements as prairie points and yo-yos, which she says she “imported from her childhood.”
She adds that the Log Cabin block is the basis for a lot of her quilts because it allows her to improvise. “I decide on the center fabric—maybe a mask fabric or something with Adinkra symbols from Ghana—and then I ‘audition’ other fabrics to see how they go along. I don’t tend to measure, and sometimes I end up with a mess! But the African fabrics talk. They express the vast traditions, values, and artistic talents of the African people. And I want to reconnect with that and show it in my quilts.
“Although I have explored very structured, precise block construction such as various Star and Basket designs—primarily when involved in group projects over the years—my preference is working with patterns that lend themselves to spontaneous variations, patterns that allow me to vary the fabric selection, shape, and size while preserving the essence of an original design concept,” Cooper continues. “I like to explore scrappy, recycled pieces harmonized by an overarching design framework. Consequently, I like the Log Cabin, Rail Fence, and Roman Square.”
She also finds inspiration in traditional American string or strip quilts. Not only do string quilts allow her to use leftover fabrics from other sewing projects, but they also strike a deep chord with her African heritage, as they recall the appearance of dyed and woven African textiles.
“I belong to the Daughters of Dorcas & Sons Guild* in D.C., and I owe a lot to its late founder and president Viola Canady. She mentored me as a neophyte quilter and generously shared her knowledge, skills and experiences,” Cooper says. “She is well regarded for her extensive and sophisticated body of work, she never forgot her roots. She introduced me to her North Carolina strip piecing tradition. She explained that when she started to quilt as a child, new fabric was not affordable and people used scraps left over from sewing jobs, recycled feed bags, and de/reconstructed old clothing. Extremely small pieces of fabric were held together by newspaper foundation piecing. That tradition resonated with me and I have since employed newspaper, tissue paper and inexpensive fabric as the foundation for many of my quilt blocks.”
*The Daughters of Dorcas & Sons Guild is the oldest largely African-American quilt guild in the United States. ("& Sons" was added to the name after three men joined the group.) Founded in 1980 by Viola Canady, a retired Army seamstress, the guild is named for Dorcas, a seamstress in the New Testament who made clothes for the poor.
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Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
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