Theresa's humorous quilt, entitled Lipread, illustrates the hardships faced by deaf people who try to read speech by looking at peoples' faces. A mustache, bad teeth, a lack of facial expression, and so on make lipreading a difficult task at best.
Expression of Language by Coughlan.
Giraffe has a Long Neck by Coughlan: In describing the quilt, Theresa said, "It was based on my daughter's favorite animal. She signed a story while I took pictures. I analyzed the pictures and preselected fabrics based on the composition in my visual mind. I chose the quilt block that looks African for the side borders. Then giraffe's fur shape on the background. I placed finger spelling hands alongside the border and then my daughter's shape."
Theresa Matteson Coughlan, a quilt artist from Ashland, Oregon, talks with her hands. Deaf since birth, Theresa communicates using American Sign Language (ASL), although she did not learn it until she was in her 20s.
Theresa was raised to communicate orally, which is no simple task for someone who cannot hear. Although she still uses her voice to talk to the members of her family who do not know ASL, she prefers signing. Her three children, all of whom can hear, use both their hands and their voices to talk to her.
American Sign Language allows its users to see language rather than hear it. Although it is visual rather than verbal, ASL is a true language, having its own grammar and syntax, and allowing for nuances of expression and complexities of thought equal to any spoken form of communication. ASL is beautiful to see, and watching fluent signers interact is akin to watching a wonderfully choreographed dance sequence.
Like all quilters, Theresa loves fabrics. Raised in a city renowned for its annual Shakespeare Festival, Theresa grew up fascinated by the rich textures and colors of the material she saw in the costumes worn by the actors on stage. At home, she delighted in seeing the fabrics her mother used to make her clothes. She learned dressmaking and began sewing clothes for herself. Her needlework skills and artistic talents continued to develop and, after high school, she attended the American School of Craftsmanship at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, New York.
RIT also happens to include, as one of its colleges, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, which is the first and largest technological college in the world for students who are deaf. Consequently, Rochester is home to the largest per capita Deaf population in the world. (“Deaf” with a capital “D” refers to deaf individuals who identify themselves as culturally deaf, and who usually use ASL to communicate.) ASL is a common language in Rochester, and when Theresa entered RIT as a freshman, she learned to sign and loved it.
Theresa started to make quilts just a few years after she started to learn American Sign Language. At first, Theresa resisted making quilts. But when one of her professors suggested she make a quilt for her senior thesis, she did so, and it won entrance into a juried competition. She then began searching for her “trademark”—a signature style as an artist; one that would distinguish her from others. She found it in the new language that had enabled her to comfortably express herself: ASL. It seems appropriate that she decided to use ASL as the subject of her quilts, since they, too, communicate visually. To date, Theresa has made more than 24 ASL quilts.
Many quilters are inspired to learn how to quilt from their mothers or grandmothers, but in Theresa’s case, the opposite is true. Theresa taught herself how to quilt, and now her mother, grandmother, and aunt have all become quilters because of Theresa. That’s powerful communication, no matter what the language.
Vocalization by Coughlan.
Click here to return to top.
Column 90: Leitmotif for a Lifelong Love Affair
Column 89: Quilting in The Bahamas
Column 88: Joan of Arc: A Quilter's Inspiration
Column 87: Home Demonstration Clubs and Quilting
Column 86: Linzi Upton and the Quilted Yurt
Column 85: A Bounty of Quilts
Column 84: Desert Trader
Column 83: Quilts and the Women’s Liberation Movement
Column 82: Replicating the Past: Reproduction Fabrics for Today’s Quilts
Column 81: Why So Many Quilt Shops in Bozeman, Montana?
Column 80: Southeastern Quilt and Textile Museum
Column 79: 54 Tons of Quilt
Column 78: Ollie Steele Burden’s Quilt Blocks
Column 77: Quilting with AMD
Column 76: Maverick Quilts and Cowgirls
Column 75: The Modern Quilt Guild—Cyberculture Quilting Ramps Up
Column 74: The Membership Quilt—Czech Quilting in Texas
Column 73: Maximum Security Quilts
Column 72: Author: Terri Thayer
Column 71: The Christmas Quilt
Column 70: New Mexico Centennial Quilt
Column 69: Scrub Quilts
Column 68: “Think Pink” Quilt Raises Funds for Rare Cancer Research
Column 67: Righting Old Wrongs.
Column 66: 100 Years, 100 Quilts - More on the Arizona Centennial.
Column 65: Arizona Centennial Quilt Project
Column 64: Capt. John Files Tom’s Family Tree
Column 63: The Fat Quarters
Column 62: Quilt Fiction Author: Clare O’Donohue
Column 61: Louisiana Bicentennial Quilt
Column 60: The Camo Quilt Project.
Column 59: Thread Wit
Column 58: Ralli Quilts
Column 57: Preschool Quilters
Column 56: The Story Quilt
Column 55: Red and Green Quilts
Column 54: On the Trail
Column 53: Quilt Trail Gathering
Column 52: True Confessions: First Quilt
Column 51: Quilted Pages
Column 50: Doll Quilts
Column 49: More Than a Quilt Shop
Column 48: Las Colchas of the Texas-Mexico Border
Column 47: Literary Gifts
Column 46: A Different Way of Seeing
Column 45: Sampling
Column 44: Hen and Chicks
Column 43: A Star Studied Event
Column 42: Shoo Fly Pattern
Column 41: Awareness Quilts
Column 40: Tivaevae
Column 39: UnOILed UnspOILed Coast Quilt Project
Column 38: Katrina Recovery Quilts
Column 37: Quilted Vermont
Column 36: The Labyrinth Quilt—A Meditative Endeavor
See other archived columns here