by Suzanne Labry
It is a sad global fact that women have less earning power and economic security than men, regardless of how rich or poor the country in which they live.
It stands to reason, then, that the more poverty-stricken a country is, the more poverty-stricken its female population will be. Nowhere is this truer than in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest countries in the developing world. Haitian women rank among the poorest of the poor.
Quilt Above: Se Bèf Ki Trennen Kabwa/The Oxen Pull the Cart (50” x 60”) - appliquÃ©d and pieced cottons by Denise Estavat. In this quilt, Denise is recalling her life when she was a small child growing up in the countryside. She depicts herself along with her mother who is carrying water to her father while he cuts sugar cane in the fields. Two signature elements of Haitian quilts are the embroidered title—which is an integral part of the design composition—and the intense echo-quilted throughout.
In 2007, however, something happened to help an especially at-risk group of Haitian women defy that classification. Jeanne Staples, a fine art painter who lives on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, had an idea.
She was trying to help a friend of hers who worked for an NGO, The Fish Farm for Haiti Project, raise money by selling table linens embroidered by Haitian women to customers in the United States.
“Although the linens were beautiful, they weren’t selling, because Americans don’t entertain that way anymore. We needed to come up with something that would allow these talented needlewomen to transfer their skills to make something more marketable,” Staples says. “As a painter, I was familiar with Faith Ringgold’s story quilts. Even though I don’t quilt myself, quilts were definitely on my radar and so I suggested that the Haitian women try quiltmaking.”
Working through the Daughters of Mary Queen Immaculate, an order of Haitian nuns who rescue homeless street girls and provide them with shelter, food, and education, Staples enlisted her friend, Vermont-based quilter Maureen Matthews McClintock, to go with her to Haiti to teach quilting.
Mezilia Michele from the Damassin Cooperative located in southwest Haiti.
“The Haitian women were enrolled in schools run by the nuns that taught sewing and needlework, so they already had great skills and totally took to quilting right away,” Staples offers. “They had been doing things like rote embroidery, and they immediately saw the potential for individual expression that quilts provided. Quilts allowed them to tap into their personal creativity rather than follow a prescribed pattern.”
Above Photo: Mezilia Michele from the Damassin Cooperative located in southwest Haiti.
That first trip was the genesis for what is now a 501(c)(3) non-profit economic development organization that Staples founded known as PeaceQuilts.
With a goal of helping to relieve poverty in Haiti by establishing and supporting independent, member-owned women’s sewing cooperatives, PeaceQuilts provides training, materials, supplies, marketing assistance, and educational opportunities. PeaceQuilts also sells the cooperatives’ one-of-a-kind art quilts in retail shops and online. One-hundred-percent of the funds raised from the sale of quilts goes back to the artists, and Staples and McClintock pay their own way when traveling to and from Haiti.
Today, there are approximately 100 women in ten cooperatives throughout Haiti. Staples and McClintock taught the initial group of women how to quilt, but now the Haitians teach each other in a peer-to-peer relationship.
“PeaceQuilts is a facilitator, not a controlling body that imposes our rules or aesthetic on the women,” Staples emphasizes. “The cooperatives are wholly owned by the women themselves—our purpose is to foster independence among the women, not foster their dependence on us.”
The quilters use treadle sewing machines and charcoal irons since electricity is not widely available (only about 12% of the population in Haiti has regular access to electricity). They share scissors and other tools because there aren’t enough to go around. Co-op members earn a daily wage plus commissions (from $95 to $3,000) when their quilts sell.
All make more than the national average in Haiti. Even after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, the cooperatives continued even though many members lost their homes.
The quilters develop their own patterns and designs, drawing from their personal life experiences to produce unique quilt art. “The quilts are so rich in content and color and they reflect the quilters’ culture and their own artistic tastes. As an artist myself, it has been incredibly inspiring to see the women’s creativity flourish in this way,” Staples says.
Photo Right: Members of the Solidarity Cooperative in Lilavois show off their quilt entitled Marché or Marketplace. This quilt celebrates the importance of the marketplace in the life of each Haitian village or town, where people come together to buy and sell food, clothing and other necessities, as well as share news and gossip.
If you would like to help the work of PeaceQuilts, donations of fabric and other supplies would be most welcome. The organization needs:
Please ship to:
c/o Jeanne Staples
32 Shady Oak Lane
Edgartown, MA 02539
Questions? Call 508-274-1104 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
All photos courtesy of PeaceQuilts.