by Suzanne Labry
In 1976, journalist Gail Sheehy wrote a book entitled Passages, Predictable Crises of Adult Life. The book became a publishing phenomenon, remaining on The New York Times bestseller list for three years.
Translated into 28 languages, it was eventually named one of the ten most influential books of our time in a Library of Congress survey. In the decades since the book’s publication, the term “passage” has become synonymous with life stages such as birth, marriage, and death that are a shared part of the human experience.
Quilt artist Sherri Lynn Wood has adopted the term to describe quilts made to commemorate or honor those life stages. Although Wood herself sometimes makes passage quilts on a commission basis, more often she acts as a facilitator to help someone directly involved in a passage to make the quilt as part of working through the emotional aspects of the event.
Made from the clothing of those who have made the life passage, Wood’s quilts involve an improvisational process.
“Beginning with the architecture of the clothing, these quilts are pieced without a predetermined pattern,” Wood writes. “The resulting quilts reflect the relationship of the maker to the materials, retain a sense of the body, and in the case of bereavement, carry the consoling essence of the beloved.”
Bereavement provides an especially powerful impetus for making a passage quilt. When a loved one dies, dealing with his or her clothing can be one of the most difficult steps for the grieving survivor(s) because clothing is so directly and intimately associated with the deceased and such a stark reminder that he or she is no longer alive.
By selecting certain clothing items that have particular familiarity or significance, and using those pieces to create a quilt, Wood has found that the maker is able to use physical activity to work through emotional pain.
“The external steps of passage quilting coincide and reflect the interior states of transition, thus providing a grounded container for the experience of grief,” Wood says.
Once the articles of clothing are selected, they are not simply cut up into pieces of fabric. Instead, they are taken apart at the seams and returned from a three-dimensional object to a two-dimensional one. Then, they may be cut or used whole, depending on the preference of the maker, before being reformed into a quilt using what Wood calls “ruler-free sewing techniques.”
In this manner, the items that functioned in one way for the deceased are transformed to function in another way for the bereaved, while keeping the familiar association with the loved one intact.
“The process is so powerful,” Wood adds. “It is both cathartic and comforting to be able to retain the evidence of a life while making a tactile object that recalls a person after death.”
Wood, who is based in Oakland, California, has a Masters of Fine Arts in sculpture from Bard College, and a Masters of Theological Studies from Emory University. She began quilting in 1988, but started working on passage quilts in 2001 after the September 11th attacks, when she decided to take a more service-based approach to her art.
She shares the improvisational process that she encourages when dealing with life’s passages through workshops, presentations, on her blog, daintytime.net, and her book, The Improv Handbook For Modern Quilters.
An archive of her passage quilts can be seen here.