quiltlef.gif (8176 bytes) VCCS Litonline Introduction to Literature
English 112 (English Composition II)

Quilts and Literature

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Fabric Construction as a Literary Motif

Images of fabric construction are integral to our literary heritage. Metaphors of fabric construction abound in our lives: "the fabric of our lives," for example, and "whole cloth" and "weaving a tale of woe."  Minnie Foster-Wright, then, in Trifles, the drama examined in the VCCS Litonline introduction to drama that was constructed by Prof. Ron Carter (Rappahannock CC, now retired), provides a method for users of the site to find their way to the home page of this web from any inside page.  The tale of her woe becomes for many readers an archetype of the fabric of the lives of women over the centuries.

If "art is the lie that reveals the truth," then the term "fabrication" provides an appropriate segue to the use of the quilt motif as the visual and theoretical foundation for VCCS Litonline. To fabricate, according to The American Heritage Dictionary (1992) is "to make; create" and "to construct by combining or assembling diverse, typically standardized parts" as well as "to concoct in order to deceive." The storyteller, the poet, and the playwright are creators of imaginary worlds where we are deceived in order to perceive.

The bed coverings of colonial American households offered not only warmth against an unfamiliar and difficult land but a way to use every product of a household. There were no food scraps: leftovers became soup or compost. There were no cloth scraps: leftovers became rag rugs and quilts. The quilting bee was a social activity in frontier communities where families lived many miles apart and had few opportunities to congregate. And in the late twentieth century, men and women are making quilts to celebrate and commemorate important people and events: the AIDS quilt is a notable example. The colors and patterns of handmade fabrics in Africa and Australia reflect the natural world through the dyes and the designs. While their brothers composed sonnets, seventeenth century English ladies composed needlepoint to communicate their skills. The tapestries in pre-Industrial Revolution households were both decorative and functional. They provided insulation for walls. They added color to rooms. They depicted stories of heroism or faith. 

Centuries ago, as Penelope waited for her husband, Odysseus, to return to Ithaca after the Trojan War, she wove a shroud for her father, promising to marry one of the waiting suitors when the task was complete. Every night she unraveled the cloth to postpone the promise. She managed to delay for ten years. Thus she wove her tale of deception and fidelity; thus Homer wove in The Odyssey the Greek epic of Odysseus's wanderings counterpointed by Penelope's steadfastness.

In his seventeenth century poem, Jonathan Edwards expressed his humility before his God in the language of fabric construction: "Make me thy spinning wheel complete" begins "Husbandry" with its metaphysical conceit of the making of cloth to illuminate the path to salvation.

More recently, two twentieth century American works have used quilts as significant symbols. Susan Glaspell's short play Trifles is the centerpiece of the Understanding Drama section of VCCS Litonline; a quilt is central to the staging, action, and meaning of the play. Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use" dramatizes generational and cultural conflict; a quilt is central to the conflict and the resolution.

Because fabric construction is vital to the literary arts both figuratively and literally, the quilt was selected by the project team as the perfect complement to the literary precepts we value as readers, scholars, teachers, and writers.

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Two Quilt Sites on the Web

Southern Quilting: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Shared Tradition by Jamie Leigh, American Studies Program, University of Virginia

Quilts in Literature: An Archive of Texts Which Use Quilts as American Symbol by Jamie Leigh, American Studies Program, University of Virginia

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Top | VCCS Litonline Quilts and Literature http://vccslitonline.cc.va.us/vcquilts.htm | developed by D. Reiss | modified 02/20/05 by D. Reiss

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