How Trans Fiber Artists Are Using Quilts To Tell Their Stories

Hands work together to finalize patches on the Norfolk Trans Joy Community Quilt

Quilting is an art born out of necessity. The act of sewing padded, patchworked fabrics together has been prominent for centuries, as folks innovated to extend the lives of their worn fabrics in order to stay warm.

Of course, it was also a tool to illustrate and depict culturally significant beliefs, patterns, and life events, like weddings and births.

For those of us who are familiar with quilting through the lens of American folk art, the mass manufacturing and domestic production of fabric allowed quilting to become more affordable and accessible

This allowed large, ornate tapestries to take on an artistic quality among people of all backgrounds (ahem, not just royalty) and serve as a family heirloom, telling stories across generations and identities.

Quilting, in part, due to its socially feminized connotation, has subsequently been used for years as a tool in activism

Feminists have used quilts to empower and detail the value of women’s work; racial justice activists have connected quilts to African heritage; and perhaps one of the most famous examples is the AIDS Memorial Quilt, created and displayed along the National Mall in Washington DC in 1987.

As LGBTQ+ folks, namely the transgender community, face continuous persecution in the United States (and across the globe), fiber artists have once again turned to the power of the quilt to tell their stories.

The Norfolk Trans Joy Community Quilt

Take, for instance, The Norfolk Trans Joy Community Quilt, a project led by partners Beau Brannick and Alice Bigsby-Bye in the UK. 

“Quilts have a long history of being used as a way for community building in resistance movements,” Brannick and Bigsby-Bye shared in an email to Good Good Good. 

“A big part of the Norfolk Trans Joy Community Quilt wasn’t just the end product, but establishing safe spaces for transgender, gender non-conforming, and allies to be in one space and celebrate, process, and learn in a non-judgemental group.”

The duo, who were inspired to create the quilt “following an onslaught of biased media, dangerous politics, and the rise in hate crimes against transgender people close to home and further afield,” wanted to create a project that celebrated the diversity and beauty of trans joy.

Also inspired by the AIDS Memorial Quilt and textile activism like union banners and Pride protest and poster displays, they set off to engage their community in events and solo quilt-making, encouraging individuals to share their own patch to be a part of the final quilt.

They held workshops and craft days with other community groups (like OUT! Norwich, the Norfolk LGBT+ Project, and Queer Craft Club), putting an emphasis on the flexibility and originality afforded by fiber arts as a hobby

58 total patches were included in the final quilt, which took four months to complete.

Now, the quilt is a traveling display for the community, and the pair works alongside local nonprofit Queer Norfolk to archive the quilt through photography and collected information. 

This work is also done alongside a local zine maker and small press publisher who have helped tell the story of the quilt through interviews, writing, and photographs. The zines are available to purchase and a percentage of every zine sold goes toward Norwich Trans Pride

Through these documentary projects, Brannick and Bigsby-Bye hope the quilt will maintain its symbolism as a piece of shared history among trans and gender nonconforming folks in Norfolk.

The Norfolk Trans Joy Community Quilt Zine is open to a spread on top of a white sheet
The Norfolk Trans Joy Community Quilt Zine was designed by Poppy Marriott and printed by Common Threads Press. Photo courtesy of Beau Brannick

“Hope and joy are just as important as direct action,” Brannick and Bigsby-Bye shared. “Using these factors keeps community spirits up, brings us closer together… and forms long-lasting, meaningful bonding moments that help keep us going through these tougher times.” 

The Euphoria Quilt Project

On the other side of the pond, Eliot Anderberg, a non-binary fiber artist based in New Mexico, has started a similar project: The Euphoria Quilt Project.

Though Anderberg had been thinking about a community quilting project for a long time, as political tensions rose and threats toward the safety of trans futures became more imminent, they knew it was time to act. 

They were also inspired by a recent group quilt project in Oklahoma that set out to make 18 quilts to represent the 18,000 quilts that were burned in the Tulsa Race Massacre. 

“I was so impressed with the project and the way it was organized,” they told Good Good Good. “It made me feel like, ‘okay, there are people who will want to participate in this project. I can do this.’”

Anderberg is currently in the submission stage of the quilt project, accepting mailed-in blocks from queer and gender-variant folks from any place in the world.

The prompt is to “create a quilt block that expresses or explores your gender expansive joy” within specific dimensions and made with machine-washable materials (though the quilt block does not only have to be made through sewing — participants are welcome to make use of fabric paint, dye, printing, and more!) 

The project invites any trans, nonbinary, intersex, or gender nonconforming folks to send in a quilt block, but also encourages queer folks of any gender identity or expression to send in a block of their own, too.

Anderberg sees it as a “communal archive” of that unique relationship queer and trans folks have to joy and celebration. It’s that joy that drives all of their work, too. 

“In my own work, I try to follow the phrase ‘Joy is the goal. Joy is the guide,’” they said. “I both want my work to bring joy to others and have it be driven by a conviction that joy isn’t frivolous. Joy certainly is resistance, but for me, it feels less like resistance and more like the thing that keeps me alive.”

Aligned with the goal of the quilt, Anderberg is deeply curious about how queer and trans people explore the concept of joy and how it might show up in their lives — or, unfortunately, how it might not show up.

“There are different ways that you can think of joy in relation to trans and queer people, and I hope all of them can apply to the quilt in one way or another,” they said. 

“One of them is acknowledging the truth that joy is inaccessible to us because the world is not safe. I also think joy is an aesthetic in queer life and art in a way that it isn’t in heteronormative society.”

As much as it is a love letter to other gender-expansive people, Anderberg also sees the project as a love letter to quilts. According to them, quilting offers a visual medium to experiences that so often feel inexplicable with words alone.

In my own work, I try to follow the phrase ‘Joy is the goal. Joy is the guide.’ I both want my work to bring joy to others and have it be driven by a conviction that joy isn’t frivolous. Joy certainly is resistance, but for me, it feels less like resistance and more like the thing that keeps me alive.

“For so many trans and gender non-conforming people, words completely fail us when we are talking about gender,” Anderberg said. It also brings up this sense that we as gender non-conforming people have to explain ourselves to cis people, which we are so tired of having to do.”

“I am really excited about having a visual representation of our joy, made by us and for us — not to explain our identities, but because we shouldn’t have to.”

While the quilt is still in its infancy, they are considering the best way to display and honor the final product, welcoming the ideas of collaborators whose work will be a part of the patchworked tapestry of stories.

“Quilts provide comfort, and I think that becomes even more true when they are made in a group,” Anderberg said. 

In fact, when they were trying to figure out what to name the project, a Google search for ‘gender euphoria’ turned up as a surefire sign. It was this definition that wrapped Anderberg in love — in possibility — for this dream project. 

Two hands pin a "Trans Joy is Radical" button to he Norfolk Trans joy Community Quiltt
Buttons adorn the Norfolk Trans Joy Community Quilt. Photo courtesy of Beau Brannick

And it’s the experience and safety all trans and gender non-conforming folks deserve.

Gender euphoria: ‘The profound feeling of joy and comfort that some transgender people feel when their internal gender identity aligns with their external gender presentation.’

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July 3, 2023 8:00 AM
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