Not that any pundits noticed, but quilters predicted the election of Barack Obama.
Even the obsessive statistician Nate Silver missed this colorful indicator while gathering predictions for his Web site FiveThirtyEight.com. But the nation's fast-growing subculture of quilters produced possibly the most vivid proof of the much-discussed “enthusiasm gap.”
During the election, Obama quilts (just what they sound like—quilts dedicated to Obama) sprang up on Web sites, quilting blogs, and at quilt shows across the country. The biggest national quilt show each year, the International Quilt Festival in Houston, announced a “Patchwork Politics” show for October, and received a motley assortment of quilts covering candidates and causes. There were a fair number that bashed Bush, a good number recommending Obama (with titles like “A Clear Choice”), and for an alarmingly long time, no McCain quilts at all. The only McCain quilt to appear in the final exhibit was done by Diana Bracy, who first made a mosaic-like Obama quilt called “Living the Dream”—only to follow it up with a McCain design because she felt bad that nobody else had made one.
Click Image Below to View our Gallery
Quilts also merit a footnote in accounts of the Obama campaign's phenomenal fundraising. Multiple Obama designs were sold to fund his run—an online group called Fiber Artists for Obama was organized by New Jersey quiltmaker Lisa Shepard Stewart, and by the end of the race, this group had 195 members, hosted 776 events, made 14,531 phone calls and raised $123,715.83 for the campaign. Some of the members contributed squares for a group quilt that was based on campaign buzzwords: Stewart's square is “First Family Fist Bump.”
After Obama's victory, the quilt-production grew exponentially. All sorts of everyday quilters who were moved by the historic victory sat down at their sewing machines to mark the occasion. Some scanned magazine covers and posters into their computers, then printed them on fabric using their inkjet printers and sewed the imaged into squares. Jackie Campbell, a quilter who lives in Washington, D.C., says she started her quilt, “Whatever You Want to Be,” after watching the election-night coverage on television. She said she was moved to make this image of a black man cradling a baby because her kids asked why she and her husband were crying that night. Her husband said, “We've always told you that you could be whatever you want to be, but now it's true.”
There were so many Obama quilts, in fact, that curators organized to build shows around them. Roland Freeman, a collector and curator of African-American quilts, decided to put together a serious exhibit of Obama quilts, and reached out to well-known textile artists across the country to make a quilt for the show, or contribute one they had already made. That show, “ Quilts for Obama: An Exhibit Celebrating the Inauguration of Our 44th President” opened at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. just before the inauguration and continues through July. Another show of 60-some Obama quilts organized by quilter/campaign worker Sue Walen in Bethesda, Maryland, has concluded its run at a college art museum.
All this feverish quiltmaking was duly noted by Karen Musgrave, an Illinois quiltmaker who co-chairs an oral history project, Quilters' S.O.S.--Save Our Stories. Shortly after the election, Musgrave set out to interview a diverse group of quiltmakers inspired by Obama, hoping to record and preserve not just the artifacts produced but the motivation behind them. Musgrave eventually interviewed more than 50 artists from all over the country, a sampling from untold hundreds, perhaps thousands of Obama designs. The quilts in the QSOS Obama project range from serious to humorous in theme and from competent to virtuosic in execution. And several of the quiltmakers say they've just begun: A woman named Carolyn Crump plans to make 43 more Obama quilts.
With this flurry of sewing and stuffing, perhaps the 2012 candidates will now know to pursue the quilt vote. Or would that be the quilt bloc?
Meg Cox is a journalist who covered publishing for the Wall Street Journal in the '90s, during her 17 years at the paper. Cox has been quilting for 20 years and her latest book is The Quilter's Catalog: A Comprehensive Resource Guide.