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Sisters In Stitches quilt guild hosts Roxbury exhibition

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Sisters In Stitches quilt guild hosts Roxbury exhibition
A previous exhibit of quilts by Sisters In Stitches Joined By The Cloth Quilt Guild. PHOTO: COURTESY SISTERS IN STICHES

The Sisters In Stitches Joined By The Cloth Quilt Guild celebrates 25 years of creation this fall with the exhibition, “The Essence of Us: We Have Always Been Here” at the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Dillaway-Thomas House at Roxbury Heritage State Park. Running through Oct. 30, the exhibition features handmade quilts from each guild member.

Susi Ryan, president of Sisters In Stitches Joined By The Cloth, has been part of the group since its inception 25 years ago. The guild began as a group of women interested in traditional African quilting practices, but it has grown into a strong sisterhood made up of talented textile artists from across the country.

“We’re going back to our roots, to what traditional quilting bees were, as far as women gathering together and working collectively,” says Ryan. “We’ve always tried to be involved in the community and include our history, not just African American quiltmaking, but African American history altogether.”

Meetings are once a month at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Arlington. Many members come in person, but the meetings are also accessible via Zoom, an option brought in during COVID-19. Because of this virtual accessibility, the group has members from Florida, California, New Jersey and other states around the country. All are welcome.

“When the guild formed, the aesthetic style of the African American quilters nationwide wasn’t really accepted in the non-Black quilt world,” says Ryan. “That was one of the reasons that the women came together originally.”

The guild doesn’t nitpick about tight corners and perfectly measured lines, features emphasized in quilting styles historically accepted by the art world. African American quilting styles are typically more freeform and utilize an appliqué style and often storytelling components. That’s the style still used by many of the guild quilters, including Ryan.

One of the quilts Ryan submitted to the show tells the joint stories of the African Saint Bakhita and Ryan’s own maternal grandmother, two women born into slavery and propelled forward by their faith and belief in forgiveness.

This narrative taps into an underlying component of quilting’s history: slavery. Cotton is the traditional textile used for quilts, and the cotton trade in the United States relied almost exclusively on the labor of enslaved individuals. Dyes and dying of fabrics are also rooted in African traditions. “The history is so important, because we don’t just preserve the art and tradition of making quilts, we also acknowledge and continue to present the history of where the cloth came from and all the ramifications,” says Ryan.

In every aspect, from the materials to the construction of the quilts and the stories embedded in them, Sisters In Stitches illustrates how African American history is intrinsically linked to quilting.

As part of “The Essence of Us,” the guild will host two workshops, one on Sept. 25 at 2 p.m. at the Dillaway-Thomas House and another on Oct. 8 at 10 a.m. at the Roxbury Branch of the Boston Public Library. The closing reception and trunk show for the exhibit will be held on Oct. 23.

Craft and historical context are hugely important to the guild, but perhaps the most important outcome of the group is its sisterhood. Like women’s crafting circles historically, Sisters In Stitches provides women with the opportunity to come together, create and relate to each in other in a safe and nurturing space. The current iteration of the guild has 15 members, but over the years it has had as many as 50, of all ages and backgrounds. The guild is now open to male members as well.

“It’s that sisterhood and feeling good around people who are doing the same things,” says Ryan. “There’s such a need for us to be together.”

Dillaway-Thomas House, Quilting workshops, Quilts, The Sisters In Stitches Joined By The Cloth Quilt Guild
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