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Umeå’s Quilters Document Pandemic in Cloth, Color, and Thread

☞ AN UMEÅ TODAY SUNDAY MORNING FEATURE

Umebor have adapted to social distancing in various ways. Some are practicing yoga at home. Others cook elaborate meals. Many Zoom with friends.

And some are sewing a giant quilt.

The We Stick Together project’s main goal is to connect people during the crisis – and to memorialize it. Åsa Norin, leader of the Facebook group Vän i Umeå, welcomes all participants who can craft a 15×15 cm square, whether sewn, knitted, or embroidered. Crafters are encouraged to design “a hopeful, positive text or symbol” of the pandemic and how it has changed the city.

Elisabet Allström’s patch explores creativity — and anti-consumerism — in her interpretation of life during the coronavirus. -Vän i Umeå

With more than 6000 members, Vän i Umeå conducts ten social activities weekly for Umeå residents, both long-time and brand new. In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, the network is adapting to digital outreach. As part of We Stick Together, participants can login between 9:15 AM and 11 PM to meet other crafters online in a virtual sewing circle. The group also plans to share instructional videos on its homepage. 

The project organizers eventually hope to stitch together all the individual squares  and display the quilt at Västerbottens Museum in Gammlia. Norin imagines that visitors of the future will “go to the museum, look at the quilt and think about a bygone time”, and she reflects that “we all are human beings with similar needs and vulnerabilities.” She hopes that “the feeling of empathy, a desire to contribute, and the sense of a cohesive society generated by this crisis will stay long after the pandemic is over.”

Participant Hala Tamboli’s portion of the quilt. -Vän i Umeå

Helén Rådahl, who volunteers with Vän i Umeå, is also participating in We Stick Together. She finds this project ”relaxing and meditational”. 

“It’s cool to guess how the patchwork will look when everything is set together,“ Rådahl mused. 

We Stick Together and Västerbottens Museum are a natural combination. Built in 1886, the museum is responsible for the county’s cultural history. Its tasks are to preserve, nurture, and display Västerbottens’s heritage for future generations. The museum is an ideal space to display the new patchwork. Traditionally, Västerbotten handicraft utilised tree barks like birches, rowan, and ghost willow. Sami handicraft often ties vegetable-tanned reindeer leather pieces together with tin wire. We Stick Together, in contrast, is open to all kinds of artistic expressions in methods and materials, from people with diverse backgrounds – reflecting an increasingly multicultural Umeå .

“DO NOT SPEAK WITH HATE IN YOUR MOUTH”, reads a quilt contribution by Elisabet Allström. -Vän i Umeå

Quilting has been used both as a metaphor for — and as a form of — meditation. The language of stitching and sewing recurs throughout American writer Anne Lamott’s Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair. 

“When you can step back at moments like these and see what is happening, when you watch people you love under fire or evaporation, you realize that the secret of life is patch patch patch,” Lamott reveals. “Thread your needle, make a knot, find one place on the other piece of torn cloth where you can make a stitch that will hold. And do it again. And again. And again.”

Geson Rathnow’s abstract square uses threads leftover from knitting Easter bunnies. -Vän i Umeå

Quilting also has a long connection to social activism. Quilts inscribed with the horrors of slavery played an important part in the nineteenth century American abolition movement. Those quilts were auctioned to earn money for the cause. In the mid-1980s, a project called NAMES assembled an AIDS Memorial Quilt. This quilt of 48 thousand panels of about 1 by 2 meters commemorated 94 thousand people who died of AIDS. It was displayed in Washington, D.C., during the National March for Gay and Lesbian Rights. 

The AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington, D.C., in 1987.

We Stick Together can be seen as its own form of community activism. According to the World Health Organisation, community participation is a social determinant for mental health. In the context of the coronavirus, where opportunities for socialization are curtailed, We Stick Together offers a simple and effective community engagement tool for both professionals and beginners. 

Quilter Kristoffer Fredriksson praised the project first as “a way to create a feeling of togetherness and solidarity when it is difficult to meet one another.” Fredriksson also said that it might be “a fantastic monument to the values which we want to take with us from this period.”

Ria Salomonsson’s patches evoke hopp, glädje, dröm, lycka — hope, joy, dream, happiness. -Vän i Umeå

Sweden has around more than 20 thousand confirmed cases of covid-19, more than 300 of which are in Västerbotten, with Umeå reporting the highest number in the county. Many people have lost their lives and jobs to the coronavirus. In such an environment, when people in Umeå and all around the world are overwhelmed with fear and anxiety, We Stick Together may offer a productive, healing outlet. 

We Stick Together organizer Åsa Norin. -A. Norin

4 Comments

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