Quilting the Lesbian Archive

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Sarah-Joy Ford describes some of her recent projects relating to feminism and lesbianism.

I am a textile artist and researcher, with a passion for queer history, quiltmaking and all things digital embroidery and embellishment. I studied Fine Art at the University of Leeds, with a brief stint of printmaking at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts. Neither department had a sewing machine, but I found my love for textile art through feminist art history. After my degree I took short courses in Photoshop, print design and textile printing, which helped inspire me and keep my practice developing.

My PhD research

In 2016 I ran the exhibition ‘Cut Cloth: Contemporary Textiles and Feminism’ at The Portico Library in Manchester. That is how I met Alice Kettle, contemporary textile artist and Professor of Textile Arts at Manchester School of Art. This meeting prompted my decision to undertake a Masters in Textile Practice at Manchester School of Art. When I visited the workshop, I fell in love with the digital embroidery machines and the Handi Quilter machine – that was my first sight of a longarm quilting machine. I learnt so much in the workshop with head technician Susan Prestbury, who has both challenged and supported me.

My research at Manchester is entitled ‘Quilting the Lesbian Archive’. Unlike in the USA, there is no dedicated Lesbian Archive in the UK. The project has therefore led me on all kinds of adventures in the search for archival fragments, from institutions such as The Women’s Library (London School of Economics, or LSE), to community-focused museums (e.g. Glasgow Women’s Library). It has also taken me into the homes of the women who created – and are still creating – lesbian art and culture, including Phyllis Christopher and Karen Fisch. Quilting gives me a thrifty strategy for approaching this archive: gathering fragments, re-arranging with tender inquisitiveness, and telling hidden stories in stitch. The loving attention and protective qualities of the quilt offer a reparative site for investing in lesbian archives inherently bound to a history of injury and marginalisation.

Queering suffrage history

I started out researching the papers of Vera (Jack) Holme which are held in The Women’s Library Archives (LSE). I then created the quilt ‘V is for Vera by patchworking together the imagery and iconography of the suffrage movement alongside the symbols and signifiers of lesbian existence, culture and intimacy. Central to the quilt are the elaborately embroidered initials of Vera Holme and her partner Evelina Haverfield, which reference the bed they shared, recorded in the archive as having their joint initials carved on the end. The quilt commemorates this act of love and devotion and locates the bed as a site of shared importance to them. This is particularly poignant in the context of lesbian history where what women did in bed has been debated, contested and dismissed.

Rebel Dykes: intergenerational textiles

For the ‘Rebel Dykes Art and Archive’ exhibition I created a new large-scale quilt: ‘Chain Reactions.2’, inspired by Fisch’s personal collection as well as elements from the Rebel Dykes film archive. The quilt is a faux, digital log cabin, created in Photoshop using pattern designs created from my watercolour paintings. The digital embroideries include in the centre a portrait of Fisch taken by Lola Flash; snapshots from a Lesbian Avengers protest; and two embroideries of her cat Pearly in the corner. (The Lesbian Avengers began in New York City in 1992 as a direct action group focused on issues vital to lesbian survival and visibility, and quickly spread worldwide.)

It was amazing to be part of this intergenerational endeavour, curated by Atalanta Kernick and Kat Hudson and showing a real breadth of lesbian art, including another quilt by Eleanor Louise West and a beautiful banner Descendant of a Rebel Dyke by Emily Witham. The Rebel Dykes film premiered in November 2021 and can be watched online in the UK. I was also commissioned by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford to make a new quilt for their project ‘Beyond the Binary’, which was also inspired by the Rebel Dykes – this exhibition closed in spring 2022. 

‘Archives and Amazons’

For ‘Archives and Amazons: a quilter’s guide to the lesbian archive’ I presented a series of works inspired by the Lesbian Archive and Information Centre collection at Glasgow Women’s Library. The exhibition was inspired by symbols used to invoke lesbian strength, power and community throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, including Lesbos, the interlocking Venus, the labrys and the Amazon woman.

The quilts made for this exhibition are typical of the way I work with digital embroidery: first making watercolour paintings based on archival materials, then creating the embroidery files in ApS-Ethos embroidery software. The bleedy, leaky nature of watercolours brings ambiguity to working with industrial processes, prompting me to play with the stitches, pulling and distorting them to create clusters and spaces, gaps and concentrations. Just like my hand embellishment, digital stitching is a kind of hand craft; made up of thousands of tiny gestures, this process requires dedication, time and skill.

Archival Folds

I was delighted that my quilted sculpture Honourable Discharge: Archival Folds was shortlisted for the then Janome Fine Art Textile Award 2021 and was exhibited in the gallery at The Festival of Quilts 2021, and at last year’s autumn’s Knitting & Stitching Shows. I’m a huge Festival of Quilts fan and submit a quilt every year, and enjoy attending the event with my mum. I always come away feeling so inspired, and in awe of the talent and passion of the quilting community.

My quilted sculpture pays ‘femmage’ to Donna Jackson, honourably discharged from the US Army in 1991 under homophobic Chapter 15. After that she was a cover girl for the lesbian erotica magazine On Our Backs: entertainment for the adventurous lesbian. The quilt extends her wilful act of dangerous visibility and precarious pleasure. Bound and unfurling, lounging on the floor, portions of the embroidery are visible, others hidden, revealing and concealing, secrets tucked in folds. Like the archive that inspired it, the quilt is vast, full of feeling and, in its entirety, always, inevitably, unknowable.

You can see more of my work and find out about projects I’m involved with on my website and on Instagram

ⓒ Sarah-Joy Ford 2021

This article first appeared in ‘The Quilter’, Winter 2021 (issue 169), the quarterly membership magazine of The Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles.

Sarah’s recent work ‘Beloved: Crafting Intimacies with the Ladies of Llangollen’ is on show at Plas Newydd Historic House and Gardens in Llangollen until October 30th 2022. This exhibition presents a site-specific installation of quilted and textile artworks created after a period of artist residency. The embroidered intervention is inspired by the deep and lifelong intimate relationship between the Ladies of Llangollen and the extraordinary home that they created together. 

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