Patches From the Past
Scraps of Fabric, Sewing & Quilting History

Quilted Reactions to Desert Storm

~ quilters reflected their feelings in war related quilts ~

thanks to Scarlett's Rose for this picture

We are fortunate that Nancy Cameron Armstrong decided to study quilts made in response to the Gulf War in 1991. For the first time we have immediate first person information about quilts made in wartime. The paper, "Quilts of the Gulf War, Desert Storm --- Participation or Protest?" * takes a look at both the quilts made and the feelings and attitudes of the quilters. Because of Armstrong's efforts we have some excellent documentation on a number of these quilts.

Making quilts during wartime is a long tradition in America. It is easy to assume that these quilts always reflected patriotism and the quilters' approval of the concurrent war. In her research on Desert Storm quilters Armstrong found their purposes and feelings to be far more complex. As we look at the results of this study we realize there was probably more depth to the stories behind the quilts made during wartime in earlier eras as well. Because of lack of documentation on many old quilts we have had to make assumptions that are probably simplified versions of reality.

We discover that some Desert Storm quilts did not look like they were related to a war. It's not always obvious that a quilter is making a quilt in response to a war. This is true of earlier quilts as well. The Dear Jane Quilt made by Vermont resident Jane Stickle, although amazing in its scope and detail, did not have symbols or motifs related to war or patriotism. Yet we know this ambitious quilter had the Civil War very much on her mind as she titled it "In War Time".

Other Desert Storm quilts had a great deal of symbolism and many quilters shared that they had used colors and motifs they had never used before. Symbols are certainly seen in quilts of the past from the quilted eagles of early America to the Blue Star Flags frequently seen in both world wars. Union and Secessionist quilts tended to be highly symbolic making it clear to us years later which side the quilter supported. The symbolism in the quilts made during the first Gulf War display more complex symbolism. Some portrayed the suffering of the innocent and others used yellow ribbons to show their hope that the service men and women would come home safely.

It is interesting to discover that the majority of the women in the study were forty-five or older. My first thought was "Of course, with children grown they had more time to quilt." On second thought it occurred to me that they also had more time to worry. Quilting could have been a way to deal with the anxieties and fears leading up to and during Desert Storm.

Many of these quilters expressed that they made their quilts because they felt they needed to do something positive. One could feel helpless watching the constant TV coverage of the war. Never before had it been possible to watch all the ups and downs along with every tragedy of a war in ones own living room.

Through an in-depth questionnaire a complex picture evolved of why these quilts were made. Armstrong discovered that most of the quilters in her study did not make their quilts as a simple expression of pro or anti war sentiments. About a third of the quilters were divided somewhat equally in favor of or opposition to the war. But most of these quilters expressed mixed emotions about the Gulf War. For example more that a quarter described their quilts as commemorative. These quilters made their quilt to be a memorial of Desert Storm as a deeply felt historical event. Some quilts were made to express sorrow or grief while others portrayed hope for peace and harmony. Many were made in support of the service men and women involved in the war. Even quilters who felt ambiguous about the war still cared deeply about the welfare of the troops. Quilters also worried over the innocent victims, especially children.

As I think of these quilters from both the distant and more recent past, I have to believe most processed a variety of thoughts and emotions as they stitched on their quilted responses to war.

2003 Judy Anne Johnson Breneman (Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author)


* "Quilts of the Gulf War, Desert Storm --- Participation or Protest?" by Nancy Cameron Armstrong, Uncoverings 1992
If you are interested in learning more on this study order this journal from the American Quilt Study Group.

Thanks to Scarlett Rose for permission to display the above picture of her quilt, "A Price for Freedom". Scarlett is a quilt artist, author and teacher. Be sure to visit her at   Scarlett's Celtic & More Store.

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