The Memory Quilt

Why a fabric artist cut up all her parents’ clothes.

“Since my dad died I’ve been cutting up his clothing.” Thus began my artistic statement for “Pieces of Memory,” an exhibition of my fiberart pieces.

How do you heal from the loss of parents? Each of us experiences being a child who becomes an adult and finally a parentless orphan. It seems just yesterday my parents, Sadye and Howard Shapiro, and I were gossiping about the neighborhood over lunch and cooing together over our next generation at a family gathering.

I was in a state of shock when my dad died. I had just finished a master’s degree, signed a divorce agreement, and was in the process of moving my adult learning disabled daughter to a new home over 500 miles away. My dad had devoted the last 10 years of his life to my mom, painfully and helplessly watching her become debilitated from Alzheimer’s disease. I was able to tell him I loved him as he went in for a standard heart catherization. He never came back to consciousness. He was fortunate to die quickly and painlessly. He’d had his share of pain watching my mom.

I cleaned out their belongings twice, once to move them to an assisted living facility and then, finally, after his death. Both times, along with photos and special mementos, I selected clothing and textiles that I hoped would be quilt-worthy. Being a quilt maker, I knew about the great tradition of the remembrance quilt, created to immortalize in fabric something of significance: a person, an event, or even an insight. Creating such a quilt allows its maker a space to reflect, recall, weep, lament, sigh, smile and laugh. There are lots of different kinds of remembrance quilts: friendship quilts that mark relationships, special- occasion quilts that document events like births and weddings, and mourning quilts that mark the loss of a loved one.

One remembrance quilt is the monumental quilt fashioned by the loved ones of AIDS victims. The first time I actually saw a portion of The AIDS Quilt was on a special trip to the New V’l™” York Public Library. The panels were not professionally crafted, yet each was very powerful to me, because I knew it represented a precious extinguished life. That was many years ago. Today, every conceivable material and technique have been used in this quilt: photographs, letters, even rubber flip flops and teddy bears have been lovingly incorporated. Too big to be contained in the Washington Monument Mall where it used to be shown periodically, sections now travel around the country. Its blocks represent the precious individuality of the victims, and the quilt in its entirety stands for the untimely and wretched nature of the disease, a powerful visual expression beyond words.

I was overwhelmed with the array of my parent’s cloth I had carted back to my studio. Numerous cross-stitched tablecloths. All kinds of slippery knitted sweaters. Fancy formal wear. Brightly colored golf attire. Heavy Turkish towels. It took me two years to cut up their clothing. It was the only way I knew to grieve my loss. In the process I created a memorial that would have filled them with pride along with tinges of embarrassment and disbelief

At the beginning of my mission, one picture held my attention. It showed them as a young, carefree couple strutting on the boardwalk of Atlantic City. I translated the image to a life-size pattern and began to sort the fabrics. I was dismayed. My parents appeared light and airy in the photo, and the materials I had of theirs were overwhelmingly heavy and coarse. In frustration, I covered over the life-size drawing and began a quilt more in keeping with the materials. What resulted was a child’s view of my parents, complete with our house, my brother, and my father’s two brothers, from whom he was inseparable. I spent uncountable days on this first quilt. Cutting into the clothing, hacking off sleeves, salvaging pockets and ripping linings. Every stitch was by hand, fueled by memories and tears. As I was adding decorative embroideries to the quilt’s surface, I got that typical quiltmaker’s yen to create yet another piece that would be some variation of the first. Before I knew it, I had a series worthy of a show.

I made embroideries, a linen jacket, a poncho, table runners, photo transfer books, a gambit of pieces big and small. The fabric piles were consistently unruly, requiring continual sorting, ripping and discarding. I had trouble throwing any of the precious cloth away and managed to cut the remnants into usable squares and strips to make traditional patterned bed covers, one for each of the seven grandchildren.

The blowup sketch of my parents on the boardwalk remained untouched on my pinup board. Other projects came and went: commissions, exhibition work, and more memory pieces. In time the solution came to me. Instead of their clothing fabric, I went to the magnificent collection of silks they had purchased for me on their travels. At my request, they had bought me several meters of both blue and red silk. I’d held onto the fabric for years; it was too precious and at the same time too difficult to use. I needed a bigger purpose for these gems. I had it, finally.

“Sadye and Howie” was the culmination of my memory-quilt grieving process. I had the quilt of my parents as I choose to remember them, light and airy, young and hopeful, and, as my mom would have said, “full of piss and vinegar.”

Today, I continue to make memory quilts, but now from the memorial cloth of others. A mother gave her son a wall hanging made of Boy Scout uniforms and badges to celebrate his 30th birthday. A mother and her four daughters commissioned five king-size bed quilts from 120 dress shirts worn by their deceased father and brother 1 worked with a 50-yearold and her friends in an all-day quiltmaking birthday celebration. I’ve made tallitot out of tee-shirts, baby quilts out of wedding dresses and quilted clothing out of European embroidery. Silk ties combine with woolen suits, formal wear unites with hand-knit sweaters and sports caps merge with baby blankets.

Each of us has a bag of memories associated with our clothing and textiles. Life’s constant change leaves tangible tactile surfaces as a handy reminder. And one can never have too many quilts. 

Louise Silk is a fabric artist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.