Stitching love and a historic civil rights case into a quilt
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Hearts are beating. Eyes are focused. And hands are working diligently on a March afternoon at the Birmingham Public Library.
Love is in the air, too, courtesy of the Bib & Tucker Sew-Op.
The local nonprofit organization, which aims to build community and nurture sewing skills, has settled into the library’s downtown atrium for a session with needles and thread.
Anyone can join the sewing circle -- actually, participants are sitting at a long rectangular table -- and new recruits are eased into the process by a welcoming instructor, Stephanie George. Her mission: to help them sew squares for a quilt that will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
This landmark case ended legal restrictions on interracial marriage in the United States, while upholding the union of Mildred and Richard Loving. The Lovings, a black woman and a white man, had been sentenced to a yearlong prison term in Virginia, simply because they’d said “I do.”
The Supreme Court changed all that in 1967, and now June 12 is celebrated as Loving Day. The case, although five decades old, continues to strike a chord with folks who believe in social justice and equality. The members of Bib & Tucker certainly belong in that group, and Loving Day has become a rallying cry, of sorts, for a project called The March Quilts.
For the past two years, Bib & Tucker has recruited the public for a community art project, creating a series of quilts that illustrate civil rights or human rights themes. The first year, in 2015, 461 blocks were stitched by members of Bib & Tucker and others who took an interest.
Those pieces were assembled into three quilts commemorating the Selma-to Montgomery marches of March 1965. The quilts were exhibited in Selma and Montgomery -- in March, naturally -- to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the marches. Hence the overall name: The March Quilts.
The project was so successful, Bib & Tucker picked up the thread again in 2016, teaming with the public for a quilt that pointed to wage inequality -- basically, the fact that women of all races are paid less money than men for doing the same work. A total of 88 squares was stitched that year, bringing the concept to vivid life.
“We got some really beautiful blocks that people really thought about,” says Lillis Taylor, co-founder of Bib & Tucker. “We used purple for the quilt, because it’s one of the suffragette colors. There are three numbers in the quilt -- 79, 64 and 55 -- that represent what a Caucasian woman makes, what an African American woman makes and what a Hispanic woman makes compared to the male dollar.”
Sewing sessions for the latest installment of The March Quilts started in December, after Bib & Tucker’s members decided on the Loving Day theme. Currently, the group has collected about 50 blocks for the new quilt, via open sewing sessions at libraries, the Birmingham Museum of Art, the UAB Women and Infants Center and the Sew-Op itself, 4915B Fifth Ave. South.
At least two more sew-ins are planned, on March 30 at the Emmet O’Neal Library in Mountain Brook, and on April 2 in a tent at Railroad Park.
All materials are provided at the sessions, from fabric to thread to round wooden frames that keep fabric taut while it’s stitched. No experience is required -- “If you show up and want to sew a block, you can,” Taylor says -- and Bib & Tucker members are happy to provide guidance for those who need it.
“There is technical sewing, but this is not the place for it,” says George, who’s led several of the public sessions. “This is art sewing. It’s art and it’s what you put into it, so anything is beautiful.”
Thus far, hearts have been a popular motif for the Loving Day quilt, no matter if the sewer is young or old, male or female, fledgling or experienced. Newcomers usually spend about 30-60 minutes working on a single square, George says, sketching words or images on paper and transferring those to pre-cut blocks of fabric.
Some folks have been working on the squares at home, as well, and Bib & Tucker’s members have produced a significant amount during their weekly meetings at the sew-op in Woodlawn, Tuesdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Visitors and drop-ins are encouraged.)
“I’m really about sewing and community, and the different ways these two can benefit each other,” says Taylor, who started Bib & Tucker with a like-minded friend, Annie Bryant. “This is a hub for sewing activities that cultivate empowerment, education and economic opportunity.”
Taylor and Bryant met in 2010 at the Birmingham Quilters Guild, and have been sewing together ever since -- first, at the Birmingham Public Library’s Inglenook branch, and later, at the Bib & Tucker building. (The nonprofit was incorporated in 2014.)
For Taylor, conversations that arise at the sewing sessions -- about life, work, Birmingham’s history and more -- are just as important as the quilting output. She’s chatted with folks who range in age from 8 to 80-plus, from backgrounds as varied as their sewing skills.
“I saw an opportunity for women of all ages to get together and learn from each other,” Taylor says. “Hand-sewing loosens tongues like you would not believe.”
The discussions can be illuminating and challenging, Taylor says, especially when passers-by join the sewing circle in a public spot. Bib & Tucker’s Loving Day quilt project has drawn comments from across the spectrum on racism, and Taylor says that’s been a valuable learning experience.
“A man came up at the Homewood library, where one of the Selma quilts was hanging, and somehow we got him to sit down and start working on a block,” Taylor says. “He looks down on the Black Lives Matter movement, and said it was all kind of a waste of time and distracting. He said, ‘Look, I’m trying to grow. I really want to understand and make the world a better place.’ Of course, we did not change his mind, and he did not change ours. But we had an extremely civil discourse.”
When the Loving Day quilt is completed, it’ll be displayed at UAB Hospital on June 12, in a walkway between the North Pavilion and the Women and Infants Center, at Sixth Avenue South and 18th Street. The other four quilts in The March Quilts series will be on view, as well.
The exhibit is co-produced by UAB Arts in Medicine, Taylor says. She previously worked with this program to create two quilts made with fabric from nursing scrubs, celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Women and Infants Center.
A $5,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham provided seed money for the Loving Day quilt, helping the sew-op to buy materials, expand its open sewing sessions and pay facilitators.
“The March Quilts are on a roll,” Taylor says. “This is year three and we are definitely going to continue doing it. This is a nonprofit, and we could use more interaction from the community. We need more materials and more participation. ... Bib & Tucker is the little engine that could. I think it’s unique to Birmingham, and this is a time when really beautiful things are happening here.”