I mentioned this art quilt in a comment on The Vintage Traveler blog, and it dawned on me that, since it was a powerful work of art that really started me thinking about our international economy, I ought to write about it here.
Around 2005, Fiber Artist Terese Agnew put out a call for labels clipped from clothing manufactured overseas. She wanted to make a quilt honoring textile workers, using only clothing labels. I went through the shirts in my husband’s closet — mostly knit “golf shirts” from Land’s End and dress shirts bought at Ross Stores. I was stunned by the range of countries: Made in Sri Lanka, Made in India, Made in Bangladesh, Made in Cambodia, Made in Pakistan, Made in China, etc.
(There was a brief period when textile workers in Cambodia were promised better working conditions and a living wage. It didn’t last long. In 2014, protesting Cambodian workers were shot for asking for the same improvements.) Click here for a BBC News report.
After going through our closet, I cut the country-of-origin labels from a dozen or so garments and mailed them to Agnew. Then I began talking about her project at work, and the theatre company gave me permission to go through costume storage on my lunch breaks. I collected another fat envelope full of clothing labels from our boxes of used men’s shirts, showed them to my co-workers, and mailed them to Agnew. Other costumers did the same, along with people from all over the world who heard about her project.
Several years later, Terese Agnew and her finished quilt, called “Portrait of a Textile Worker,” appeared in an episode of the PBS series “Craft in America.” Click here to watch a preview of the program. Click here to watch the entire 12 minute segment.
Here, you can see Ms. Agnew working on the quilt. That should give you a better idea of its size.
The finished quilt measures 98 by 110 inches. Agnew has devoted a website to this project: tardart.com. Click here. (The portrait is based on a photograph by Charles Kernaghan, Director of the National Labor Committee, which was taken on an unauthorized visit to a factory in Bangladesh.) As of January, 2014, textile factory workers in Bangladesh were the lowest paid in the world.
Agnew’s site does not show closeups that enlarge the quilt so that we can get some idea of how many labels it took to make the image, but you can see more by clicking here. Ifthebirdknew at blogspot showed the quilt with a close-up of fashion labels you may recognize: click here.
A 2007 interview, “Not Your Mother’s Quilt,” done after the quilt was finished, appeared in UTNE Reader. Click here to read it.
Agnew’s art quilt was featured on a segment of Craft in America on PBS, a terrific series I discovered late — by borrowing DVDs from my local library. (Again, you can watch the very good preview by clicking here.)
The PBS series on Craft in America covers many art forms — pottery, woodworking, quilting, etc. You may be able to find a copy at your local library, or online. This particular episode is on DVD, available as Craft in America Season 4, Threads. It can be downloaded from Amazon or purchased as a DVD for about $9. The quilt is not black and white, as it appears here; closeups on the DVD show flecks of color and subtle grays and tans. Agnew’s other quilts are equally amazing, and very colorful. The Threads DVD includes other textile artists: Faith Ringgold, Randall Darwall (gorgeous hand weaving,) and Consuelo Jiminez. The three women artists use textiles to explore social issues. The entire series is wonderful. (Potters, woodworkers, basketmakers, jewelers, glass — some crafts I didn’t know existed!) You can buy them all from PBS. Click here to see the full collection.
If Terese Agnew’s work makes you want to do something about the conditions of textile workers, she has printed sample letters to write to major stores. They are on her website: click here.
Note: Although I tried, I could not find a way to contact Ms. Agnew for permission to use the images from her website. I hope that she won’t mind my attempt to make more people aware of her work. Signed posters — a fund-raising effort for improving workers’ conditions — were available through the National Labor Committee.