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The National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky currently has a display on the Modern Quilt Guild’s Retrospective, which features the work of West St. Paul quilter Darci Read. She made her featured quilt, “Feminist Quilt,” in response to the 2016 election and it features a quote from Hillary Clinton.
In addition to wearing the quilt while marching in the 2017 Women’s March in Oakland, California, Read’s quilt has made the rounds. Her iconic quilt has also been featured at Quiltcon in 2018, the East Bay Modern Quilter’s show Stitch Modern in 2018, the Pick Museum of Anthropology’s Quilts and Human Rights exhibit in 2019, and the Minnesota Quilter’s Show in 2019.
Read’s quilt will be on display at the National Quilt Museum through July 27, 2021.
“Women’s rights are human rights and human right are women’s rights.”Hillary Clinton, Sept 5, 1995
About Darci Read
Read was born and raised in West St. Paul. She spent 20 years here going through ISD 197 schools (Moreland, Grass, Sibley) and then went to St. Thomas and eventually graduated from Metro State. After living in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area, she’s now back in West St. Paul with her husband, three-year-old son, and their 10-year-old dog Izzy.
Field Trip Quilting Studio is Read’s long-arm quilting business, though it’s part time. She spends the rest of her day as a stay-at-home mom. She has a background in graphic design and prior to kids worked as an art director in the advertising world.
Aside from quilting, Read loves to garden and is working to transform her yard into an edible urban forest. She also knits and cooks—”basic cottage core stuff,” as she describes it.
Talking Quilts With Darci Read
We had a conversation with Read about quilting.
Tell us about the quilt. When did you make it? What inspired it? How long did it take you?
I made the “Feminist Quilt” in January 2017 in response to the 2016 election. The first Women’s March was coming up, and I had no idea how to knit one of the hats. So about two weeks before the march this idea came to me. It is a quote from Hillary Clinton—which seemed perfect for the subject matter. I worked on it for those two weeks and got it done the day before the march.
How did it get selected for this show? How big of an honor is this?
There was an open call on the Modern Quilt Guild (MQG) site, where I’m a member through my local guild, the Minneapolis Modern Quilt Guild. Every year for the last 10 years, the MQG puts on a national convention called Quiltcon where they show around 300 quilts. In honor of 12 years, the National Quilt Museum is holding a retrospective of quilts that represent modern quilting over those years. I entered it myself—and really have no idea how many other quilts were submitted, but 35 of them were chosen to hang from April 9 to July 27. Many of the quilts accepted had already hung at Quiltcon over the years. Quiltcon is a “big deal” in the modern quilting world. Every year between 2,000 and 5,000 quilts are entered and only 300 get shown. My “Feminist Quilt” was in Quiltcon 2018.
What has been the reaction to your “Feminist Quilt”?
Um, mostly good? When I was at the march in Oakland with it the first time—people loved it. They took pictures with it and I met a ton of people. The next day a famous quilting blog picked it up and posted a photo of it on Facebook, then literally got on a plane. To say that people reacted strongly is an understatement. By the end of the day, I had received so much praise, and also so much hate (even to the point of death threats) that I was totally overwhelmed. The person who posted eventually got off her flight and deleted the most terrible comments and threats, but it was still unsettling.
From there it sort of took on a life of its own. It’s been in several museums now and hung at national shows. My quilting idols know who I am—which astounds me to this day. It’s opened doors for me and has set my quilting to a level that honestly is hard to follow! Most of the quilts I make now are art pieces intended to hang on the wall and are much smaller. I do have plans for a few larger activist quilts, maybe after my son is at school I’ll have time to make them again.
The Modern Quilt Guild does not seem like my grandma’s quilting. What is this new movement about and how is it different? Is activism new to quilting?
Activism in quilting isn’t new—when women didn’t have agency to share their ideas, they would put them in cloth and thread. Lots of early needlecraft work has a message behind it. Quilts have been used to support war efforts and protest for peace, they were used in the abolition and temperance movements, and certainly in politics. One of the most famous examples is the AIDS Memorial Quilt in the 1980s.
As far as the MQG—in 2010ish a group formed in Los Angeles as the first official MQG, but it had developed out of groups of “younger“ than typical quilters who were sharing photos on Flickr groups. They were a new style and didn’t fit into the traditional quilting world. So they made their own guild. One of the standard forms of meeting other quilters is through guilds—there are all sorts of guilds all over the country.
What does it mean to you to pair this traditional crafting activity with cutting-edge activism?
I think that as an artist, you are held to a certain set of ideas that have been set by generations of men working in a patriarchal system. Therefore, to be considered a “real artist” you have to play by these rules. Craft, specifically ones that have traditionally lived in the female arena like needlework and quilting, isn’t taken seriously as art. Yes, in recent years more quilts have been recognized for the art pieces that they are, but they are still judged based on these ideas set by the patriarchy. There are millions of women who quilt that will never be considered artists, yet their work is art to me, and to them. We just have to redefine what art is in order to encapsulate everything that happens in the craft world.
By making quilts and showing them in places like protests, I feel like I break down those barriers about what art is, and what it isn’t. This quilt isn’t precious, it has gotten rained on and washed and slept under and also hung in a museum. The complete utilitarian aspect of a quilt that also can carry a powerful message puts them into a new, more “feminine” space (I mean anyone that is femme, female, or identifies as a woman) and helps to chip away at traditional patriarchal ideals.
Women’s rights can feel like an overwhelming issue and it’s hard to know where to start. What do you do to support women’s rights?
My support mainly comes in supporting a woman’s right to equal health care. I believe that if women don’t have access to equal health care, they can never be equal in society at large. So I donate what I can, some of which comes from the sales of the pattern I made for my “Feminist Quilt.” It’s for sale as a PDF on my website and a portion of the proceeds get donated to Planned Parenthood.
I also tell all the little girls in my life (and really all kids) that women can do anything anyone else can, so never let them tell you otherwise.
Another big change in the quilting world is the machinery. Talk to us about your quilting machine and how digital has changed quilting.
I have a long-arm quilting machine and run a business quilting for others. Actually finishing the quilt tops after they are pieced together can be really cumbersome on small domestic sewing machines, so a lot of people will hire out that step. It’s my favorite part of the quilting process though—I quilted one quilt on my small machine and immediately sought out a long-arm I could learn on. Some people will train you how to use it and then rent the machine hourly, which is how I started. In 2017 I got my own long-arm after renting for three years.
Traditionally, quilts were quilted on large frames by many hands who came together and hand-quilted the three layers of a quilt together. In the 1980s, the first long-arm was invented and shortly after the first machine-quilted quilt won Best of Show at the big national quilt show in Paducah. I’ve heard it was sort of like the first time Dylan plugged in—there was an uproar about traditional quilting being “real quilting” and machine-quilted quilts weren’t authentic. There are still holdouts of course, but tech has made it easier for regular folks to get into long-arm quilting. There’s even computerized machines now that need minimal human operation. Mine doesn’t have that—I still like the organic nature of hand-guided quilting.
What’s your history with quilting?
I started quilting in New York City when my sister had a baby. I wanted to hand-make something for her—how hard could quilting be? Famous last words, right? Ten years and two states later, I’m back to West St Paul. We were living in the Bay Area when I found a modern quilt group there and really fell deeper into the craft.
Our son was born there, and after he was here we wanted to be closer to family so we moved home to West St. Paul. I opened a studio on Smith in 2018 and worked out of there for two years. I wanted it to be a space for sewists to gather and learn. Then COVID hit, and I had take a day job—so I let the studio go and moved it to my basement. It was great though, and someday I hope to do it again. Next time with fabric for sale and more classes for sure.
What do you love about West St. Paul?
I grew up here and my family has been on the West Side for over 100 years, so it’s really home to me. After we had our son, it made sense to come back and raise him here. I love how close it is to everything, and yet far enough away to feel out of the way.
I’ve lived in Minneapolis, New York City, and the Bay Area—so I’ve had my fill of people and traffic for a while. It’s also great to see a lot of younger folks making homes here and caring about the direction of the city. I’m proud of the way the city has taken stances on issues and stood up to sexism. We’re on the right track! And Robert Street is so great compared to how it was when I was a teen. It was sort of the Wild West back then! Taking a left turn was taking your life into your hands.
Some history: My grandma’s family ran a cafe on Robert Street near where the Burger King is now. My grandfather’s family immigrated from Lebanon and settled on the West Side with many other Lebanese. They slowly moved south into West St Paul and have been here ever since. On my dad’s side, they were in St. Paul since it’s founding.
Thanks to Darci Read for sharing her thoughts with us.
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