Quilter and art historian Jess Bailey wanted to raise awareness about land justice, so she started an ambitious project with gardener Sui Searle to bring people together to create a quilt. The result represents land, nature and gardeners from around the world
Words: Jess Bailey
Photography: Kim Lightbody
In autumn 2020, I asked a gardener if she would make a quilt with me as part of my @publiclibraryquilts project. Within a few months, we were collaborating with over 50 gardeners, farmers and plant dyers from around the world, and sewing a quilt that represented many more.
As a quilter, I’m inspired by the rich legacy of quilting as an act of protest and social change. Often made using a patchwork of different fabrics, a quilt can be as provocative as it is comforting. They can affirm the work of activists – such as the 19th-century patchworks inspired by social reformer Elizabeth Fry, who advocated teaching needlework in women’s prisons – and they can hold power and tenderness, such as the Aids memorial quilt created in the 1980s. Patchwork is seldom a passive art.
My collaborator and partner in this project was Sui Searle, the gardener behind Instagram account @decolonisethegarden. Concerned by the lack of diversity in UK farming and gardening, she works to throw a light on the ways that the legacies of colonialism still affect people of colour gardening today, and shares resources to fight racism. ‘Racial justice is intertwined with land justice,’ she says. ‘For people who have a history of being colonised or subjugated, had land stolen from them or were stolen from their land, access to land is a path to healing, repair and equity. Access provides a connection with the natural world, food sovereignty and good health. It nurtures a sense of belonging.’
We both believed that sewing a quilt had the potential to focus attention on anti-racist discourse and encourage people to learn more about social justice work. Quilts are often sewn from recycled materials, a tradition we honoured by putting out a social media request for home-dyed fabric donations.
Growers and dyers from around the world responded to our call with astonishing thoughtfulness, connecting the natural dye plants growing in their gardens (such as indigo dye plants) to histories of land exploitation and slavery. We worked with floral studio Sage Flowers (see page 57) to help us collect donations, and by the end of 2020 my desk was overflowing with fabric dyed with plant material that reflected the land.
The most important part of the project was the decision to run a fundraiser to win the quilt – we pledged all funds to Black-led collective Land in Our Names. Dedicated to creating a future where racial justice, land justice and food security are understood as intimately connected, Land in Our Names advocates for Black and POC farming in the UK. They see harm to nature and harm to people as problems best addressed together and holistically by those with ancestral knowledge and lived experience. As the collective says, ‘racial justice is land justice’, and its work demonstrates that access to land is integral to the reparative healing of racial justice. In 2021, the grassroots collective is distributing grants for growers working on equitable food systems who have been impacted by the pandemic.
Each eight-pointed star in our quilt is a map of nature’s colours foraged and grown – turmeric from California, longwood from Germany, walnuts from Scotland, madder from Finland – and the plant-dyed patches came with very personal stories, be it the donation of fabric that was dyed in an art class exploring the colonial history of dye plants, or the recycled linen that was left behind by a beloved, late family member.
Our quilt draw raised £18,425 for Land in Our Names, a testament to the power of quilts, gardens and community.