Healing with Fabric and Thread

The Art of Divorce Quilts

Twenty-three years living with the same man. He’s a best friend, a father, a lover, a confidant. Then everything changes and he is an ‘ex.’ Divorce.

This was fabric artist Judy Coates Perez’s roller coaster reality. She turned to the one aspect of her life she still knew intimately – fabric and paint. “In the beginning, I was often unable to sleep and so during those quiet dark hours I channeled the pain and anger by working; pouring different shades of red paint on batting, flinging and squirting it from bottles and spreading it around.” She adds, “It felt like what was bottled up inside was being released and it felt good.”

She continued working, adding hand-dyed aqua blue fabric to help her find tranquility. “It looked like cool blue water…. I cut random holes of various sizes in it and fused it to the red batting.”

In an effort to transform the piece into something beautiful, she stitched colorful designs across the open wounds represented by the red batting. “With the physical transformation of the batting, I tried to also create spiritual transformation. On the blue surface fabric I quilted long undulating lines, in an effort to regain serenity.” With the Tarot card: the three of swords as a model Perez stitched the design on the quilt. The card represents heartbreak, loneliness and betrayal. Eventually her efforts resulted in The Three of Swords, a 36x48-inch quilt that she completed this year.

The story of divorce is far too common. But quilters and fabric artists find ways to wrap it in cloth. In 2004, award winning fabric artist and quilt designer Kathy York began creating a series of journal quilts. “All the quilts were a way of working through emotions related to my marriage breaking up.  That process involved a number of stages, I guess similar to stages of grief for example,” York said.

Some were too personal to share, others she posted on her blog, revealing her pain and process to sympathetic cyber-friends. With the posting of her June journal quilt, she wrote, “I couldn't post March, April, or May...just too personal. This one [June] was really the hardest...watching him go, the kids watching him go...so many questions.”

Katharine Brainard, the creator of the ultimate divorce quilt back in 1990, has no regrets for turning fabric into an angry vent, a grief cloth, a statement of the wrong done her. “I have never regretted making or showing the Divorce Quilt. Why should I? I would have regretted NOT doing so. If you have a story to tell, tell it. After all, you only get one life; when it's gone, it's gone.”

When members of the quilting and fabric arts community are asked about divorce quilts, Brainard’s name is first to surface. Usually with a description as, “Oh, you mean the quilt with the tire tracks on it.”

Brainard admits she’s always had a slightly twisted sense of humor. She revealed fantasies of her husband and the other woman walking along hand in hand. She’d drive by, accidently lose control of the car and run over the lovebirds. Instead she laid the quilt in the driveway and drove over it.

This fabric receptacle for all her roiling emotions eventually garnered her grub money to invest in her future as single woman living happily ever after. Brainard sold her divorce quilt for $5,000 to a happily married couple of therapists.

Perhaps they understood the therapeutic value of the quilt. Dr. Susan Delaney Mech, quilter, adult psychiatrist and author of Rx for Quilters lists several quilting benefits in her book, including, lowered heart rate, deeper sleep, and wounds heal faster. She also adds that “Quilting is about love and relationship. It is life-affirming and life-giving.”

Perez agrees. “I believe whether the work is intentional and cathartic or subconscious and spontaneous there is healing and growth that we can use to move through our pain to come out the other side,” she said. “And hopefully with strength and added wisdom.”

York’s experience seems to have followed a similar path. By September her journal quilt depicted sunshine, blue mountains and green skies with a small bike headed upward, positioned to journey along a trail leading up to the mountain tops. York wrote simply on her blog, “On Sundays the kids spend the day with their dad and I get to ride my bike.”

Perez adds, “If anything divorce has given me resolution. I now have answers and the ability to start taking control of my life and with that awareness the emotions and the work flowed out.”

Perez’s second piece, Take These Broken Wings, a 12x12-inch quilt finished in 2009 is less intentionally directed toward her divorce. Yet it reflects her recovery. “I find the symbolism of the bird creating new wings to replace her broken ones and learning to fly again perfectly mirrors what I am trying to do with my life now.”

The quilts healed their maker, and through these pieces of fabric art, the healing continues. Brainard’s quilt has been exhibited extensively. One woman viewing it, wept. She told Brainard, “This is like one woman standing up and telling many women’s truth.”

Dawn Goldsmith is a freelance writer and founder of Subversive Stitchers: Women Armed with Needles. She devotes most of her time to writing about fabric and needle art, quilts and the creative souls who make them. Her work has been published in a variety of national publications including Notre Dame Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, NBC News, The Washington Post as well as a variety of quilt and fabric art publications Quilter, Quilt World, Quilt Life, Knit Lit, Too.

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