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Quilts and Human Rights

Quilts of Action

Sometimes quilts and quiltmaking are the cornerstones of projects designed to raise awareness and to directly address human rights issues. Some are single quilts made by single makers. Others are the results of projects engaging thousands in activism. For instance, the NAMES Project raises awareness of AIDS and the Ugly Quilt Project addresses the needs of the homeless in a tangible way.

More than twenty thousand individuals--most of them women—were involved in the creation of a fifteen-mile-long sewn-together series of panels, named the Peace Ribbon. It was wrapped around the Pentagon on August 4,1985, forty years after the United States used the atomic bomb against Japan as a call to stop the use of nuclear arms around the world.

Ugly Quilt Sleeping Bags
Flo Wheatley
Hop Bottom, Pennsylvania
Recycled fabrics, including old drapes, blankets and mattress pads,and men’s neckties which are used as handles
84” x 84”
Collection of the My Brothers Keeper Quilt Group
Photos by Pearl Yee Wong, all rights reserved

My Brothers Keeper Quilt Group is not a club. We are individuals and groups desiring to help the homeless by making simple sleeping bags from recycled fabrics and distributing them FREE to people who are cold on the street OUR ONLY PURPOSE IS TO HELP THE HOMELESS BE WARM UNTILL THEY CAN BE HELPED OR HEALED BY OTHERS IN OUR SOCIETY. CAN YOU HELP?

Flo Wheatley held her young son, Leonard, as he was vomiting and near collapse. Returning from the hospital and his daily cancer treatments, they were a block from a subway station in New York City. It began to rain. Commuters rushed past them. Flo heard a voice say: "You need help, lady," and she looked up to see a homeless man, wearing jeans, sneakers and a cutoff army jacket. She felt a little fear and declined his help, saying: "No, we’re okay." But the homeless man said again: "You need help, lady." He picked up her suitcase and walked toward the subway. Flo and Leonard followed him and the three of them boarded the train. They all got off at Flo’s station and the homeless man hailed a taxi for her.

"I pressed a $5 bill into the man’s hand before the cab pulled away," Flo said, "and I heard him say, softly: ‘Don’t abandon me.’" Flo has never forgotten his words.

Two years later, in 1985, Leonard, who had suffered from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was recovering miraculously. In the small (population 385) town of Hop Bottom, Pennsylvania, Flo Wheatley stitched her first sleeping bag, using her kids’ outgrown clothing — jeans, shirts and sweaters. She and her husband drove into Manhattan and gave the bag to a man huddled in a doorway. She made eight bags that year.

News of her sleeping bags spread and soon neighbors were dropping off fabrics at her home. A local church invited Wheatley to speak and to demonstrate how to make the bags. The Wheatley family created a single page of simple instructions on how to make what they nicknamed 'Ugly Quilt's, so named so that volunteers wouldn’t think they were too difficult to make. The first step is to sew pieces of recycled fabric together to form two seven foot squares that are then, and then joined together. Old drapes, blankets and mattress pads are added for padding and men’s neckties are used as handles. One volunteer says, "It’s simple. If you can tie a shoelace, you can help make a sleeping bag. And a sleeping bag can save the life of a homeless person." At demonstration, Wheatley was expecting volunteers to come and make bags and distribute them to the homeless. But homeless families, including children, arrived and spent the day making bags. When they left, they took the bags and slept in them that night.

Wheatley named the family-based project My Brother’s Keeper Quilt Group and, with the help of grassroots volunteers, by 1992, more than 5,300 'Ugly Quilts' had been distributed to individual homeless people and to homeless shelters in Manhattan and other large cities. Today the project continues and there are groups around the world making Ugly Quilt sleeping bags; Wheatley believes that more than 100,000 sleeping bags have been made since 1985.

Billie Piazza works on an Ugly Quilt.

On Saturday, March 29, 2008 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., the Michigan State University Musem held an "Ugly Quilts" Quiltmaking Day. In the MSU Museum's Main Floor Gallery quilts were made for the international "My Brother's Keeper" project, an initiative to address the needs of the homeless. Quilts made during the workshop were donated to local agencies for distribution.

The event was sponsored, in part by the Residential College of Arts and Humanities.

The Sleeping Bag Quilt Project has information on how to make Ugly Quilts.

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