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Column #34

Inspired by Tradition

Sankofa, which means "Learn from the Past" by Donnette Cooper. The quilt features the Adinkra symbol called Sankofa. According to Wikipedia,"The Akan people of Ghana use an Adinkra symbol to illustrate the proverb, 'It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.' It symbolizes one taking from the past what is good and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress through the benevolent use of knowledge."


Masks and Stripes by Donnette Cooper.

Donnette Cooper, an Assistant Attorney General for the District of Columbia, is a Jamaican-born quilter who finds inspiration in both African textiles and traditional American quilt patterns, combining the two to form a style that is uniquely hers.

Although she does not come from a quilting background, Cooper feels at home around anything to do with textiles. The daughter of a tailor, she grew up around fabric, and her grandmother taught her to sew. Her brother is a promoter in the fashion industry in the Caribbean, and she and her sister are both “fashionistas” with a special love of indigenous textiles, particularly those from Africa. An inveterate traveler, she collects fabrics whenever she visits different countries.

“Piecing fabrics together—we call it patchwork—is very much a part of life in Jamaica,” Cooper says. “We make patchwork spreads that are knotted and tied, but we don’t use batting to make a quilt. It’s too hot!”

According to Cooper, batik is also very popular in Jamaican culture. “I learned to do batik in high school, and then I taught elementary students to do it as well when I worked as a teacher.” Since Cooper began quilting, she also uses batiks and other fabrics that she dyes herself in her quilts. In addition, she employs such traditional elements as prairie points and yo-yos, which she says she “imported from her childhood.”

She adds that the Log Cabin block is the basis for a lot of her quilts because it allows her to improvise. “I decide on the center fabric—maybe a mask fabric or something with Adinkra symbols from Ghana—and then I ‘audition’ other fabrics to see how they go along. I don’t tend to measure, and sometimes I end up with a mess! But the African fabrics talk. They express the vast traditions, values, and artistic talents of the African people. And I want to reconnect with that and show it in my quilts.

“Although I have explored very structured, precise block construction such as various Star and Basket designs—primarily when involved in group projects over the years—my preference is working with patterns that lend themselves to spontaneous variations, patterns that allow me to vary the fabric selection, shape, and size while preserving the essence of an original design concept,” Cooper continues. “I like to explore scrappy, recycled pieces harmonized by an overarching design framework. Consequently, I like the Log Cabin, Rail Fence, and Roman Square.”

She also finds inspiration in traditional American string or strip quilts. Not only do string quilts allow her to use leftover fabrics from other sewing projects, but they also strike a deep chord with her African heritage, as they recall the appearance of dyed and woven African textiles.

“I belong to the Daughters of Dorcas & Sons Guild* in D.C., and I owe a lot to its late founder and president Viola Canady.  She mentored me as a neophyte quilter and generously shared her knowledge, skills and experiences,” Cooper says. “She is well regarded for her extensive and sophisticated body of work, she never forgot her roots. She introduced me to her North Carolina strip piecing tradition. She explained that when she started to quilt as a child, new fabric was not affordable and people used scraps left over from sewing jobs, recycled feed bags, and de/reconstructed old clothing. Extremely small pieces of fabric were held together by newspaper foundation piecing. That tradition resonated with me and I have since employed newspaper, tissue paper and inexpensive fabric as the foundation for many of my quilt blocks.”


*The Daughters of Dorcas & Sons Guild is the oldest largely African-American quilt guild in the United States. ("& Sons" was added to the name after three men joined the group.) Founded in 1980 by Viola Canady, a retired Army seamstress, the guild is named for Dorcas, a seamstress in the New Testament who made clothes for the poor.

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Archived blogs:

Column 149: Rosie’s Redwork
Column 148: The Quilt of Belonging
Column 147: Kanthas—The Quilts of Bangladesh
Column 146: Patterns
Column 145: Suzy on Carolyn Mazloomi's Groundbreaking Quilt Exhibit
Column 144: Texas Community Marks Juneteenth Sesquicentennial with History Quilts
Column 143: Maya Embroidered Patchwork
Column 142: Huipil Patchwork Quilts
Column 141: Tom Korn’s Military Medal Quilts
Column 140: The Return of Double Knits!
Column 139: Passage Quilts
Column 138: Home of the Brave Quilts
Column 137: The Story of Fabric Yo-Yos
Column 136: Christmas in July
Column 135: Trifles
Column 134: Deaf Initiatives—Communicating Through Quilts
Column 133: My Betty Boop Quilt
Column 132: Maura Grace Ambrose
Column 131: All You Need Is Love
Column 130: Chicken Linens
Column 129: The Quilted Chuppah
Column 128: Patchwork Around the World: Yoruba Dance Costumes
Column 127: The Bowers Co-Op Quilts
Column 126: Fon Appliqué and Haitian Voodoo Flags
Column 125: The Quilt Garden at The North Carolina Arboretum
Column 124: Harriet Powers and Handful’s Mauma
Column 123: Quilters de Mexico
Column 122: An Appliquéd Surprise
Column 121: Matisse’s Fabric Stash
Column 120: Soogan—The Cowboy’s Quilt
Column 119: The Ron Swanson Quilt
Column 118: HClarkdale, Georgia—A Thread of History
Column 117: How WWI Changed the Color of Quilts in the United States
Column 116: Wagga—The Bushman’s Quilt
Column 115: All in the Family
Column 114: The Alabama State Quilt
Column 113: Balloon Quilts of Albuquerque
Column 112: The Family That Quilts Together, Stays Together
Column 111: Two Rivers, Three Sisters
Column 110: Quilters Helping Quilters
Column 109: Community Cookbooks and Fundraiser Quilts—Parallel Histories
Column 108: Quilting to Freedom
Column 107: National Quilting Day
Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
Column 105: A Call for a National Juneteenth Commemorative Quilt
Column 104: Dominoes
Column 103: 1936 Texas Centennial Bluebonnet Quilt
Column 102: Helen Blackstone, A Texas Quilter
Column 101: Montana CattleWomen Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 100: 100th Suzy's Fancy Column!
Column 99: Montana Stockgrowers Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 98: The Tobacco Sack Connection
Column 97: Meet the Sisters Who Are State Fair Quilting Queens
Column 96: The connection between fairs and quilts.
Column 95: Her Mother Pieced Quilts
Column 94: Rebecca Barker’s Quiltscapes
Column 93: The Thread and Thimble Club Mystery

See other archived columns here


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