Column #89

Quilting in The Bahamas

Joan of Arc
Maria Chisnall, Coconut Waters

Maria Chisnall,Green Woods Maria Chisnall,Green Woods

Maria Chisnall Maria Chisnall

Think of The Bahamas and what comes to mind? Sandy beaches, swaying palms, sparkling aquamarine waters, tropical weather? Of course! But quilts, perhaps not so much.

We all know, however, that preconceived notions and stereotypical opinions frequently miss the mark, and that would most certainly be the case in thinking that there is little interest in, much less a tradition of, quilting on the chain of islands collectively known as the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.

Native Bahamian Maria Chisnall belies all those assumptions. Her wonderful quilts have been widely exhibited at quilt shows both in her home country and internationally and they also have been featured in a number of publications.

For 10 years, four of her quilts hung in the Nassau International Airport, and the quilt she made for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games was presented to the International Olympics Committee of the country of Georgia.

In the mid-1990s, Maria participated in the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival in Washington D.C., and she has traveled both home and abroad—even to Romania—teaching the art of quiltmaking to others. She has also written about quilts, and she is currently working on a book about her quilting group, The Stepping Stone Quilters Guild, which will include a history of quilting in The Bahamas.

Maria grew up on a farm near the rural community of Adelaide Village on the southwest corner of New Providence Island without electricity, running water, telephone, or so-called modern conveniences. “The only ‘appliances' we had were a radio and a treadle sewing machine,” Maria says. “ I made clothes for my dolls and for myself. I can't remember a time when I didn't sew.”

She didn't make quilts, though, until 1980, when she made one while awaiting the birth of her first child.

“From a young age I had been fascinated by the American West,” she recalls. “I read all the Zane Grey novels, and I was enchanted with cowboys and the struggle of pioneer women to establish and maintain life, home, and family under what were often harsh and isolated conditions. I think my interest in quilts started there, because I admired women who had lived courageous and groundbreaking lives.” Maria's foray into quilting was put on hold with the birth of her two other children.

In 1986, however, she joined the Stepping Stones Quilters Guild, a Nassau guild started by a native Bahamian woman named Marie Murray. Murray (now deceased) proved to be a major influence on Maria, particularly with regard to her interest in the tradition of quilting in The Bahamas.

Murray was from Spanish Wells, a small fishing village on the island of St. George's Cay, located off the northern tip of Eleuthera Island. Historically, Spanish ships had stopped there to refill their water supply before returning to Europe. Murray made Maria aware that The Bahamas did indeed have a history of quilting, since the women in Spanish Wells and other fishing villages had traditionally made quilts for their fishermen to take on voyages at sea.

They also made quilts for their children, and she recalled that often they did not sleep on mattresses, but instead used layers of quilts.

Maria has several theories as to how the art of quilting came to The Bahamas, although she is still searching for definitive answers. Some of her ideas include settlers from Europe; freed slaves who had learned to quilt on plantations in the U.S.; Puritans who came to the islands when their boat sank; Loyalists from the United States; missionaries; the wives of whalers from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia who would spend the whaling season on the islands while their husbands were at sea; and Bahamians involved in the country's once-thriving shipping industry who traveled to ports in the southern U.S. and who may have brought quilts back for their wives.

Maria says that there is no identifiable style of quilting associated with The Bahamas the way there is, say, with Hawaii. Most of the traditional quilts were made using familiar American patchwork patterns.

Quilts made by modern-day Bahamian quilters (including Maria), however, frequently depict colors and designs that reflect a strong sense of place, and sometimes the quilt artists use native fibers, such as coconut husks, sisal, and palmetto fronds, in their work.

For almost 25 years, the Stepping Stone Quilters Guild has put on an annual quilt show in Nassau. The exhibit is popular among locals as well as tourists and cruise ship visitors—who are often surprised, and always delighted —to find a display of such skill and artistry.

Maria's quilts are always a part of the show, and she has been chosen to serve as the president of the Guild. It would be hard to imagine a better “ambassador” for Bahamian quilts and quilting. Maria's goal is to ensure that the art of quiltmaking is recognized and nurtured in The Bahamas, drawing on a tradition first practiced on outer island fishing villages and now slowly blossoming throughout the country, thanks in no small part to her own efforts.

 

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Archived blogs:

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
Column 92: The Ballerina Quilter
Column 91: Grandmother's Flower Garden Comes Alive at Texas Quilt Museum
Column 90: Leitmotif for a Lifelong Love Affair
Column 89: Quilting in The Bahamas
Column 88: Joan of Arc: A Quilter's Inspiration
Column 87: Home Demonstration Clubs and Quilting
Column 86: Linzi Upton and the Quilted Yurt
Column 85: A Bounty of Quilts
Column 84: Desert Trader
Column 83: Quilts and the Women’s Liberation Movement
Column 82: Replicating the Past: Reproduction Fabrics for Today’s Quilts
Column 81: Why So Many Quilt Shops in Bozeman, Montana?
Column 80: Southeastern Quilt and Textile Museum
Column 79: 54 Tons of Quilt
Column 78: Ollie Steele Burden’s Quilt Blocks
Column 77: Quilting with AMD
Column 76: Maverick Quilts and Cowgirls
Column 75: The Modern Quilt Guild—Cyberculture Quilting Ramps Up
Column 74: The Membership Quilt—Czech Quilting in Texas
Column 73: Maximum Security Quilts
Column 72: Author: Terri Thayer
Column 71: The Christmas Quilt
Column 70: New Mexico Centennial Quilt
Column 69: Scrub Quilts
Column 68: “Think Pink” Quilt Raises Funds for Rare Cancer Research
Column 67: Righting Old Wrongs.
Column 66: 100 Years, 100 Quilts - More on the Arizona Centennial.
Column 65: Arizona Centennial Quilt Project
Column 64: Capt. John Files Tom’s Family Tree
Column 63: The Fat Quarters
Column 62: Quilt Fiction Author: Clare O’Donohue
Column 61: Louisiana Bicentennial Quilt
Column 60: The Camo Quilt Project.
Column 59: Thread Wit
Column 58: Ralli Quilts
Column 57: Preschool Quilters
Column 56: The Story Quilt
Column 55: Red and Green Quilts
Column 54: On the Trail
Column 53: Quilt Trail Gathering
Column 52: True Confessions: First Quilt
Column 51: Quilted Pages
Column 50: Doll Quilts
Column 49: More Than a Quilt Shop
Column 48: Las Colchas of the Texas-Mexico Border
Column 47: Literary Gifts
Column 46: A Different Way of Seeing
Column 45: Sampling
Column 44: Hen and Chicks
Column 43: A Star Studied Event
Column 42: Shoo Fly Pattern
Column 41: Awareness Quilts
Column 40: Tivaevae
Column 39: UnOILed UnspOILed Coast Quilt Project
Column 38: Katrina Recovery Quilts
Column 37: Quilted Vermont
Column 36: The Labyrinth Quilt—A Meditative Endeavor

See other archived columns here

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