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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 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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