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Column #39

UnOILed UnspOILed Coast Quilt Project

At a recent fundraising event held during the Gabriola Fall Fair, the Positive Energy Quilters covered four finished quilts with black fabric "oil blobs" and invited viewers to clean up the symbolic oil spill by donating a dollar and removing a blob. Photo by Jean E. Wyenberg.

Marilyn Geater's captivating baby otter peeks out from its veil of "oil." Photo by Jean E. Wyenberg.

Quilter and activist Jean McLaren removes a "blob" of oil.

It would be impossible to pinpoint the first quilt that was used as a narrative medium to express a strongly held belief or a cause championed by its maker. Quilts have been used to convey social, political, and religious points of view probably as long as people have been quilting. Whether their message is subtle or overt, quilters have long known that their quilts can be powerful tools for communication.

This is certainly the case for quilter and environmental activist Kristin Miller, who founded a group known as the Positive Energy Quilters. The group is based on Gabriola Island, British Columbia, in Canada’s Strait of Georgia, which can arguably be described as one of the most beautiful areas in the world, and also one of the most environmentally sensitive.

Kristin recalls the group’s inception this way: “My first involvement in ‘protest quilts’ and quilting for an environmental cause came in 2002. I joined a grass-roots group that was opposing the construction of a gas-fired power plant [in Nanaimo, near Gabriola Island]. Mostly to avoid committee work, I suggested making a protest quilt. I was used to tackling problems with needle and thread, and invited others to make squares expressing their thoughts and feelings about the proposed power plant.

“Fifty people became involved in the Positive Energy Quilt project, and we made six eye-catching quilts, which we took to meetings, demonstrations, and official hearings over a period of three years. We quilted in public to raise awareness of the issues, marched on the streets with the quilts, and hung them in art galleries. The quilts played a small but significant part in a much greater campaign that won its battle and blocked construction of the power plant.”

Following that success, the group fell dormant after making “three peace quilts, and a quilt addressing local issues.” But it was recently resurrected in response to the proposed building of an oil pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to a small port town on the northern British Columbia coast, where the oil would then be shipped to China in huge tankers traveling through the narrow, rock-strewn waterways of the Strait of Georgia. With the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico fresh on her mind, Kristin suggested that the Positive Energy Quilters start a new project to raise funds for an environmental group opposing oil-tanker traffic in British Columbia waters.

“The ‘UnOILed UnspOILed Coast Quilt Project’ was started, and we invited both quilters and non-quilters to make quilt squares in celebration of something precious and worth protecting on our coast,” Miller says. “An enthusiastic group of 30 to 40 people contributed about 55 squares and worked throughout the summer to create four beautiful and eloquent quilts, with another eight quilts still under construction. In September, we held our first fundraising event at the Gabriola Fall Fair.

“We covered the four finished quilts with black fabric ‘oil blobs,’ and invited viewers to clean up the symbolic ‘oil spill’ by donating a dollar and removing a blob. Besides raising funds, we wanted to increase awareness of oil-related issues, so information was available about the proposed pipeline and tanker route. A very knowledgeable quilter and a representative from the No Tankers campaign discussed the issues with visitors.” 

A video of the targeted area can be seen at http://dogwoodinitiative.org/blog/great-bear-rainforest-a-pandora-in-bc.

Describing the Positive Energy Quilters as “a very informal and fluid group” that welcomes anyone to join, Miller is quick to credit her fellow activists with the group’s success: Shena Meadowcroft, Sue Vohanka, Marilyn Geater, Susan Paynter and the Saltspring Island Quilters, Sylvia Edlund, Liz Ciocea, Margie Grimble, Iain Lawrence, and Jean Weyenberg.

The quilters plan to raffle or auction the quilts to benefit the No Tankers campaign and other oil-related environmental concerns. Before they do that, however, they want to exhibit the quilts in other locales and hold more “un-blobbing” fundraisers.*

Miller, who originally hails from Seattle, is a self-taught quilter who did not start quilting until she moved to British Columbia in the mid-1970s. Quiltmaking captivated her “right from the start.” However, since that time, her quilts have been exhibited in many shows and galleries and featured in various print publications. She has also authored a book, The Careless Quilter: Decide-As-You-Sew, Design-As-You-Go Quiltmaking (Rutledge Hill Press 1994), and has written numerous articles about quilting for a variety of books and magazines.


*Please contact the group at PositiveEnergyQuilters@shaw.ca to suggest events or venues where the UnOILed UnspOILed Coast Quilts might be displayed.

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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