by Suzanne Labry
The Bowers Co-Op Quilts
Just about as long as there have been people, people have been cooperating with one another to do things that they could not accomplish as well or even at all if they acted individually.
Certainly, quilters are no strangers to cooperative efforts, as quilts are often created and/or completed in a group activity.
The so-called “cooperative movement,” however, refers to the application of cooperative principles to business organization, and it began in Europe in the 19th century. It originated primarily in Britain and France, in response to economic and social changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution.
Inspired by Europe, most co-ops in the United States were formed to benefit farmers, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that co-ops began to have lasting success in this country.
Now, member-owned businesses affect every area of life, from agriculture to banking to food and more, and Co-op Month has been celebrated each October across the United States for over 80 years.
Since 1999, five unusual quilts with special significance to the cooperative movement have been traveling around the United States and so far have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars (yes, you read that correctly) for the Howard Bowers Fund, which promotes and develops consumer-owned food cooperatives and consumer cooperative education.
The Howard Bowers Fund is named for a general manager of the Hyde Park, New York Cooperative Society, a food co-op that was established during the Great Depression.
Bowers dedicated five decades of his career to supporting cooperatives throughout the country. The five quilts made in his honor, known collectively as the Bowers Co-op Quilts, are an exercise in cooperation themselves.
The Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA) Conference is an annual gathering of several hundred food co-op managers, staff members, directors, and consultants from all over the U.S. For several decades, planning for the conference has been under the direction of Professor Ann Hoyt and her support staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In the late 1990s, it was Hoyt’s responsibility to come up with an idea for something different to auction off as a conference fundraiser. She looked no further than her own dresser drawer, where she had stashed piles of co-op T-shirts that she had collected during her visits to food cooperatives throughout the country.
She decided that a quilt made from all those T-shirts might make a fun and interesting item for the auction.
Not a quilter herself, Hoyt called on different co-op managers of her acquaintance who knew just what to do. Anne Hopkins, a quilter who was manager at that time of Good Food Co op in Lexington, Kentucky, flew to Madison, where Hoyt lives, to help with the quilt. It featured T-shirts from 54 different co-ops.
Anya Firszt, general manager of Willy St. Co-op in Madison, pitched in to cut and sew. The three women spent four days putting the quilt together and then handed it off to Keiko Sakuma-Neubauer from Kokua Country Foods Co-op in Honolulu, who quilted it and put on the binding.
Presented for auction at the next CCMA Conference, the Co-op Quilt was an immediate hit as a fundraiser, and it wasn’t long before four additional quilts were made to augment the first one.
The way the auction works is that the region of the country that raises the most money for the fund has the honor of displaying the quilts in their member stores throughout the year. Then, the quilts are returned to be re-auctioned at the next CCMA conference. The quilts circulate around the country, generating pride and interest in the cooperative movement.
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting symbol for cooperative effort than a group-made quilt!