WEST ORANGE, NJ — Equipped with thread, fabric and an abundance of love for the craft, the members of the Nubian Heritage Quilters Guild held “Once Upon a Time,” a quilt show and demonstration, at the West Orange Public Library on Mt. Pleasant Avenue on Feb. 17.
Various aspects of the quilt-making process were on display for the demonstration: hand-quilting, transfer/stamping technique, postcards, applique and use of the spinning wheel. The quilts on display paid homage to beloved nursery rhymes as well as interpretations of a series of paintings by black painter Jacob Lawrence depicting scenes from the Great Migration.
The Nubian Heritage Quilters Guild was started in 1995 by co-founders Glendora Simonson, a fiber artist, and Carolyn Davis, an avid quilter.
After taking one of Simonson’s African-American quilting classes at the Newark Museum, Davis approached her with the idea of regularly meeting with other crafters in the community to share historical facts about African-American quilting and helpful tips about the art of quilt-making.
The group initially began meeting in Davis’ home until she secured a meeting space in the St. James A.M.E. church in Newark and members called themselves the St. James Quilters. The group is now known as the Nubian Heritage Quilters Guild, and they meet the second Saturday of each month at the Wally Choice Community Center in Montclair.
“I’ve always wanted to pass it on to the next generation and let people know about the forgotten craft. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past 23 years,” Davis said in a recent phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle. “We do an introduction of quilting and what it’s all about. No longer is it just your grandmother who made quilts for your bed. It is now an art, and we work with other artists, explaining how their craft can be incorporated into quilting, such as beading.”
Davis said the women in her family were no strangers to needle and thread, and they passed their skills on to her.
“My great-grandmother was a quilter and my grandmother was a seamstress,” Davis said. “My grandmother gave me my first sewing machine in 1965, and she wanted me to make clothes. I realized I was better at quilting and stuck with that, and now I have been doing it for over 30 years.”
For guild member Brenda Castell, quilt-making is a more recently acquired activity, but certainly one for which she has developed a passion.
“I was reluctant to get into quilting at first. A woman who worked across the hall from me had relocated from North Carolina and frequently asked me to come help her quilt but I always declined her invitation,” Castell said in a recent phone interview. “One day she mentioned that she wanted to make an AIDS quilt to remember those who have passed from the virus; I have loved ones affected by it so I agreed to join the project and fell in love with quilting.”
From there, Castell became involved with several groups, including one whose members met at the Veterans Assistance Hospital in East Orange and called themselves the VA Quilters, as well as a church quilting group. Castell said that, while the other groups dissolved over the years, the Nubian Heritage Quilters Guild, which she found in 2000, only expanded and she found her home with them.
“I set out to learn as much as I possibly could about the craft. Quilting is therapeutic for me, I find that when I am going through something I go in my sewing room, and I can work through things by working on one of my pieces,” she said. “I like to do nontraditional techniques. I like to try dyeing fabric, using household items like turmeric and mustard, onion, or incorporating felting into quilts.”
In addition to their quilting demonstrations and themed shows, the members of the Nubian Heritage Quilters Guild are also dedicated to sharing their gifts with the community.
Volunteer projects they have worked on include: making reusable sanitary pads and providing underwear for the Insuguluni School in Kenya; providing quilts for victims, survivor families and first responders from the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla.; and providing blankets for the pediatric unit of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Paterson. Their current project is providing receiving blankets for a community baby shower to be hosted by the city of East Orange later this year.
“I work for the city of East Orange and all of my coworkers know that I quilt. So whether the need is making teddy bears or blankets, they know that our group will find a way to make it happen,” Castell said.
Photos by Shanee Frazier