Christina Mabasa, untitled
Christina Mabasa, untitled

When South African quilt artist Margie Garratt conceived Innovative Threads in 1996, her aims were to encourage South African fibre artists, to create a market for their work and to enlighten the viewing public. This juried show is now an annual event and it attracted approximately 10,000 visitors in Cape Town, Grahamstown and Johannesburg in 2000. It also contributes to a South African charity called Catholic Welfare and Development which helps disadvantaged communities to establish preschools and to run home based crèches.

Angry about AIDS by Margie Garratt
Angry about AIDS by Margie Garratt

Thanks to the initiative of Biddy Russell, one of Margie’s friends and the only South African member of France Patchwork (the French quilt guild), Innovative Threads 2001 was offered an exhibition venue in France. The exhibition was held in the reception room of Vincennes’ Town Hall near Paris. The stunning contrast between the rich colours and textures of the subtly lit fibre work and the huge crystal glass chandelier hanging from a very academically painted high ceiling (representing highlights of French history) was only one of the many delights awaiting the visitor.

Common traits could be found in most of the pieces exhibited: exquisite workmanship, a daring use of colour, whether it be in fabricor thread, the frequent combination of heavy hand and machine quilting, a constant challenge of the boundaries between embroidery and quilting and plenty of beaded embellishments.

You could recognise a very strong African inspiration in some of the quilts featured. The use of all shades of yellow, orange, ochre and red reminded the viewer of sand, dried grass, mud dwellings and mountain fires. Many embroidery patterns or quilting designs were reminiscent of traditional African painting, woodcarving or pottery motifs.

Karin Lijnes (designer of the embroideries) in collaboration with Doreen Mabuse, Bellina Baloyi, Rossinah Maepa and Josephine Maluleka, Webworks
Karin Lijnes (designer of the embroideries)
in collaboration with Doreen Mabuse,
Bellina Baloyi, Rossinah Maepa and
Josephine Maluleka, Webworks

Some quilts, among them 1998 Star Stats frustration and disillusionment at the prospect of millions of lives being lost. Free machine quilting has enabled her to write down several strong thoughts and to sketch symbols for her worries all over her wallhanging.

Vincennes Patchwork’s exhibition inspired by Ndebele painting
Vincennes Patchwork’s
exhibition inspired by
Ndebele painting

Other pieces of work challenged the limits of the definition of what we call a quilt. They all comprised three or more layers of fibre (including a lot of hand dyes, silk, linen, heavy velvet, sheer fabric, paper, leather and lace), but Margot Hattingh, for instance, had chosen fine copper thread to tie to transparent fabric and leather, a fragment of what seems to have been a larger hanging used for ceremonial purposes in some ancient African civilisation.

Another incredible piece of work designed by Karin Lijnes and executed by four artists from the Mapula Embroidery Project (in the Winterweld, Northern Province) took the three layer concept of a quilt even further. Embroideries were set between two plates of glass ‘tied’ together with steel screws and nuts.

Three dimensional works also included Margaret Ruxton’s It’s Not all Black and White. It featured two columns of eighteen hand-stitched pyramids knotted onto a wooden panel. All thirty six pyramids were made of a black and white striped fabric, except for an orange, yellow, red, blue and a green one. A few other lovely items such as Zulu necklaces, delicate little wallhangings entirely made of beads and ostrich eggs decorated with beads, added the finishing touch to a wonderful and thought-provoking exhibition.

On the Edge 3 by Odette Tolksdorf, inspired by an old
wooden Zulu headrest
On the Edge 3 by Odette
Tolksdorf, inspired by an
old wooden Zulu headrest

Mireille Puig, a member of the France Patchwork team who helped organise the Innovative Threads 2001 exhibition in Vincennes, also had the very good idea of challenging the local quilt group to take this opportunity to put together a small exhibition of their own. Members of the Vincennes Patchwork Group thus worked on the geometric motifs Ndebele women from South Transvaal paint on their houses and surrounding walls. The resulting designs were appliquéd on white handkerchiefs and rectangles of black fabric or mounted as a mobile. Exhibited in the beautifully lit Espace Sorano they looked like vivid and fresh stained glass work. Serge Clarit’s photos of African landscapes and people enriched the exhibition even more.

It was rainy and rather cold in Vincennes last February but I came home with a little bit of African sunshine and beauty in my heart.

All the quilts from all previous Innovative Threads exhibitions can viewed on Innovative Threads

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 10 Number 7 - July 2002