Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Battle of the Batt: Learning to Quilt in Tunisia

One cannot really speak of any sort of organized quilting activity in Tunisia, although sewing classes may include elementary patchwork techniques and some foreigners pursue the craft.  I was pretty much on my own when I wanted to have some quilts for my beds. As I knew how to sew, several books and a subscription to Quilter Newsletter Magazine got me through the learning stage, and what a bumpy ride it was, aggravated by the difficulty of finding batting. 
First of all, I bought a little Singer sewing machine, which is still with me. Works like a gem, talks to me, and performs acrobatics, and more importantly, I know how to repair it.  I’ve considered buying a new bigger and fancier machine, but this baby has become a part of me—it fits like an old pair of jeans. And, like I said, I don’t have to haul it back and forth to Tunis for maintenance and repairs. So, here is the beginning:
My first quilt was a sort of strippie quilt made from scraps of fabric from other sewing projects. Nothing to write home about (or post), but first efforts are monumental because we can measure the distance traveled, we love them like a first child, and because they concretely represent a challenge met. Lacking any kind of batting material, I used an old blanket and tied it. Then I proceeded on to a green log cabin quilt with whatever fabrics I could get ahold of (with little concern for quality), using a quilt-as-you-go technique. That poor quilt has faded to a yellowish green—downright ugly. A thick flannel-type fabric served as the batt making it heavy: It has been retired. I finally found sacks of polyester stuffing for pillows in Tunis so the next quilt was made of two-inch stuffed squares sewn together by hand—took forever to make and it still falls apart and needs constant repairing.
Things improved when I moved to the farm and claimed a bedroom for a studio. The local flea market had mountains of used clothing piled on the ground, overflow from certain charity industries in the States. 
You really didn't think all the cast-off clothing from consumer societies was sold in Western thrift stores, did you? Nope, it ends up in Africa and it's a money-making business, as in big bucks. 
Now there are tables and tarps overhead so the hunting is less back-breaking and therefore even more enjoyable. 
One can find shoes, purses, sheets, tablecloths, plus every article of clothing imaginable. For a few dollars I can buy a dozen used cotton shirts, skirts, and/or dresses. I then wash everything, cut it all apart, toss the seams and collars, save the buttons and labels, iron the fabric and fold it into rectangles that fit on the shelves in my studio. Most Saturdays I can be seen filling up my basket with clothes rather than food, especially at certain times of the month when new shipments arrive. Flea market vendors have savvy; they sell according to season so you won’t find sweaters on sale in the summer, for example. On the other hand, summer is a good time for cotton items. It’s like treasure hunting; sometimes one can find surprising and unexpected things. 
This week's hunting wasn't bad. The turquoise is a silk blouse...for 25 cents.
Thanks to the flea market, then, I accumulated a wide range of colors to work with and recycled fabrics with a bit of patina. Madam T. E. was my teacher—Trial and Error, which was sometimes an extreme form of learning. I tested out patterns, techniques, and sewing methods, and even made my own wool batts when I had a few sheep. That worked rather well, but I had to lay out the batt in bits and pieces which was time-consuming.  I also stuffed my suitcases with cotton batts when returning from vacations in the States. Now, I am thankful to find polyester batting in Tunis.
I made my share of bed quilts, pillows, bibs and what-not, and started designing my own appliqués. My skills were honed when I found a pharmacy that sold my crib quilts (with my original designs) to encourage the sale of baby products.  Gruelling production work that had deadlines. My workspace evolved with me.

And so, welcome to my studio. The desk/bookshelves are homemade, a perfect birthday gift.
A place for everything and everything in its place--button collection by color, thread (the French "Thiriez" thread on the right, my favorite), scissors, cutters, rulers. 
Ahhh, my fabric stash. I love being able to see it like a rainbow wrapped around the wall.

Two sawhorses hold my quilts so there are no folds. On top, the quiet side of a bed quilt that has wild pink, green and blue blocks on the reverse side. My studio rarely appears this orderly.


By 1991, I had developed enough technique in painting, drawing, macramé, sewing, embroidery, patchwork, appliqué, you name it. I moved on to art quilts when conflict in Iraq sent shock waves through the Middle East and the Maghreb (North Africa): I found my voice, I had something to say...


And here I am today: 
My latest work in progress. Given the current events in the region, my thoughts turn to order and disorder, discipline and chaos.
The blues and greens, leftover from another project, are machine top-stitched with a nylon thread (raw edges showing), while the warm colors are hand appliquéd using a needle-turn method. 
Some of the strips in the maze measure about an eighth of an inch. I carried this piece around with me for about ten years, stitching on it occasionally.  

The distance we can travel...

41 comments:

Sarah said...

What a fantastic post, its almost hard to comment as which bit do I pick to comment on, its all brilliant! So I'll end with saying that that maze of reds, pinks etc is jawdroppingly awesome!

susan christensen said...

Oh, what a post! I am fascinated by your experiences and love seeing the market, your studio, and evolution of your voice as an art quilter! Thanks so much for sharing!

Els said...

Wow you really did travel a long distance!!! I love all the neat stashes, colour by colour ;-)
What I so like about your "today" work is the difference between the raw edged blues/greens and the needle-turned reds!(you did an awful good job there !!!) And ofcourse the black and white/gray grid as a back ground !!! LOVE IT

American Homestead said...

What a great story. We all have our own "quilt history" yes?
Ellen from American Homestead

Radka said...

You have worked so hard for your craft :)and you have done so well.
Compare to you most of us have it so easy, to get what we need for our quilts.
I stopped having illusions about charity donations a long time ago :(

Connie Rose said...

That applique is just amazing. What a lot of beautiful work!

Karen said...

Wonderful wonderful post!! And topping it off with an amazing quilt! So glad you found my blog so that I found you!!

Katie said...

This is amazing- everything about this post! I love the art quilt! And I love learning about the markets and life there. Such a wonderful blog. take care.

Deb said...

Amazing. Your writing is as awesome as your quilting! What a great quilting story/history. I knew that American thrift store stuff that doesn't sell often goes to Africa, but I never knew what happened after that!
Deb

Notjustnat said...

Amazing post, thank you! I can relate to everything you talk about here. I lived in countries such as Papau Papua New Guinea, Libya and the Emirates. We had fare share of shortage of things. It makes you appreciate life. I still recycled even thought I can get anything these days. The satisfaction is making something out of nothing! I love your art quilt. I can see how the Middle East turmoil influenced your process here - Thanks again for sharing your wonderful story - Hugs Nat

Ms. ∆×∆p×≥h/4π said...

When you left the comment on my blog, I came right over to yours and read your profile, and scrolled through all your posts. Whew...how accomplished you are as an artist, and what discipline and order in your life there. The renovation is spectacular, and yes, I knew about the trade from Goodwill into the African capital markets. And to have lived through a revolution (I was riveted when Egypt erupted, as I have Egyptian friends), but now things there may have turned toward repression again, sadly. Humans have not got the key to harmony after all this time, have we. Yet the craft workers, the artists, they seem to have a better chance for harmony, perhaps because they are so wrapped up in using creative energy creatively. In any case, I thank you for visiting the blog, and I'm happy to have joined yours today. Why not join mine, I'd be glad to have you. Be well. I look forward to your posts.

Fabric Art said...

Nadia thanks for visit and nice comment about my works, you have a lovely studio where you can have all your flea-market finds, I looked around in your blog, oh you made wonderful quilts and mosaic,hopefully it's been a little cooler so you will not stand with your head in the freezer all the time.
Hugs Anni

Karen said...

I found your post most interesting. I see bins in many parking lots that are for donations of clothes and shoes. I can see that some of those are ending up in your market places. You are putting good use to some of the clothing for sure.
You have stocked yourself well with quilting tools. We tend to think that quilting supplies are plentiful every where. Now I know they are not.

Janice PD said...

This reminds me of the Ropas in southern Texas...piles of used and new clothing that come in bales..pick through it and buy per pound. Your art piece is amazing. thanks for visiting my blogs, too!

lola ruiz said...

Thank you for your comments on my blog Nadia.
I like to read your Tunisia chronicles. I remember the first time i watched tunisian people strike on tv and how moved i felt by their peaceful manners.
I enjoyed reading about your quilting journey too. Not and easy "walk", what makes more amazing, to me, your great work.
Love the colors and movement of the last quilt!.

Ingrid said...

I had no idea that so much of our donated clothing was sold off in other parts of the world. Recycling of sorts... Your work is amazing. Wow!

The Pink Ganeshji said...

Hi, Nadia, Thanks for visiting my blog and your kind comments. A women's community would be a great way of putting the Sister's piece!

I love your applique work here in the reds, just beautiful. I enjoyed reading about your quilting journey:)

M

Magpie's Mumblings said...

Thank you for the lovely comment on my blog, which in turn sent me to yours to have a peek at your studio. Little did I know that I would end up having so much fun exploring and seeing your quilts and your mosaic pots. Great stuff and now I'm off to subscribe so I don't miss anything!

Carol said...

Hi, You came by my blog and left a message when I assumed that people rarely visited. Thanks for your nice comment. I am inspired by your color choices and the wise use of fabrics from flea markets and the other venues. Blogging and computers has made it just wonderful for meeting other gifted and good hearted people in the world. Carol

Diane said...

Naduam si gkad you visited my blog and left a comment. Now i get to visit yours and what a treat! Your work: artquilts especially as well as your mosaics are breathtaking. I look forward to more of your sharing your art and your words.

Carole said...

Nadia, this is a wonderful post. It is interesting to hear your story and to see how far you have travelled in your quilting. Your studio looked so tidy....I was relieved to hear that it wasn't usually...made me chuckle. Thanks.

norma said...

I loved this story of your quilting journey and also love your newest art quilt. I can't imagine doing all that intricate needle turning. This after all those French knots! Do you ever do anything easy??

Rebecca said...

oh.my.goodness!! That quilt is breathtaking, truly. You are a lady with very talented hands indeed. And thanks so much for sharing your studio space with us...such a beautiful story.

Barb said...

Hello
Thanks for you recent visit to my blog. I have enjoyed reading yours this morning - I love your garden mosaic pots - lovely!
Your stitching creativity is very inspiring.
I visited Tunis 4 years ago while on a cruise - small world.

Judy Alexander said...

What else can I say that hasn't been said already. Your work is beautiful and inspirational. Think I will have a look in my closet for some items that have seen better days but still would make some interesting fabric.

Vicki W said...

Thank you for visiting my blog today so that I could find you! I love your writing style, your art and your stories. I know I"m going to enjoy following you!

Debbie said...

How neat to play detctive and find you, after your visit and kinds words on my blog. You have way with words as you tell your story, and the distance you have traveled. I am awe struck at the contrast in your work. It tells the story.

Exuberant Color said...

I knew our discarded clothing that we put in the red boxes went to other countries but I don't know which ones.
I love your newer work!!

Jeanne said...

Amazing and gorgeous...the whole story and your creations! What a creative soul you are:)

Jeanne xx

Ferret said...

It's lovely to hear how people progress, especially seeing your first project. I have kept my first quilt too, it's strippy and tied :) People here complain about how hard it is to get fabric because of the cost, but hunting through discarded clothing in the heat strikes me as a lot more effort and needs more dedication. Just Wow, I am so amazed aqt what you manage to produce from your finds.

quilteuseforever said...

Your works are amazing and striking. When I happened to see your blog yesterday it was quite a shock !
In this post we can see where you manage to buy fabrics, but where does your inspiration come from ? It is not obviously from Tunisia directly -although the Pen is just like a henna tatto for instance...
I will follow your blog, I am hooked !
Katell

rubyslipperz said...

Thank you, thank YOU for visiting my blog so that I could have the wonderful journey reading thru your blog!

Please, if you would send my your email? =)

hugZ,
annie
rubyslipperz106.blogspot.com

Anne said...

Your blog is now in my favorites, and I shall take time to visit it again more often, if time is given to me, because, my life is gypsy and on the road.....I like this piece because is not traditionnal and is the witness of a seeking. I like also his colors. Thanks!!!!
I have briefly answered to you coment on my blog
http://quilt007.free.fr (do you prefer english or french for the text?)

Muddling Through said...

Thanks for your visit, it reminded me to come back and visit you and I'm so glad I did. What a stunning piece of artwork you've created there. It's inspiring to me that you work on a piece for years sometimes. I was reading through some of the other posts I've missed and I really like the pen. Just amazing. And of course, your mosaics. You have truly "made lemonade" with what life had handed you! Just beautiful - all of it.

patchworkdulce said...

Amei este trabalho, está lindo, "nós" gostamos de cores.

arlee said...

NAdia, thanks for the drop by on my blog--and WHOA does that red rooty quilt blow me away! YOWZAH!

Marianne Bos said...

Love the design and the colours of this quilt.

Just goes to show that a quilter can do her "craft" anywhere in the world.

I understand the challenges of sourcing good (and reasonably priced) materials. Thankfully Hancocks of paducah often have free shipping which includes Singapore.
Thanks for stopping by my blog!

Joan said...

What a wonderful quilt. The Tunisian liberation has been an inspiration to all the world. Your quilt is inspiring as well. The interlacing bright colors are brilliant.

Karen said...

An excellent post Nadia! Your workspace is wonderful, as are your quilts. Very inspiring.

Summerland Cottage Studio said...

Nadia your quilting is amazing and beautiful !
I so enjoyed reading about the hunt for fabrics and viewing snippets of your world.
I Love the shelf with stacks of fabrics like a horizontal color wheel. I felt like a child in a candy store with all the choices in full view.
Your blog is pure pleasure,
thank you for sharing,
Paulette

entryleveljobscam said...

Good post.