The Wilderness Quilt

By Amy Brunvand

Women Protecting Wilderness stitch a testimony of love for the land.

by Amy Brunvand


"One anonymous woman said that she produces utility quilts as fast as she can so that her family won’t freeze and beautiful quilts so her heart won’t break."
-Marsha MacDowell in Encyclopedia of American Folklife.
In the basement of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) office, women have set up ironing boards. They are busy ripping unbleached muslin fabric into squares about the size of Tibetan prayer flags and ironing them onto waxed paper. The squares are going to be part of a Wilderness Quilt artwork, stitching together hundreds of quilt blocks, each one with a photo of a woman and a testimonial telling why she loves Utah’s wild places.
The Wilderness Quilt is the inaugural project of Women Protecting Wilderness, which is a network of women that Deeda Seed, Grassroots Outreach Director at SUWA, describes as "a project that SUWA has given birth to." Women Protecting Wilderness was formed to give a feminine voice to wilderness activism by using stories, art and diverse talents to celebrate love of wild places and to call for their protection.
The germ of the idea was planted by Diane MacEachern (author of "Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World") when she suggested at a SUWA board meeting that the wilderness movement often speaks with a masculine voice and should do more to appeal to women. In response, the board convened a group of women and, indeed, the first thing they wanted to talk about was the communication style of SUWA. Seed says, "They felt we needed to do more listening, to engage people at the level of dialogue, not just tell people what to think." During the discussion, the idea of quilting arose as a way to get women talking about wilderness. Seed says, "Some of them knew of quilting circles that exist in communities across Utah and suggested it would be a good idea to talk to women while they quilt. Then the idea came, wouldn’t it be cool to make a quilt."
For a while the idea of making a quilt lay dormant, but at the same time interest in the concept of Women Protecting Wilderness grew. Last spring they invited a group to talk about what they could do. From that came the idea to collect testimonials and pictures from women and put them together into a figurative quilt as a campaign to testify our love for Utah’s wildlands." Seed laughs, "Now we’ve got irons and sewing supplies in our office."


The symbolism of a quilt is hard to miss. Like a bed quilt, the Wilderness Quilt is patched together from the diverse fabric of women’s wilderness experiences into a lovingly created artwork that also has a utilitarian function – offering protection to a beloved landscape. Quilts are powerfully symbolic of women’s lives. Traditionally, sewing is a basic survival skill, but women used their expertise to turn their quilts into deeply personal and beautiful artworks. In a sociological context, quilts are usually made to commemorate intimate events like births and marriages, but they also have a long history as political speech-women have stitched temperance quilts, women’s suffrage quilts, Bicentennial quilts, AIDS quilts and nowadays even Obama quilts. 
Patti Pitts is a textile artist who helped design the Wilderness Quilt. She is the one who knew the technique to photocopy e-mailed images and text onto fabric, and now she’s busy crinkling and dyeing silk, trying to invoke the colors and textures of Utah’s redrock desert. "The testimonials will be sewn on the silk, dyed to imitate canyon walls so as you walk though you should feel a sense of walking in the canyon," she says. "We are hoping that we can get the right fabrics so you can see the blue sky like when you come out of the canyon."
Pitts is quick to point out that in the spirit of a quilting bee the Wilderness Quilt is not just her vision, but truly a community expression of love for wilderness. Her contribution is a knowledge of textile art, and other women contributed their talents. Artist Trent Alvey had a major role in designing the quilt; Kinde Nebecker helped with graphic design; University of Utah graduate students Eve Miller and McKenzie Carlisle breathed life into the project, English professor Kathryn Fitzgerald helped with the textural elements, not to mention more than 100 women who have contributed squares for the quilt and worked on putting it together. As wilderness testimonials come in over the Internet, work groups get together in quilting bees to cut fabric, transfer the images and stitch them onto silk panels. 
The Wilderness Quilt makes it’s debut at the Salt Lake City Main Library this month, but the women creating the Wilderness Quilt hope the project will subsequently displayed in other public spaces and have an impact protecting wilderness. As Patti Pitts says, "I would love to see this go to the State legislature." 
Even while the Wilderness Quilt is under construction Deeda Seed thinks it has already succeeded in the goal of creating a new kind of wilderness dialog: "This is harnessing a different kind of energy," she says. "It’s love. When it comes to protecting the land, the reason that we care is because we love it, and that’s a very good reason to protect things."  
Keep the Wilderness Quilt going with your wilderness experience-:
Your name
A word or phrase that describes what you do in the world 
The city and state where you live
A photo of you alone or with family, friends, pets etc preferably in a wild place that you love.
And a 50 word or less statement about why wild places matter to you what they mean to you personally.
Send your testimony to:
Women Protecting Wilderness:

This article was originally published on November 3, 2008.