Lauren Fuzi of the Shoreditch Sisters Women’s Institute describes the incredible journey of the Solidarity Quilt.
Back in October 2013 the Shoreditch Sisters branch of the Women’s Institute was contacted by Women for Refugee Women. They asked if we would like to run a craft workshop for a group of refugee women. At that time I was the newly appointed ‘Feminist Outreach Officer’ for our WI (a completely made up position, but one that I was very proud to have taken on!). Part of my role was to build relationships with other local women’s groups, so I was glad to be able to take this opportunity forward. This was how the ‘Knitted Together’ project was born, which has now culminated in the creation of a beautiful patchwork blanket sewn with messages of hope and solidarity. It is not only the product of our shared work, but also a deeply symbolic and meaningful piece of art.
We started off by meeting every other Saturday to teach each other how to knit. We did not have a clear purpose beyond that for the workshops when we first started, but we realised from the start that we wanted t to use craft as a way of building a strong community of women. As the group evolved so did our ideas and the Knitted Together concept was born.
We decided to knit small squares, 10cm by 10cm each, and join them to make a giant quilt. The quilt would be a symbol of our solidarity with the women in Yarl’s Wood. I, like other members of the Shoreditch Sisters, was very struck by what we learned about women who are locked up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. These women are not criminals, but often very vulnerable individuals who have fled persecution in their own countries and come to the UK to seek refuge. It seems deeply unjust that the government is locking up these survivors of rape and other torture, often for many weeks or months, when they could easily process their claims while the women are living in the community.
We knitted the squares during the group sessions but also asked other Women’s Institutes and members of the public to contribute. London West End WI and Sudbury WI both contributed a large number of squares, as did a few members of the public. We then took the blanket to the Women of the World (WOW) Festival on International Women’s Day (8 March 2014) and laid it out on the floor of the Royal Festival Hall, where we invited members of the public to write messages of support on pieces of fabric for the women in Yarl’s Wood which were then sewn on.
The Saturday group has been my favourite part of the process. It has been wonderful to see how the traditional female craft of knitting has brought women together from so many different backgrounds, cultures, religions and languages; there is something special about female craft which seems to transcend these barriers. Although hugely inspiring, coordinating the group has also very challenging! So often in craft (and life) we are taught to follow patterns and rules. We always go back over our mistakes to correct them and strive for the end product to be as close to perfect as possible. In creating the Knitted Together blanket I have had to learn to let go of these ideas, and to trust in the process of co-creation. Enforcing strict rules on the size, colour, shape and style would have been impossible, and I’m extremely grateful for that! There are over 400 knitted squares on the blanket, and its beauty and strength lies in the absolute uniqueness of each one.
The blanket is now in Yarl’s Wood detention centre where it will stay over Easter. I went with a small group to deliver it during a Sunday church service given by the Yarl’s Wood chaplain who had kindly agreed to enable us to bring in the quilt.
It’s hard to write with any clarity about my experience at Yarl’s Wood as it feels so surreal and confusing. At times it felt like a regular Sunday morning in any church hall in the UK. The familiar sights were there: the pastor at the pulpit, a choir dressed in blue, bibles, and people with hands clasped in prayer. Then I’d see the guards at the side of the room, the locked doors, the overwhelming feeling of desperation as the congregation pleaded to God. There was no tea and biscuits or socialising at the end and people were not going home after the service for Sunday lunch. From the very limited time we had at Yarl’s Wood it seems that people were very interested in the blanket and especially in the Women’s Institute. One woman cried as I spoke about the blanket and about all the people who had contributed to it. It felt so important to show the women in Yarl’s Wood, through the powerful symbol of the blanket, that they have not been forgotten.
We hope to continue using the blanket as a campaigning tool, raising awareness of women’s experiences in Yarl’s Wood and encouraging members of the public to take action against the detention of women asylum seekers. If you are interested in this and would like the quilt to visit your own local Women’s Institute or community group, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org