In the Boudhanath neighborhood of Katmandu, Nepal I spent four months sewing with women and children who lived, in what was known as, the beggar’s camp. The introduction to these families was facilitated through a non-profit-organization, Quilts for Kids.
Quilts for Kids is a microfinance project that provides work for economically-challenged women while financing the education of their children. The mission of the organization was inspired by the handmade quilts that were commonly seen around the “beggar’s camp”. An idea of creating similar quilts as an income generating commodity was introduced to the camp residents by founder of Quilts for Kids, James Hopkins.
Previous to founding the organization, James had become friends with the families living in the beggar’s camp and was introduced to their stories. Most of these Indian families had travelled to Kathmandu from north western Rajasthan in search of income. The income generated in this their new city came mostly from the work the kids did on the streets; the boys soliciting shoe shines and the girls begging “milk for my baby” money from passersby. With the establishment of Quilts for Kids, James created a system where it was more valuable for a family to have a child in school than on the streets.
Utilizing the skill and talent of the women, a salary greater than what could be pulled in from the streets was introduced to the camp, and women were eager to join the quilting forces. In the end, it is the sale of the quilts that pays for the annual school fees for the children while simultaneously generating a substantial income for the women.
One of the quilting projects that I created for myself was inspired from the discarded fabric scraps I collected one afternoon while helping a family rebuild their hut. A bag of new fabric scraps was the catalyst for the rebuilding. We laboriously disassembled and reassembled the entire structure with all the same materials with the exception being, the new fabric scraps. These small scraps were used to tie the bamboo cross-sections of the hut’s architecture together. As for the dirty discarded scraps, when they were washed and ironed a tie-dye pattern previously created from black soot was revealed. In the huts soot was a common interior element, an outcome from a daily practice of burning plastics to create fire for cooking purposes or to burn as a heating source in the mornings and evenings.
Choosing to use one of the quilts purchased from the women as the foundation of the story, I added the smoke-dyed scraps to form an overlapping composition. The final layered work narrates some of the realities behind the quilter’s lives from this camp.
Additionally, I introduced a collaborative quilt project to the group using recycled fabric that I had collected from the city streets and around their camp. Two sewing groups were established, one for the women and one for children. Demonstrating a new quilting method known as Improvisational, a confused but humored group of participants began to gather daily.
At the end of a month’s worth of sewing, laughter and disillusionment everyone in the group was quite impressed by the whimsical outcome. The biggest surprise for the participants was that a successful design could be created from apparent randomness.
The above photo shows the completed first step, the top layer. All piecing was sewn by hand as a group effort. The photo below shows the same top layer as part of the final quilt complete with running stitches conjoining the front, middle and back. The quilting of the work, the running stitches were a solo effort; completed alone by my needle, thread and thimble.
The photo below shows the backside of the quilt featured above. The fabric used for the quilt’s back side was donated from a girl’s out-of-date wardrobe. I completed this side on my own: layout, piecing and stitching -with the exception of the center lotus design. The center square of red, green and yellow was a quilting sampler given to me to use as filling for the quilt. Obviously, it found itself a new assignment.
These three quilts along with others from the beggar’s camp were on display in Lincoln, NE at the International Quilt Study Center and Museum. This exhibition was in conjunction with the Textile Society of America‘s Biennial Symposium, 2010.
In the Market Place of the TSA Symposium, a booth displayed the quilts from the camp available for purchase. Many textile enthusiasts enjoyed the colorful quirkiness of the work and took the opportunity to heart by purchasing one or more of the quilts which in exchange supports the education of a child for a year.