The SSAC Communal Rag Quilt

quilt photo

Photo by Linda Watanabe McFerrin

by Mary Brent Cantarutti

We Samplers have used words, clay, food, sticks, music, paints, brushes, sand, shells, paper and plants to create art but we had never used rags. Until last April when Sharon Cooper-Murray, aka The Gullah Lady, introduced us to rag quilting, a traditional Lowcountry craft that dates back to rice plantations. It happened in Charleston at the Southern Sampler Artists Colony Workshop: A Musing Lowcountry Medley.

Advance emails about the SSAC communal rag quilt, the background to be designed and executed by Sharon, had piqued our curiosity. Why did Sharon need the hair color and sex of each participant? (There was just one poor, or maybe it was lucky, guy.) How in the world was she going to capture our individual “profiles” on a square of burlap using only rag strips and a sharp pointed nail? And why would she suggest incorporating a scrap from our grandmother’s handkerchief in our rag quilt?

Being generally strong willed and independent, it’s not surprising that some participants couldn’t decide what color their hair should be, and most ignored the suggestion to contribute a treasured scrap. However, Barb, a new Sampler friend, arrived with a bag full of treasures she had bought at the Goodwill in Seattle: fancy table runners, shirts, scarves and even skirts—all intended to be cut into strips! That’s another story. If you ever meet a Canadian Sampler named Jeanine ask her where she got her classy black and grey woven scarf? Speaking for myself, I love the sassy floral print top I wear over tights.

Thank goodness Sharon was carrying a large basket filled with 5 x 1/4 inch fabric strips when she arrived. Not that we were eager to commence rag quilting. We were mesmerized by the Gullah Lady’s storytelling: the punctuated rhythm of the Gullah language set to the Lady’s rolling eyes and dancing feet. Soon we were all raising our arms, swaying and crying in unison, “Ranky Tanky,” our prompt from the Lady.

After her performance Sharon unfurled the SSAC Rag Quilt with a flourish. “Wow!” we exclaimed. The quilt, approximately 6 x 6 feet, was comprised of equal squares of African motif cotton fabric bordered by squares of burlap, and in the center of each of the burlap squares appeared the blank face, rendered in rags, of one of the eighteen workshop participants. All we had to do was choose our face (the hair color was a vital clue for some), fill in our facial features and the small burlap area around our profile using rag strips from the basket. “Hair” styling and accessories, such as jewelry, was optional. 

Filling in the area around the face was fairly simple. We followed Sharon’s instructions carefully: 1. Place a folded portion of the fabric strip over the nail head. 2. Working from the front of the quilt poke the nail/ folded fabric through an opening in the loosely woven burlap. 3. Working from the back of the quilt, poke the nail/folded fabric through a nearby opening. 4. Pull the folded fabric up and away from the nail and tie the two ends together. Fold, poke, pull, and tie became our mantra. Facial features were a bit more complicated to create, but soon our finished quilt (Sharon would back it the next day) was draped over the sofa for all to admire. “What shall we do with the quilt?” buzzed around the room.  

Now we Samplers have a tradition of leaving part of ourselves in Charleston. Maybe it’s because we planted a tree at Mepkin Abbey and donated to the Charleston Jazz Initiative and Charleston Black Theater—or perhaps it’s the sand hearts we drew on the beach at Sullivan’s Island, knowing that the tide would wash them away but traces of ourselves would remain. Yes, our communal rag quilt was surely destined to stay in Charleston.

What better place than the historic home of our friends, Harriet and McIver Watson, where we had recently enjoyed high tea followed by dancing the Carolina shag on the piazza? Were a dedication to have accompanied the quilt I think it would have read: This SSAC rag quilt is dedicated to our bi-coastal community. May we always embrace life’s dance, be led by spirit, and move with grace.

Next April we look forward to returning to Charleston and the Watson’s home, seeing our mounted rag quilt faces smiling down at us.  The company is everything!


Born, bred and reared to be a fan-carrying lady, Mary Brent Cantarutti headed west in pursuit of romance and adventure. She never lost her drawl. Co-founder of the Southern Sampler Artists Colony and writer of Southern Women’s Fiction, her inner compass points toward cooling Atlantic breezes.

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