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by Elaine Quehl

Winter 1999

I wrote this paper in a graduate Sociology course on Psychoanalysis and Cultural Studies at Carleton University. I have used some very opaque theory by French psychoanalyst, Julia Kristeva, and made an attempt to apply it to quiltmaking. To some it may seem a stretch ... but I think it is fun to think about. There is a bibliography at the end for further reading. The quiltmaking phenomenon is just beginning to receive attention by academics.


                                  Each night I walk the quilt in circles,

                                  retracing the past, waiting for morning

                                  to call me back.   “Mother, where are you?”

                                  I call and call, my voice traveling

                                  beyond me, echoing back.  I hear her answer,

                                  so near, so far within the quilt’s

                                  dark borders, “I’m here.  I’m here.”[2]

                                                    Elizabeth Spires


             The idea of employing the psychoanalytic theory of Julia Kristeva to explain the relationship of women to quilts and quiltmaking finds its seed in Elaine Showalter’s paper “Common Threads” where quiltmaker and writer Radka Donnell is referred to as “the Kristeva of quilting”[3].  Radka Donnell in Quilts as Women’s Art, A Quilt Poetics writes about “piecing as a primal women’s art form, related to the body, to mother-daughter bonding, to touch and texture, and to the intimacy of the bed and the home.”[4]  Quilts, writes Donnell “recall and embody the first and greatest solacing agent in our lives: our mothers.”[5]  Although Donnell never specifically makes reference to Kristeva, her emphasis on quiltmaking as a rethinking of the maternal points us to where Kristeva’s theory might be especially useful.  I will argue that quilts and quiltmaking serve as a simulacrum of the mother, and that women’s deep attraction to the quilt can be accounted for by the conditions of their pre-Oedipal relationship to the mother. 

            Before I engage in abstract theorizing, it would be beneficial to provide a portrait of  the contemporary quiltmaking scene for those unfamiliar with the current status of quiltmaking.  No longer the provenance of women’s auxiliary organizations, meeting in church basements, quiltmaking has experienced a tremendous rebirth since the early 1970’s, both as a result of the 1971 art exhibit “Abstract Design in American Quilts” at the Whitney Museum of American Art and as a result of the quilt’s changing status within the feminist movement.[6]  Between 1990 and 1994, a short span of four years, quiltmaking increased by 25%, and became an activity that 20% of households across the country engaged in.[7]  The Ottawa-Carleton region is, at the present time, home to nine shops specifically related to selling quilting supplies as well as offering courses that introduce students to various quiltmaking techniques. Four different TV programs are offered on local television channels, two separate guilds meet in the city on a monthly basis, while some guilds and shops host weekend retreats where women gather to immerse themselves in quiltmaking and camaraderie with other women.

            Quiltmakers feel passionately about their art, and many are so captivated by it that they describe it as an illness or addiction.  An old worn wall plaque in a Mennonite quiltshop in Southern Ontario warns of the symptoms of ‘quiltpox’, providing testimony that women have long been transfixed by quiltmaking.  Many quiltmakers describe themselves as fabricholics, unable to resist purchasing more fabric that is wanted rather than needed for their ever-growing stash.  Fabric seems to speak to some unknown part of them.  Every guild meeting, class and retreat culminates in a “Bring and Brag” gathering where women admire each other’s completed works.  The beauty of their works illicit oooh’s and aaah’s from the audience of women not unlike those heard at a spectacular fireworks show.  All this is to say that quilting is an immensely popular activity that most quiltmakers feel very passionately about.

            Kristeva’s notion of the semiotic stage of psychic development may point to the powerful hold that quilts and quiltmaking have on women.  The semiotic refers to the stage of infant development immediately prior to the symbolic structuring of the paternal through the acquisition of language.  It is the action between the symbolic and semiotic that constitutes the signifying process.  The semiotic stage coincides with Freud’s notion of the pre-Oedipal period, when the infant experiences a complete fusion and privileged contact with the mother.  Butler, using the term jouissance, describes the semiotic as “the relation of continuity that precedes desire and the subject/object dichotomy that desire presupposes”[8]. The child’s world is one of polymorphous perversity: complete narcissism, sensation and physicality.  No one sense is yet distinguished from the other.  The quilt is evocative of the maternal body, and through the quilt women can relive the pleasure of closeness and union with a desired object.  Entry into the symbolic order of language entails a splitting off and repression of the pre-Oedipal body of the mother, and for the girl child, a repression of primary homosexual female sexuality where the mother was the erotic object of the infant.  The girl child is compelled to either identify with her mother, or elevate herself to the symbolic stature of her father, requiring her to reject all traces of dependence on the maternal body.  Entry into the symbolic order is contingent upon the rejection of the mother as the child’s erotic object.

            The "semiotic chora" is the site where communication takes places between mother and child through bodily sensations.  Kristeva includes here sensory aspects such as “sound and melody, rhythm, colours, odors”.[9]  I would argue that touch might also be included here.  The process involved in quiltmaking engages the tactile sense, and the tactile rewards of fingering a quilt evoke this earlier semiotic stage; quiltmaking is as much a sensual activity as it is a symbolic one.  Working with cloth may invoke the potency of the earlier tactile sense.  Quilting emanates from the physical as much as the mental and is evocative of the physicality of the semiotic.  Moreover, in the production of cloth the sense of personal creation and connection to one’s production is very direct.  From the moment the infant emerges from the womb it is swaddled in cloth and subject to the basic force of touch, predominately by its mothers.

            The notion of the semiotic may be applicable to quilts and quiltmaking in two ways.  First, I believe that quilts and the making of them may recover the repressed maternal body, and may express in their making and their enjoyment the core affects and issues related to the mother.  Quilts may in fact provide a simulacrum of the mother.  As Donnell states “Quilts mediate a sense of the beloved body of the mother, a sense which is not first attached to appearance, but instead to the continuity of touch and body comforts”[10].  The second way that quilts relate to the semiotic lies in the process of artistic creation. 

            Kristeva posits the artist as one who draws inspiration from the semiotic realm.  I want to explore the question of whether quiltmakers draw from the semiotic in the way that an artist or poet might?  Before I do this, I want to discuss briefly the evolution of the quilt and how it came to be viewed as an art object.  In the early days of colonial North American history, quilts were produced out of necessity.  Life on the frontier was cold and harsh and sufficient bedding was not readily available.  Women created quilts out of necessity using scraps of whatever materials were available, sewing them together to form functional bedcoverings.  Quiltmaking later becomes primarily a tool for the inculcation and reproduction of femininity.  Young women were expected to sew a specific number of quilts for their wedding trousseau.  Quiltmaking was considered a desirable activity for women because of its associations with the domestic. 

             The artistic value of the quilt was discovered in 1971 through the Whitney Museum exhibit. Until the male discovery of the quilt at this exhibit, quilts and quiltmaking were viewed as a trivial women’s hobby, and indeed this is still frequently the case.  A firm distinction tends to exist between high art and low art, quilts being relegated to low art because of their association with the domestic.  “A quilt is an art object when it stands up like a man”[11], in other words, when it hangs on the wall of an art gallery, but this is also when it becomes the phallus.  On the wall it becomes commodified and, touched only by the white-gloved attendant, ceases to provide tactile pleasures to its admirers.  Lechte presents Kristeva as one who views art as a process of creating the subject rather than a process that produces an object.   I agree with Lechte in his statement  “Potentially, at least, aesthetic activity is within the reach of every one, even if producing an object readily and broadly admired is not.[12]  Quiltmakers often describe themselves as making a whole from many pieces, and as sewing themselves into their quilts. 

            The construction of the quilt in terms of its block structure, the frequent use of traditional patterns, and the exacting measurements required to make it fit together would seem to indicate that the quilt draws upon the symbolic and phallic world.  Semiotic expression, on the other hand, “is found in art and poetry that appeals to a broad spectrum of emotional and sensory experience and that conveys multiple levels of meaning”.[13]   I think the quilt does draw upon the semiotic through texture, image and colour, and because the quilt is a very touchable art, reaction to it is essentially preverbal.  In this way quilts make connection with semiotic forms that express the core affects and issues.

            We might argue that quiltmaking, like poetry, uses a language that draws from the semiotic as well as the symbolic.  In particular, Emily Dickinson’s poetry, with its many dashes, is visual as much as verbal[14] and reminds me of the piecing process of creating a quilt.  It has also been suggested that music, which draws both on the symbolic and the semiotic, has the power to act simultaneously on the mind and the senses, stimulating both ideas and emotions and blending them in a common flow.  I believe that quilts, like poetry and music, draw from both realms of the psyche.

            Certainly Alice Walker’s presentation on quiltmaking forces us to realize that the process of creating a quilt is most definitely akin to that involved in the creation of what would widely be considered a work of art.  She draws our attention to the elements of spontaneity and novelty in the work of 20th century black quiltmakers.  The quilt, she argues, is a major form of self-expression for black women in the south[15].  Walker establishes a contrast between everyday use and institutional theories of aesthetics.  “The power of creating also belongs to those who work in kitchens and factories, nurture children and adorn themselves, sweep streets or harvest crops, type in offices or manage them.”[16]  Walker helps us to value the marginal voice in society as a key participant in the construction of culture.  The seemingly base, trivial, mundane things are often those that prove to be the best vehicles for very profound underlying issues.

            Kristeva’s idea of the semiotic entails subversion of or marginality to the symbolic order.  The semiotic “appears as pulsional pressure on symbolic language, as contradictions, meaninglessness, disruption, silences and absences in symbolic language.”  “The revolutionary subject, whether masculine or feminine, is a subject that is able to allow the jouissance of semiotic motility to disrupt the strict symbolic order.”  I wish to suggest some ways that the subversive force of the semiotic makes itself apparent in quiltmaking.   First, the way that quiltmaking uses the language and rules of the symbolic, i.e. grid design, traditional pattern, etc. to enter the semiotic realm of colour, image and touch is subversive.  In fact, the notion that the symbolic is everything is subverted in quiltmaking, and the importance of touch challenges the privilege awarded the visual.  Furthermore, the evocation of the semiotic in the creation and enjoyment of quilts, subverts the love of the phallus, replacing it with the original homosexual female love.  Butler speaks of  the “displaced maternal dependency” that contributes to the creation of a poem, and says that “because that dependency is libidinal, (it is) displaced homosexuality as well”[17]  Perhaps we could argue that displaced maternal dependency  and homosexuality too are the impetus for the quilt.  Because the object of the quiltmakers love is the quilt, which really stands for the mother, the realm of female desire is reclaimed.  The quilt, as simulacrum of the mother becomes the erotic object of the quiltmaker’s libidinal impulses.  Inasmuch as quiltmaking tends to be a shared activity between women, its elevates female relationships and therefore subverts the prominence of heterosexual relations..

            Quiltmaking subverts high art, but when high art claims the quilt, it loses its subversive power.  Traditionally, subversive ideas expressed in the medium of quilts have gone unnoticed because quiltmaking has largely been engaged in within the domestic sphere, and has therefore been seen as a harmless acting out of a passive femininity, rather than a forum for protest against the constraints of femininity.  As Radner and Lanser argue in Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Culture, women can interpret what other women may have encoded, consciously or unconsciously, in their folk art, not because women have an essentially female worldview, but because most societies have a realm of practice that is primarily or exclusively a woman’s domain.[18]  Subversive ideas that enter into women’s art, especially art that is created in the domestic sphere, where it is often dismissed as trifling, may easily be missed by phallic culture.  Women are safe to say what they need to say here.

            Finally, while the symbolic order defers the present because it points to something beyond which it represents, quiltmaking can be subversive because the mind is allowed to quiet, drawing the maker into the present moment.

            Kristeva emphasizes the constructive and curative dimensions of semiotic expression, theorizing that aesthetic activity involves a process that produces an object and helps resolve psychological crisis.  Through aesthetic activity the individual structures a sense of self and world in order to overcome melancholia and restore a degree of happiness, value and purpose.  Kristeva refers to this process as sublimation, and Dicenso describes it as a means of expressing or channeling primary-process energies and as doing so in a manner that yields artistic or intellectual production that can be socially valued. “ Sublimation is a matter of finding the language that connects with the non-symbolized trauma of mother loss and its affects and brings them to articulation in the interpersonal realm.”[19]    Quiltmaking might be considered a language, the language of touch and colour, that brings to articulation the mother loss.  Through the language of the quilt, the quiltmaker channels semiotic energies and responds to the loss of the maternal body.

            In Black Sun Kristeva suggests that art can secure a sublimatory hold over the lost object.  We can understand the imaginary, in her thought, as the world of signified sadness, and so the quilt becomes the imagery of the lost mother.  The quilt draws women back to the polymorphous perversity of the pre-Oedipal stage where sensation if not differentiated.  There are patches of colour leading in various directions and numerous textures to awaken the senses.

            The quilt as beautiful object secures a sublimatory hold over the lost mother. But more specifically, Kristeva refers to beauty as “the face of loss, the depressive’s other realm.[20]  The quilt, as beautiful object, reflects the melancholia of women, for in Kristeva’s view women suffer far more from sadness than men due to the unique conditions women face in losing the mother.  In rejecting the maternal body, with which female children must identify, they also reject themselves.  Kristeva  asks, “Might the beautiful be the ideal object that never disappoints the libido?  Or might the beautiful object appear as the absolute and indestructible restorer of the deserting object? [21]  Is the beautiful object the one that tirelessly returns following destructions and wars in order to bear witness that there is survival after death, that immortality is possible?” [22]  One might replace “beautiful” with the word “quilt” in each of these sentences:

            “Might the quilt be the ideal object that never disappoints the libido?  Or might

             the quilt appear as the absolute and indestructible restorer of the deserting object?”

            Is the quilt the one that tirelessly returns following destructions and wars in order

            to bear witness that there is survival after death, that immortality is possible?”

Just as one thinks one has grasped the meaning of Kristeva’s argument, one quickly loses such certainty.  There is a distinct feeling that she is suggesting  that beauty might be the denial of loss, the distraction from loss, a repression of loss.  “Beauty as artifice”[23] she calls it.  Here she hints at beauty as merely a defense against suffering, rather than a working through of suffering.

            Kristeva explains melancholia as an intolerance of object loss, specifically the loss of the mother.  Freudian theory, she says, “detects everywhere the same impossible mourning for the maternal object.”[24] The detachment of  the child’s libido from its first love object, the mother, is painful.  Indeed, how can it be otherwise, for the loss of the mother is a separation from everything that is warm. The adult nurtures an idealized fantasy of the relationship that binds it to the mother; she becomes an idealized lost territory, and remains ever after a paradise lost.    Might the quilt stand as a compensation for this early loss?  Certainly Donnell would probably believe so, for she states that the quilt is “a symbolic re-enactment and resolution of the painful separation from and need to reconnect with the mother.”[25]

            The melancholia associated with mother loss is caused by introjection of the lost object, both the loved and hated object.  In order not to lose the mother, women imbed her in their own psyches.  In order to maintain some identification with their mother’s body, females carry around the corpse of their mother’s bodies in their psyche.  This is a repression of the pre-Oedipal homosexual female sexuality.

            The melancholic individual, in Kristevan theory, has not committed matricide by entering the symbolic realm of the father.  Matricide, or the rejection of the maternal body, is a requisite for the psychic health of both men and women, but women find it enormously difficult to murder the mother.  Woman are thus more victimized by the dead mother complex, and this is why melancholia is a particularly female phenomena.  Kristeva’s argument is contingent on the idea that the infant girl makes an almost immediate identification with the mother.              Although the mother may not be dead literally, she is figuratively dead to the child because she is self-absorbed as a result of some loss of her own.  Here I believe Kristeva is hinting at an endless cycle, mother after mother being absorbed in the loss of her own mother. The child experiences the mother’s absorption as a catastrophe, as a narcissistic wound.  Instead of positive primary narcissism of unity and identity, the child develops negative primary narcissism that is connected with feelings of emptiness.  “The victim of the dead mother complex compensates for this added narcissistic wound in a number of ways, including turning to the compensations of intense intellectual activity and artistic creation.”[26]  This may explain the intense frenzied, and often compulsive, activity of many quilter.  It is because the mother’s active interest in the child has suddenly been replaced by a passive disinterest that the child becomes concerned to imprison the mother by whom he feels abandoned.

            This is the closest that Kristeva seems to come to admitting to a less than ideal relationship between mother and child.  Like other French feminists, she could be criticized for holding an unduly optimistic notion of the mother-infant bond.  Is it not also possible that women carry the corpse of their mothers in their psyche’s because they have not been with their mothers in a good enough way?  Donnell raises the issue of  how to separate well when being left or leaving a person, pointing out that for her, it is most difficult to separate from a person that she has not been together with in a good enough way.   Many of us have not had the privileged contact with our mothers that Kristeva speaks of.

            Perhaps the biggest criticism of Kristeva is that she is not concerned with the real and specific problems encountered by female children in a patriarchal culture, and this is where she and Donnell part.  Donnell says “I see the regulation and deprivation of touch that applies to women and to the rearing of female children as something that cries out to be changed.”[27]

Donnell is of the view that female children are not wanted in this culture, and that in the quilt women come up against their sense of neglect and deficiency.  Kristeva never suggests that women’s melancholia and the dead mother complex might be related to a difference in the way the mother relates to the infant girl versus the infant boy, or in the inequitable social conditions women find themselves in..

            The quilt is related to the bed and the body and all the activities associated therewith:  birth, death, sex, procreation.  There is probably much therefore that could be said about how the quilt relates to Kristeva’s work on abjection, most specifically her notion of the abject mother’s body.  Perhaps we can explain an unconscious association between the quilt and the body by the fact that quilts are produced primarily by women, who have been historically associated with the body.  I say that there is an unconscious association with the quilt and the body because a good number of fictional works that use the quilt in their plots are murder mysteries that frequently feature dead bodies wrapped in quilts.   If the quilt is a stand-in for the mother’s body, then we have an explanation for why quiltmaking is an almost exclusively female activity.  The quilt as simulacrum of the mother’s body is abjected by the male child who has already abjected the mother’s body.  This is certainly a topic worthy of further study.

            Elaine Showalter’s suggestion that Radka Donnell might be the Kristeva of quilting opens up an exceptionally fruitful area of study.  Kristeva’s theory related to the semiotic stage of infant development has been particularly applicable in explaining the relationship of women to quilts and quiltmaking.   Quilts evoke the affects and body comforts of this early semiotic stage, and because the process of creating a quilt is similar to that of creating a work of art, it  draws upon the semiotic through texture, image and colour.  Quilts provide for women a simulacrum of the mother and allow women to relive the pleasure of closeness with the earliest object of their desire.  The quiltmaker channels semiotic energies and responds to the loss of the maternal body.  Thus the quilt becomes the ideal object that never disappoints the libido and the absolute and indestructible restorer of the deserting object, providing a compensation for the early loss of the mother.



[1] Donnell, Radka, Quilts as Women’s Art: A Quilt Poetics, p. 127.

She uses the word “simulacrum” in the dictionary definition sense to mean shadowy image, superficial likeness, effigy, image, or representation, and not in the postmodern sense used by Baudrillard.

[2]Spires, Elizabeth in Felicia Mitchell’s Words & Quilts, p. 59.

[3] Showalter, Elaine, “Common Threads” in Alice Walker’s Everyday Use, p. 209.

[4] Ibid., p. 209.

[5] Donnell, Radka, Quilts as Women’s Art: A Quilt Poetics, p. 117.

[6]Torsney & Elsley in Quilt Culture: Tracing the Pattern, p. 2.

[7] The Province, January 1994, quoted in “Quilts as Art and Ministry” by Terry Kennedy, Internet article.

[8]Butler, Judith, “The Body Politics of Judith Butler” in Kelly Oliver, ed. Ethics, Politics, and Difference in Julia Kristeva’s Writing, p. 167. 

[9] Kristeva, Maladies of the Soul, p. 104.

[10] Donnell, p. 117.

[11] Refers to the name of Susan Bernicks paper in Tornsey & Elsley, eds.,  Quilt Culture: Tracing the Pattern.

[12] Lechte, John, “Art, Love, and Melancholy in the Work of Julia Kristeva”,  in John Fletcher and Andrew Benjamin ed. Abjection, Melancholia and Love: The Work of Julia Kristeva, p..25

[13] Dicenso, James in “New Approaches to Psychoanalysis and Religion: Julia Kriteva’s Black Sun” in Studies in Religion, p. 282.

[14] Help!  I cannot find the source of this idea, but it is not mine.

[15] Walker, Alice “In Search of Our Mothers Gardens” in  Everyday Use.

[16] Showalter, Elaine, “Common Threads”, in Torsney & Elsley eds. Quilt Culture, p. 175.

[17] Butler, p. 171.

[18] Radner & Lanser in Feminist Messages: Coding In Women’s Folk Culture, p. 2.

[19]Dicenso, James, p. 290. 

[20]Kristeva, Julia, Black Sun, p.

[21] Ibid., p. 98.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., p. 99.

[24] Ibid., p. 9.

[25] Donnell, p. x.

[26] Doane and Hodges From Klein to Kristeva, p. 58.

[27] Donnell, p. 67.






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