The History of Quilts for Empowerment

In October 2015, Mary Ann arrived in Eldoret Kenya with a bag full of quilting notions and embroidery floss. Her hope was to teach obstetric fistula survivors how to make quilts that would provide the women with the skills and self-confidence to achieve economic independence. Fistula Foundation had put her in contact with survivors who had been treated at the Gynocare Fistula Center in Eldoret.

She soon learned that none of the women had ever hand sewn, drawn a picture, or with few exceptions, could use a treadle sewing machine. Over the next four weeks, the class size grew from three to nearly a dozen.

 Mary Ann teaching sewing to obstetric fistula survivors

First, women learned to hand stitch around motifs. Next, they made simple landscape quilts. Finally, they learned simple embroidery stitches to tell their “stories” through stitched images they often drew out on paper first. Rosy (in photo) made the first story quilt and the female figure of her mother became the model for later female figures. These early quilts laid the groundwork for later art quilts.

              

We also started to make table mat sets with a runner and table mats. This allowed us to showcase beautiful African fabric and incorporate hand stitching around the motifs.

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At the end of this first trip, we decided all of our products would include hand stitching that could consistently be made.

Mary Ann returned in the spring of 2016 to determine what products would be made and develop a business plan. It was decided to focus on three products: 3x3 story quilts with a hanging loop, 5x7 story quilts with a pocket on the back that held a card with a photo & story about the quilter, and table mat sets. Ann Ojina became our Production Supervisor and Christine Fox our Production Coordinator.

We had the honor of completing a commissioned quilt for Fistula Foundation in January 2017. The quilt included hand-stitched images from the stories of 35 fistula survivors treated at the Gynocare Fistula Center. Each square included the woman’s name and her wishes for the future.

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Mary Ann returned in April of 2017 to introduce the idea of making large art quilts incorporating new embroidery stitches, applique, and more motifs. The women embraced the idea and began filling large black pieces of fabric with their unique embroidered motifs.

It dawned on Mary Ann that these art quilts were similar to the famous quilts of Gees Bend in that all the ideas and images came from the women’ own lived experiences.

It dawned on Mary Ann that these art quilts were similar to the famous quilts of Gees Bend in that all the ideas and images came from the women’ own lived experiences. No one had ever taught them how a tree, chicken, woman, or hut should look. What they stitched was what they knew.

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This was one of Ann Ojina’s first art quilts and has become part of our Logo. These quilts are a very popular new product.

In the Fall of 2017, QFE became a registered nonprofit in Oregon and an IRS 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization. We then partnered with Wadadia (Women and Development Against Distress in Africa) in Kenya to teach quilting to women in their program. Our Kenya program director, Norah Otondo, taught the women to make our products. The women and Wadadia were paid each month for completed products.

April 2018 when President Mary Ann McCammon was in Kenya, she and Norah Otondo realized that QFE was now mature enough to operate out of their own Kenya Community Based Organization.  With Norah’s leadership, the Kenya QFE Community Based Organization was formed. Critically important was the ability to implement a key component of our philosophy, the formation of an income-generating support group for our quilters. In this model, all payments for our products are made as soon as they are completed and are equally divided between the women and their support group. You can read more about how this works in the Our Program section.

Thanks for reading our history. We promise to keep the website current so you can follow our story and be informed about our progress.