Not Your Mother's Quilt

Terese Agnew needles the establishment one stitch at a time

| Utne Reader May / June 2007

Terese Agnew has absolutely nothing in common with my 86-year-old grandmother, save for two traits: an aptitude for sewing and a deep devotion to Midwestern hospitality. When I arrive at her Milwaukee home-slash-studio on a snowy morning, Agnew immediately confiscates my coat, gloves, scarf, and boots and strategically arranges them around a warm radiator. 'Can I get you some coffee? Some tea?' she asks. Over the course of one visit, her offerings include cranberry-walnut toast, homemade soup, a compact fluorescent lightbulb ('You haven't tried these? Take one!'), and a backup supply of windshield washer fluid for the slushy drive home. Grandma herself could hardly be more gracious.

But unlike Grandma, the 47-year-old Agnew wields these homespun kindnesses alongside a worldly set of sociopolitical perspectives, activist ideals, and a reputation as one of America's most important fabric artists. One of her quilts hangs in the Smithsonian, and she's widely known -- both inside and outside contemporary art circles -- for Portrait of a Textile Worker, an eight-by-nine-foot quilt depicting a young Bangladeshi sweatshop employee, created by stitching together more than 30,000 tiny designer clothing labels that were gathered in a donation campaign. By the artist's own account, Textile Worker is the best work she's ever done. 'I think process and materials have everything to do with the subject,' she says. 'It was just one of those moments where everything came together perfectly.'

Since being unveiled in early 2005, Textile Worker has made indelible impressions on viewers of all political stripes, not only for its symbolic content, but also for its mind-bending display of public participation and painstaking craft. Two years later, thanks to an impressive grassroots fund-raising campaign by longtime Agnew supporters, labor groups, and private donors, the piece has been officially acquired by the Museum of Art and Design in New York.

Ironically for the artist, this newfound renown comes at a time when Agnew's hands-on crafting has come to a halt. Last year, she suffered a repetitive stress injury, forcing her to take an extended break from needle-and-thread. Her energy is currently focused on a major move with her husband and 10-year-old son from Milwaukee to rural Wisconsin. She looks forward to fewer distractions and a new ecofriendly studio to supplant the drafty attic room that has barely contained her workspace for the past decade. And after completing nearly a year of physical therapy, she hopes to return to the sewing table soon.

Agnew, who has a slight frame and slender arms, pulls back one sleeve of her fuzzy gray sweater. 'It's just a little tiny tendon that controls all these muscles,' she says, drawing her finger along her left forearm. The official diagnosis is lateral epicondylitis, commonly known as tennis elbow -- 'but I don't play tennis,' she quips. Over the course of 15 years spent on six major quilting works, the combination of intricate sewing, cutting, and lifting heavy fabric has taken a toll. Still, when she is asked whether the injury brought her closer to her subject in Portrait of a Textile Worker, she's quick to downplay her condition.

'My injuries are nothing in comparison,' she says. 'All it did was make me even more aware of how destructive 12 to 17 hours a day of fast, repetitive work six days a week would be. The National Labor Committee has reported that in many garment factories, when the workers reach the ripe old age of 28, they get fired because they start to slow down. After 10 to 12 years of that work, it's a wonder they can move at all.'

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