hands making a quilt block
A quilt block made as part of the Social Justice Sewing Academy Remembrance Project in which volunteers honor the humanity of a person in their local area whose life was cut short by violence. The project is featured in a new book by Sara Trail and Teresa Duryea Wong.

Photo courtesy of C&T Publishing

“Quilts aren’t going to change the world. But quilts can spark the mind and bring awareness and build empathy,” says Sara Trail, the founder of the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) and the co-author of a new book about the organization’s work. “They can be the catalyst to cause people to go in the right direction.”

Quilts as a catalyst for social change is the thrust of the new book by Trail and quilting writer Teresa Duryea Wong. Stitching Stolen Lives: Amplifying Voices, Empowering Youth & Building Empathy Through Quilts will be released by C&T Publishing on September 25, 2021. The book chronicles the work of Trail’s Antioch, California-based non-profit, the Social Justice Sewing Academy, that bridges artistic expression with activism to advocate for social justice. The book’s major focus is the organization’s Remembrance Project, a textile project that aims to raise awareness of people who have been killed by community violence or in a politically or racially motivated manner.

The authors first met in the spring of 2021 when Wong interviewed Trail for an article for the magazine, Curated Quilts. “After the article was finished, we just kept talking and talking and talking,” Wong says. Trail had just launched the Remembrance Project and Wong immediately got involved, quilting and coordinating volunteers.

Each Remembrance Project banner features two blocks, one with a face and one without.

Photo courtesy of Teresa Duryea Wong.

The Remembrance Project

The Remembrance Project pairs volunteers with the name of a person in their local area who was killed. The volunteer is asked to research the person they’ve been assigned, learning as much as they can about the person’s life, including mundane things like their favorite colors or favorite television shows. “The more you learn about people, the more you can realize this is happening in our own backyards,” Trail says. “What do we really know about people besides their last moment?”

Then, the volunteer designs a quilt block honoring and memorializing the person’s life using symbolism, colors, text, and imagery. They write a statement reflecting on the process, then mail the finished block and statement to the Social Justice Sewing Academy to become part of a banner. Once the blocks are received, they’re sewn together, with a border, into banners by a group of volunteers. A third group of volunteers finishes each banner by quilting it on a longarm quilting machine. The banners are then ready to be sent off to community institutions for display.

“For people who quilt or sew or make art and who want to do something, this is a way to do something with your heartache and with your grief and with your hands,” Wong says. It’s a way to memorialize the individuals whose lives were cut short, a way to say their names over and over.

Stitching Stolen Lives Book Cover
Stitching Stolen Lives is available for pre-order now and will be released in September 2021.

Photo courtesy of C&T Publishing.

Trail says some people confuse the Remembrance Project’s focus, thinking it’s about Black Lives Matter or police brutality, but really it’s much larger. “This is a mental health awareness project. It’s an impoverished community in Chicago project. It’s a project focusing on communities that are perpetually disadvantaged by systemic racism, through gentrification, through redlining, through inadequate access to food and health care,” Trail says. It’s about remembering those we’ve lost, and empowering us to create a different, and better, future.

The Remembrance Project banners are color-coded to denote various categories: authority (police brutality, prison guard brutality), community (gang violence, neighborhood violence), race (racially motivated hate crimes), and gender and sexuality (domestic violence, violence against the LGBTQI+ community, missing murdered Indigenous women). This allows viewers to get a sense of how people were killed when looking at the banners en masse and from a distance.

Right now, there are Remembrance Project banners on display in Florida, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They travel all over the country to universities and museums and family memorial events. 150 banners will be on display at QuiltCon in February in Phoenix (Wong and Trail will also be giving a lecture at the event and doing a book signing). Groups and institutions can send in a request for banners and will receive them for free, just paying for shipping.

Memory Quilts

The families of the victims featured in the banners can also request a custom quilt made for free by SJSA volunteers that can feature their loved ones’ clothing or image. Over the past year, Remembrance Project volunteers have made 75 quilts for the families of victims. The SJSA worked with photographers all over the country to document the giving of the quilts to the family members and many of these photos and stories are included in the book.

The front two sections of the book focus on the Remembrance Project and the memory quilts. The first part features over a dozen interviews with families who have lost a loved one. The middle section focuses on the Remembrance Project quilted banners and the individuals who were killed. The final section is all about young people, including interviews with participants, graduates, and leaders of SJSA workshops.

hands holding over a quilt
Families who have lost a loved one can request a memory quilt that will be made by volunteers, for free, and can incorporate clothing and images.

Photo courtesy of C&T Publishing.

A Catalyst for Change

For Trail, the hope is that readers will come away from the book feeling motivated to get involved, either by donating to an organization, volunteering, or taking some kind of local action.

“Whether that’s making art to bring awareness, having these conversations on your own social media pages, you know, you can get involved with your time, your money, your talent. I think really just kind of understanding that it’s a bigger project, it’s a bigger problem than just one,” she says.

The book, which is 200 pages and features forwards by Hillary Clinton and Jesse Jackson, will retail for $25. Maintaining a reasonable price point was important to the authors. “We didn’t want to price people out of the market with a $75 book,” Wong says. C&T was supportive of keeping it affordable.

For Trail, quilting is a touchpoint for activism. “We just have to get America to agree this country is unfinished,” Trail says. “Because some people are happy with the way it’s been. Like first, say America is a work in progress. And once we can agree that it’s a WIP, we can work on finishing it, you know? There are so many things you can do. There’s no one right way to help, but not doing anything is not helping at all.”

Pre-order the Stitching Stolen Lives by Sara Trail and Teresa Duryea Wong now.

Abby Glassenberg

Abby Glassenberg

Abby co-founded Craft Industry Alliance and now serves as its president. She’s a sewing pattern designer, teacher, and journalist. She’s dedicated to creating an outstanding trade association for the crafts industry. Abby lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

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