Stitching a Nation together

In this increasingly sophisticated world of slick art installations and hi-tech living, it is a rare and beautiful thing to chance upon a display that harks back to more traditional skills and values.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the impact of seeing 15,000 patchwork pieces stitched into panels, spanning ceiling to floor and flanking the full length of an exhibition foyer in downtown Singapore. It was a sheer delight to see so much colour, texture and variety of design on such as grand scale. I can only describe it as a feast for the eyes; the ultimate visual smorgasbord for patchworkers and quilters.

The exhibition, entitled the Fabric of the Nation, evolved from a collaborative project between the then Ministry of Community Development and Sport in Singapore and a major TV station called Channel NewsAsia. Together they set out to produce a documentary called Threads that Bind that would capture the emotions and experiences of Singaporeans whose lives had been severely affected by the outbreak of SARS, Avian Flu and even terrorism threats. However, the producers wanted to go one step further than this and a brainstorming session at a production meeting gave birth to the concept for a national quilting project to accompany the documentary. "We wanted a permanent visual reminder of what we'd been through over the past few years and we wanted to get the community involved in the process," said Ms Ong Hee Yah, then CNA's Senior Vice President for Network Programming, Promotions & Distribution.

Stitching a Nation together

On 14th July 2003 the Fabric of the Nation roadshows hit town. A core team, including expert quilters working on a voluntary basis, created sample sewing kits to hand out to the uninitiated as well as holding demonstrations and workshops along the way. The brief to contributors was simple: each block had to be a 6in square and reflect life in Singapore and the spirit of resilience within the community. The master plan was to create a series of eight single-sided panels made up from 3,000 blocks. After their first week out on the road, the team received one block. A few days later only 40 had been received. Their four figure goal suddenly seemed a long way off.

However, regular news feeds on Channel NewsAsia soon stimulated interest from the public and showed the project attracting a complete cross section of the community that broke through gender, religious and social barriers. Young, old, male, female, hospital staff, white-collar workers, celebrities and even an association of body builders as well as expatriate Singaporeans living in the US, Australia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia were all taking part.

Interest in the Fabric of the Nation soon picked up and the project's appeal began to gather momentum. Blocks flooded in during the second week, with the target of 3,000 blocks being hit at the start of week 3. A further 12,000 blocks flooded in, overwhelming the volunteers on the ground and astounding the organisers. The project had hit a patriotic nerve within the community and had become the focus for an outpouring of national pride and passion.

Not surprisingly, the task of sorting, assembling and cataloguing the blocks became a project in its own right. The team camped out in Channel NewsAsia's conference room and began the painstaking task of photographing and sorting the blocks into ten themes: community, diversity, family, heritage, hope, people, racial harmony, strength, togetherness and total defence. The need for a second production line soon became apparent and the team moved into the Ministrys conference room and library.

Stitching a Nation together

Batches of blocks were sent far and wide to over two hundred professional and volunteer quilters who hand-quilted many of the panels. Every block was trimmed to size and within ten days, twelve double-sided panels were ready for the exhibition opening entitled Sewing Day.

On August 23 2003, Singapore's then Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong added the finishing touches to the Fabric of the Nation by sewing the final running stitches onto a heart shaped patch. Thousands of blocks were still waiting in the wings and a further four months were spent sorting, cataloguing and designing the rest of the panels. The complete quilt consists of sixty panels each measuring 2m x 4m (78 x 156in).

Having struggled to piece together my own quilts, which pale into insignificance when compared to this gigantean project, it was with a considerable amount of awe and amazement that I found myself gazing at the final display. The prospect of trimming 15,000 blocks into perfect submission left me feeling weak at the knees. As one organiser commented: "to see how all of us managed to put hundreds of patchworks together into one entire piece that has got to be something marvellous." How right she was!

Stitching a Nation together

On this occasion, the whole is indeed greater than the sum of all parts and that is borne out by the fact that project continued to be exhibited into 2006, receiving a constant stream of visitors. And if they felt that they wanted to take a little piece of the project home with them, there were t-shirts, VCDs, a special publication and even a set of commemorative stamps for purchase.

Sadly, the exhibition has been a victim of its own success and occupies such a large floor space that there are not many exhibition sites in the city that can accommodate it. Its current landlord needs the space for other uses and the panels will soon be retiring from the limelight for a period of time until a new venue can be found.

When I suggested to the organisers that the project might travel to a host overseas, they didn't discount this as a possibility. How wonderful it would be to see the panels displayed in one of our fine buildings here in the UK. Food for thought

Whatever the outcome, the Fabric of the Nation is a wonderful example of a community project that will live on in the hearts of all those who took part. The end result is a national heirloom that will be passed down to generations of Singaporeans, just as we pass down the quilts of our grandmothers and great grandmothers. I think it has to rank as one of the ultimate quilting bees ever staged?!

You can visit the Fabric of the Nation website and see all the panels at www.mcys.gov.sg/FOTN/learning_journeys.html This website also includes simple activities for children such as a Bondaweb bookmark (in English)

Stitching a Nation together

Facts

  • The most popular design appearing in the blocks was none other than a simple heart.
  • Singapore has a diverse population and as such a rich heritage of textiles and fabrics to draw upon. If you look closely at the panels you will find swatches of batik, Chinese silk and sari fabric, amongst others.
  • Hanging panels this large is not as easy as it looks. To display the panels to their best advantage they needed to be pulled taut but not so much that the stitching would be strained. The solution was to use a series of very thin wires that were carefully tied and could easily be adjusted.
  • Singapore has an equatorial climate which means its hot, hot, hot most of the year round. Preserving the panels whilst on display and when in storage requires controlled temperatures and special packing arrangements.
  • Much of the machine quilting on the panels was carried out in the neighbouring Philippines.

Afterthoughts from the volunteers and organisers

"Because of the huge amount of effort involved, quilts are symbols of love."

"My girlfriends and I held sewing parties at different homes. Laughing and bonding till late in the night. It was one of the most fulfilling and enriching experiences of our lives. It was volunteerism at its best."

"Every time I look at it all 60 panels I actually do get a lump in my throat because everyone who contributed a block did it out of love for the country. By itself, many of these blocks will be just that; but when put next to each othermagic."

"The Fabric of the Nation is a symbol of national pride. This tapestry artwork is a labour of love by all who participated in making it. It is a visual reminder of the emotions and experiences of Singaporeans, stitched and united in diversity and adversity."

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 15 Number 1 - January 2007