In March of 1911, horrified New Yorkers watched as garment workers, mostly young immigrant women and girls, plunged to their deaths from the burning upper floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The doors to the workroom were locked, the elevator stopped operating and the flimsy fire escape collapsed. I used a delicate shirtwaist blouse from that time to imagine a terrible choice; to perish in the flames or step off the window ledge.
Artist Statement, Quilts=Art=Quilts, 2017
I have been working with the theme of women and toil for a number of years. I read a novel, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman, that was set at the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, and this sparked a year of research about the fire, including photos, first person accounts and primary source documents. This is a story that touches on many issues relevant today. It is a story that made me sad and angry.
Of the 146 people who died in the fire, almost all were young women and teenage girls, recent immigrants from Italy and eastern Europe. Working long hours, for a few dollars a week, most of these girls were helping to support their families, looking forward to new lives in a new country. The tragedy fueled activism by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union as well as other groups of advocates for worker safety and improved working conditions in the garment trade. We should know more about this fire, we should remember what unregulated corporate greed looks like. The Cornell University IRL School has a comprehensive research collection online, with a wealth of information about the fire, all in one place.
I had a delicate cotton shirtwaist blouse in my archives, given to me as a child by a friend of my grandmother for dress-up clothes. Somehow it survived these many years and I could use it in the quilts I made for this project. This was emotionally difficult work to do. I was very pleased to have two quilts accepted for exhibit in Quilts=Art=Quilts at the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn NY, where they will be on display through the end of the year. There are many other wonderful quilts in this exhibit, and the Schweinfurth has made a video available to show how they have been displayed.