From 2009-2018 I worked from a collection of 16 mm films that were de-accessioned from the Fashion Institute of Technology and given to me by the Archivist of Anthology Film Archives. These short textile documentaries, dated between 1950 and 1980, explored textiles as art, craft, industry, fashion, military camouflage, political expression, and scientific metaphor. Not only had the movies’ subject matter - mostly that of women creating textiles - been deemed unworthy of archiving, but some of the film had faded or discolored, adding an additional layer of valuelessness.
I’ve always thought of movie film as a kind of textile. Because it takes 24 frames of still images to equal one second of motion, film contains sequential images that resemble patterned fabric. When I received these de-accessioned films, I immediately thought of "string quilts," wherein long, thin fabric scraps left over from other projects are cut and sewn together. In an act meant to recast the undervalued histories of women’s handcraft work and celebrate the film medium, I made my first 16mm film quilt by cutting and sewing lengths of film together into a string quilt formation.
As I continued to work with the footage, I would cut and sew it into configurations based on popular American quilt motifs. I would carefully dismantle the narratives of the historical films, and re-interpret them. Sometimes I chose a scene, a subject, or a narrative style from a documentary to critique; other times, to honor. Occasionally I added in my own personal film footage, shot new film footage to insert into the quilts, printed over film with lithography ink, drew on the film, or scratched out certain scenes. In each piece, I intermingled footage to create a dialogue between the images inside the frames and the overall quilt patterns. I drew inspiration from quilt pattern books and museum quilt collections like that of the American Folk Art Museum. I found, re-used, and honored patterns that have given shape to feminist narratives. I thought of my sewing as a three-dimensional form of cinematic editing, and a reconfiguring of the notion of "filmic suture" (the use of editing to draw audiences into a story).
From a distance, the back-lit and illuminated film quilts resemble stained glass. Up close, through commitment to intricate stitching, viewers discover narratives from the photographic stills they see on a material that is usually projected and not examined within tactile proximity. The work is displayed on windows or within LED light boxes.
By linking the crafts of quilt-making and film editing, this body of work calls attention to neglected material histories of cinema. In 1895, the Lumiere brothers adapted sewing machine mechanisms to advance film sprocket holes in their camera/projector called a Cinematograph, which they used to create the first motion picture. In the early days of Hollywood, women were employed as film editors because of their sewing experience. The thread I used to sew together pieces of film is a material bond that re-connects these handcraft histories to cinema. Made by my own hands on a Bernina sewing machine, my film quilts recuperate sewing’s essential role in cinema, while expanding material possibilities for quilt-making.
In the era of streaming video, with film on the brink of obsolescence, I drew from the craft of quilting salvaged remnants to create a feminist future for celluloid. In this work, film becomes a textile; a quilt composed of photographic material embedded with history. By choosing film at a moment when it was under threat of being replaced by digital video, I engaged a form of making and viewing that occurs at the pace of tactile handcraft.
This body of work has been exhibited within the context of textiles, quilts and handcraft; film, photography and media; and feminist art.
Select exhibitions include:
“Power of Making,” Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2011 (catalog)
“alt_quilts: Sabrina Gschwandtner, Luke Haynes, Stephen Sollins,” American Folk Art Museum, New York, 2013 (brochure)
“Textiles Close Up: Fiber Art & Contemporary Textiles at the MFA,” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2015
“Film Quilts,” (solo), Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, 2015
“Connections: Contemporary Craft From the Permanent Collection,” Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC, 2016 (catalog)
“Storyline: the Contemporary Quilt,” Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, TX, 2017
“Light & Matter: The Photographic Object,” Michener Art Museum, PA, 2017 (catalog)
“Hands at Work” (solo), Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, 2017
“Luminous Flux 2.0: new + historic works from the digital art frontier,” Thoma Foundation Art House, Santa Fe, NM, 2015 (brochure)
“Life After Media,” Orange Door Chicago, Thoma Collection, Chicago, IL, 2016
“Year of the Woman,” Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC, 2016
“Punctures: Textiles in Digital and Material Time,” Squeaky Wheel, Buffalo, NY, 2020
Camouflage is constructed from two 16mm films, one de-accessioned from the Fashion Institute of Technology and the other purchased on eBay. I dismantled the narratives of the two historical films and re-interpreted their thematic concerns by sewing them into the traditional “sunshine and shadow” American quilt motif. The work contrasts dark footage from an industrial textile manufacturing film that shows how fabric was made at the Bradford Dyeing Association in Rhode Island with lighter footage from an instructional children’s film about shadows. Bradford Dyeing, which provided camouflage to the United States military, opened before the Civil War but closed in 2011 after years of labor rights abuses and environmental pollution. The film falsely paints a picture of happy workers. Shadows, Shadows Everywhere (1972) shows two children making shadow puppets in front of a piece of cloth and looking at shadows created by the sun. In combining the two films, I wanted to represent the idea of camouflage in multiple ways, and acknowledge that whenever you shed light on something, you also make a shadow.
Smithsonian American Art Museum purchase through the Barbara Coffey Quilt Endowment © 2009, Sabrina Gschwandtner 2013.1
Gift of Chris Rifkin in honor of the fortieth anniversary of the Renwick Gallery © 2010, Sabrina Gschwandtner 2013.2