Staying Creative During Distracting Times
Overcoming Creative Inertia

Sunday Salon: Growing Up on the Hem of My Mother's Skirt: The making of an Art Quilter/Fiber Artist Winifred Sanders, by Catherine M. Lamkin

I recently posted Sunday Salon: Sitting Down with Dawn Goldsmith, about a talented woman who "quilts" with words and marvels at the serendipitous way important connections flow into her life.  So it's no surprise another serendipitous connection came as a result. 

Catherine M. Lamkin immediately emailed to tell me about her mother, a traditional quilter who "kicked traditional quilting to the curb and became an art quilter.  At the age of 68 she had a two women show in an art gallery and sold over $1,000.00 worth of her work.  She is 77 years old now and I am very proud of her. Her work is featured in Quilting African American Women's History. I am in that book as well. If you go to and click on Collaboration Quilts and click on Winifred Sanders you will see my mother's piece titled "Hair Hair Hair or Maybe Knot."

You will also see Catherine M. Lamkin's collaboration quilt, titled "Cotton Eyed Joe for Nina Simone." Another serendipitous connection, since Nina Simone has long been an inspiration of mine. 

I love celebrating the accomplishments of "Ancient Artists" and both Winifred Sanders and her daughter Catherine M. Lamkin are true inspiration.  So I contacted Ms. Lamkin to see if I could host her mother for a Sunday Salon.  She graciously replied by sending me this fascinating essay:


Growing Up on the Hem of My Mother’s Skirt: The making of an Art Quilter/Fiber Artist   Winifred Sanders


    When my mother came to Charleston for my father’s memorial service she presented me with the apron that I made in sewing class in l966. I can remember how proud I was when I brought it home and showed it to my mother, the professional seamstress. To me this pink apron with the embroidered tea cup on the pocket was a gorgeous apron. Looking at it in 2003, it seemed crude with its uneven stitches. This gift from childhood brought back so many memories of sewing and literally growing up on the hem of my mother’s skirt, poncho, evening gown, you name it. .... 


    Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouths and grow up in a life of privilege, others are not. My mother was one of those others. If she could have been born with anything in her mouth, I would have to say it would be a silver needle. The granddaughter of a quilter she was born in 1932 in Harlem Hospital. The daughter of Gullah Geechie parents who migrated north from James Island, carrying suitcases packed with southern traditions and the promise of a better life without Jim Crow. My grandparents did not find the hope and the promise they were looking for, but instead, found two broken hearts. Splitting up, when my mother was three, my grandmother returned to South Carolina leaving her daughter in Harlem. Two years later my grandfather died in the T.B. outbreak, leaving his mother Delia Deas Smalls and his sister Anna to raise my mother. 

    My great grandmother was born in 1886 and died in l980. Upon arriving in Harlem in the mid 1900 she worked as a domestic, her daughter Anna Smalls worked in a factory until she lost her right arm in an accident. Despite the loss of her right arm, Anna Smalls who learned to sew and quilt from her mother continued to do so throughout her entire life. It was these two women who taught my mother how to sew and how to create.  

    I cannot remember a moment in my life when my mother was not making something.  The hum of her Singer sewing machine was my lullaby, gently rocking me to sleep stitch by stitch as she sewed deep into the night. Stitching and mending, hemming, and sewing, but most importantly always creating. I believed sewing was her first true love, long before she met my father.  At times I was embarrassed by all this creativity.  As embarrassed as a teenager can get after spending one’s entire life shopping in Macy’s Department store for fabric. Macy’s elevator, back then made an announcement as it stopped on each floor. “Fourth floor women and girls department”. I always wanted to get off on the fourth floor, but we never did. Always departing on five, greeted by bolts of velveteen piled sky high. My dreams of shopping for real clothes, were buried deep inside pattern books.   As if the clothes my mother made were not real and beautiful. As if she did not pour more love than any factory worker could ever pour into the skirts she hemmed for me.  Of course my clothes were real but I believe everyone experiences a moment of stupidity in their life. And that was mine. Thinking my mother’s creations were anything less than real, and having the guts to tell her so. I hope she has found it in her heart to forgive the teenager in me.   Every now and then you will find my twelve year old daughter and I in Hancock searching through fabric and pattern books.


    My mother attended Central Needle and Trade High School now known as Fashion Industries High School. Today, graduates attend Fashion Institute of Technology; when my mother graduated in l950, girls went straight to the Triangle Shirt Factory. My mother went to work in a panty factory, and hated every moment of it. She quit that job when she married my father, but never gave up her first love. In the 1970's she began to work outside the home teaching sewing and crafts to seniors. This experience transformed my mother; she discovered the art within her soul. In l989 she began to make cloth dolls. Watching my mother create in this way was fascinating for me, but not as fascinating as what was to come. She joined Women of Color Quilters Network and began using her sewing machine as a paintbrush creating wonderful art quilts. Was this my mother the professional seamstress, daughter and granddaughter of traditional quilters cutting loose, breaking from tradition and her “sewing roots”?  Non- traditional quilter in the house! In l998 after learning of her niece’s death, filled with sadness, my mother turned to her art and created a piece for me representing the three most important women in her life. This is a delightful piece full of hope and love. The three women in the artquilt are her grandmother, aunt and daughter.   Each is wearing a black and white dress made from fabric from my great grandmother’s and aunt’s clothing.. We are all dancing.

    On June 20, 2003 my father died, two days before their 51st wedding anniversary. Throughout my mother’s artistic transformation, my father was her greatest supporter. In the last year of my father’s life, my mother put her art on hold. Every now and then she would say, “I can’t really do much with my quilting now that your father is ill”. The desire to create burned dimly during my father’s illness, bursting into flames months after his passing. Her first art quilt after his death was exquisite.  


    Often my mother would call me to share an idea, or tell me about a project that she was working on. Rarely did she ask me what I thought; clearly she knew where she was going and how she was going to get there. In 2000, at the age of 68, she had arrived; she was offered the opportunity to participate in a two-woman show. This was a major turning point in my mother’s life, the fiber artist. A point of validation, selling several pieces of work.  It was a proud moment for this fourth generation quilter. I too have cut lose, broken from tradition and consider myself a budding art quilter.  But as my mother would say, we all started off as traditional quilters, keeping a little bit of tradition close to our hearts, but moving to new heights, moving on.

    On Sunday, November 19, 2006 my mother and I attended the closing reception for “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”:  Quilters of Color of New York exhibit at the Fuller Craft Museum, in Brockton, Mass. This is the first time that I have exhibited my work and the first time that I have exhibited my work with my mother. Like mother like daughter.


Catherine M. Lamkin, lives with her husband and daughter in Charleston., South Carolina.  She has written poetry and has been published in numerous anthologies