Lisa Woolfork 0:00
Hello everybody, and welcome to the Stitch Please podcast. I am your host, Lisa Woolfork. And as I say every week, this is a very special episode, because in this episode we are talking with Dr. Sharbreon Plummer, who is a textile artist, a scholar, a researcher, a very newly minted PhD doctor. Dr. Plummer is joining us today on the Stitch Please podcast to talk about her sewing story, her sewing journey, and how she's been able to build a vocation from what some would consider an avocation. What does it mean to turn the quote unquote hobby of sewing into an academic career that also considers the scholarly approaches to sewing? We've heard already earlier this year from Professor Patricia Turner from UCLA, and she talked about her work as a folklorist and looking at quilts. And so now we get to talk with you, Dr. Plummer, about sewing and stitching and textile art, and how all of that shows up in the academic space and what it means for your own practice. So welcome, welcome. Welcome to the program. Delighted you're here.
Thank you. I'm excited to be here. This has been a dream for a long time. So I am so happy to be in such wonderful company.
Lisa Woolfork 1:24
Fantastic. And we are very glad to have you. Well, let's start at the beginning. What is your sewing story? How did you get started with sewing?
My sewing story - I would be remiss if I did not, as always, give all of my love and veneration to Rebecca Ann Northern, who was my great-grandmother. She passed away in 2014, and I inherited this old seafoam green Singer sewing machine that belonged to her, and all of these clothes so beautifully hemmed in detail. She was very petite. I'm five foot six, she was four eleven. All of her things she hemmed that were like, floor-length on her, were knee-length on me. But I inherited all of these things, and I just remember having a moment of reflection. I was standing in her house, you know how it is: you lose a matriarch, folks are emptying things out, it's a shell of what was, and I just remember standing there with that sewing machine and a bag of clothes and just processing so much. And I had sewn, like, I'd see my grandmother sew, and, you know, come to find out later on my great-great-grandmother, her mother, sewed and quilted. But I remember having this and I was like "What am I going to do with this? I don't know." And I sat and I thought about it. But I remember touching her clothes, and touching these things that her hands had been on, and it really brought me back to thinking about her story. There was this moment where I became even more fascinated in her life. Because luckily, she was of sound mind, I got to talk to her a lot, we talked about her life; but it really made me long for this connection. Combined with that was the fact that I had always loved fiber and textiles. At that time, it seemed like if you looked up Black women and textiles, Black women in sewing, you always came up with either Gee's Bend or Faith Ringgold. No slight to them, but I was craving something more.
Lisa Woolfork 3:16
These are not comparisons. This is just to say that we can have more than one, we can have more than two, we can have more than three. And so, this is not a slight in any way at all, it's just about trying to develop a complete, more comprehensive picture. Rather than - you know, and it's wonderful that this work has been elevated, and Faith Ringgold's career is incomparable, beyond compare with anyone, in my opinion. And so, by opening doors, so that, you know, I'm pretty sure Faith Ringgold doesn't want to be the only Black woman quilter the entire America's ever represented. Like, I don't think that's her ambition at all. You know, I think it'd be nice to have, you know - and I think that she's often worked, you know, to promote Black women artists. So yeah - I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt, but I was just like...
To take that a step further, what really led to my sewing journey - now listen, I run long, so bear with me.
It's your episode girl, you better talk your talk. This is why we're here.
And I love it. I love it. And so I would say in thinking about that, and funny enough, mentioning Faith Ringgold, she writes extensively about, like, how her mother was a quilter, and how her mother supported the early stages of her quilting when she was transitioning out of painting. And so, that is where I found that I wanted to start to interrogate some things. Who are the women that we don't see? The people who we hold close to us, those women we hold in our hearts and our minds and our spirits, that cellular memory - who are those women who have shaped our own practices, our creativity? bell hooks writes about Baba, about her grandmother writing and belonging around aesthetic inheritance. Who are the women that we pull these aesthetic inheritances from? And how do they shape our lexicon as it relates to art making, specifically through sewing, through manipulating fiber and textiles? Because we know that the canon does not and did not account for that. And that is where both my research journey began, and my sewing journey - I won't say began, but reemerged.
Lisa Woolfork 5:29
Beautiful. That's just a beautiful story, as if stitching and storytelling for you were two parallel, and often intersecting, maybe even interweaving, you know, if one wants to continue the sewing metaphor, the idea of the top thread and the bottom thread, that these two things would come together to create this strong bond that became, as you describe it on your website, of praxis. Of, like, how you move through the world and how you move through academia, and in those spaces. Can you talk a bit about - well, maybe just defining the word "praxis" for folks, because I tend to drop that word a lot. And then I completely forget that - I don't think I've ever heard the word "praxis" being spoken by anybody who was not a professor at somebody's school, or in graduate school. It's a word that has its uses, but it's like, it makes no sense. It's like wearing a super - you know those high fashion runway outfits, right? Those really gorgeous, amazing, high-conceptual, high fashion outfits, and then rounding the corner at Target, and somebody's got it on. And you're like, Oh, my gosh, that person's wearing a sculpture, how'd they drive to get here? You know, like, that kind of thing. So I was just thinking, this stuck out to me. I'm like, Oh, I think I know what that is. Mostly.
And it's so true. I will say the way that it sort of came to me was through academia, but when I really thought about it, it's typical for I think, like, our life as Black women, there's so much that we experience and do that, like, later on, people have written about and theorized about, but it's experiential knowledge. There's a knowing before it's articulated. And so praxis, as I came to know it and understand it, was really this process through which like a theory, a learning, an inkling, a lesson, a skill or something, it's embodied. And it's realized, it's actualized. So it's where theory and action come together, and how we think those things that we really start to just, like, ruminate over that keep us up at night, start to become actualized through action. They operate harmoniously.
Lisa Woolfork 7:49
Yes, and I think you said it earlier. Well, I think you talked about cellular knowledge, or you talked about that - and I often sometimes think about kinetic knowledge when I'm trying to understand or work through some ideas about the creative and critical properties in sewing. That in a variety of art gestures, and craft gestures, and stitching and weaving, in unraveling, fringing, all of these different things; I have this belief that through those kinetic movements, that the way that your body is moving, it's also allowing your brain to think differently than when your body is moving differently. And so what I have found in the class I'm teaching is that folks are working on projects, and they're thinking and talking and writing and reflecting in ways that would be very different if they weren't doing those things. And so I'm wondering if this idea of what it means to use craft and textile art as a way to unlock something significant about Black women's experience and African American experience more broadly. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that. Like, what does looking at sewing, looking at quilting, looking at dyeing, looking at whatever other textile - crochet, knitting, tatting, all of these other, you know, modalities. What do these reveal about Black women's lives and practices?
Sure, and that's a wonderful question. And I'll keep thinking about it, but I was just like waving and raising my hands like “witness it!” as Lisa was talking. But um, you know, a couple of things come up for me. The first being that, with my dissertation - so funny enough, with my dissertation, I also, like, quilted a manifesto. I embroidered and quilted it. And so, I remember saying like, I can't write about fiber-based art-making without making. It doesn't make sense. And they were like, Yeah, go for it, that's arts-based research. And of course, I'm like, What? This thing I've been doing it that you have a name for, it's a terminology I can cite? Wonderful. But there is something to be said about work of the hand, and how you are able to articulate things visually when words escape you. And there's such a demand, I think, all the time, for us to be able to verbalize things. When I think for all that we hold, and all that we experience as Black women, sometimes it is just felt, and it's best transmuted through other methods, other than, like, witnessing through word. And that's something that I feel like is very important, and something that our ancestors, especially those who quilted, etcetera, their sewing rooms - so the women I collaborated with on my dissertation, so many of them wrote about how the sewing rooms were discussed. I should say, how the sewing room at home with their moms, with their grandmothers, or their aunts was like the one place, or the one room, that could be messy in the house, right? Everything had to be so tidy, but the sewing room could be messy, and it could be free. And it was a space of liberation. It was a space where you did not have to be together, it belonged to you; or, I should say, to them and them alone. And they were invited into that. And they were able to observe that. And funny enough, my dissertation, I titled it Haptic Memory for that reason, because there is this memory associated with touch. And I found that there was this correlation between making. And every woman that I talked to, really, they were able to sort of tap into that. And as we discussed it, none of them talked to each other, none of them knew each other, but that was the common thread, was that there was something happening when they were making that allows them to connect with the women in their lives. And those memories became unlocked. And one of the terms that I described when I wrote about kind of material culture, and the need to understand it through a Black feminist perspective, which you and I connect on a lot, is that in some ways, it was a form of, like, auto-ethnographic time travel where, through making, they were writing about themselves, they were reflecting on their lives, they were telling their own stories. And they were doing so in the present, but they also were reaching back into the past, into these memories, into their grandmothers' and mothers' memories, and also kind of projecting toward this future and freeing themselves from, like, having to make in this way that was associated with, like, necessity and labor. But now, they can look toward a liberated future through making, they were able to do so as an act of, like, joy and resistance. And that was a way of them sort of sending love and respect and appreciation to the women in their lives that had to do so as a form of labor.
Lisa Woolfork 12:29
Wow. I mean, y'all, this is just a breathtaking endeavor. What Dr. Plummer is describing here is so suggestive for revising the way that we've thought about lots of different forms of disciplinary knowledge. And it's allowed us to think - at least it's allowed me to think - what to revitalize or to reimagine what arts education is, or what the theory of art education could do. And what you also gave us was a good example of praxis, right? The idea of this kind of larger context that just exists for things. And you were so excited. You're like, Wait a minute, what I'm doing has already been cited and quoted and it has a name and I don't have to build a whole doggone intellectual scaffolding for this thing? It's already here? And I think that just shows, like, how forward-thinking your work is, and how you are taking, literally and figuratively, a lot of the things that we found in different lessons from Black women writers. Looking at the work of Lucille Clifton, for example, and her poetry collection called Quilting, and how she's building those things like so many Black women writers, or, as I think you might have heard the episodes, there's been a couple actually, like e bond's fabric, that's based on Black women writers. 16 Black women writers. It is a revelation of a collection. It is really very powerful. I feel hard pressed to describe a fabric collection that is doing so much, like, that really - she said something in the interview. She's like, Oh, I want to take your class. And I was like, You already wrote the syllabus. You don't need to take my class, you have written the syllabus, that's what this fabric collection is. This is not a fabric collection. This is a syllabus, you know. And so, what I'm so excited about - and I guess one of the questions I'm interested in hearing more from you about is, in the process of your research, was there ever something that came as a big surprise to you, or something that might have helped you want to, like, switch directions, maybe, in the journey of your process?
Yeah, I would say there was quite a bit that was, like, more affirming than surprising, but the thing that I think stuck with me, and that I wish I had written about more, but there's always time to write about it, was just the profound impact - it was something that I knew, but as I talk about it more now and reflect on it, I see it clearly, which is that there is something to be said about Black women being in conversation with one another in this sort of quote unquote scholarly way. And it's something I started very lightly when I was writing where it's like, you know, I understand my positionality. And I know that this will provide me entry in a way that say, if I was a white scholar, if I was a white researcher, it would not. But I think there was so much that I'm still, like, feeling every time I talk about it, I get full - there's something to be said about that level of support, that mutual support and reciprocity, and what that does for people who are doing research that, you know, that the Academy and, as white supremacists normally refer to it as, like, You being too close to it. It's deeply personal, right?
Lisa Woolfork 15:58
Right. Can't be impartial, which is why white people are so good at it. What?
Right. I think there's something to be said about that sort of cycle. When you are in a right relationship with people, when you shape community and really shape it, not as a means to an end, but you're forging those relationships and those bonds, you know. Even though I'm sure that they understood the impact that they had to the research, that was such a profound impact on me that I think, in working with them, even though I knew it was never my desire to be a tenure track professor, those bonds, it kind of brought me back to like: I see why quilting bees and sewing circles are so imperative. Why platforms like Black Women Stitch are so imperative. We know that we need community. And so often, you know, I was only a grad student for a long time, I had to go and find that. And so they became that for me in a way that really, I think, helped me to remain encouraged in this work. They were my like, earliest cheerleaders when I was on that research journey.
Lisa Woolfork 16:54
Wow. See, that is so beautiful, that the Academy provides very few places that would look anything like a quilting circle, or a knitting bee or anything like that, but you were able to build that for yourself. And because you're right, I think that community is really the surprising secret to figuring out graduate school. At least for me as a Black graduate student, when I started as, like, one of the first Black graduate students in the department. And that was in 1992, not like 1892. It was like, it was at a time when there was televisions and cars and whatever. And so this idea that you're meant to kind of just go it as the “lonely only,” you know, I just find that sad. And it can be very draining, it can be draining.
And you know, it was. And by that time, you know, once you're at the end, you're weary, you're worn down, you've gone through comprehensive exams, you are beat down and ragged. But I remember thinking like, Oh, I'm going to, you know, set up these calls, or go and visit, we can meet at a neutral place. And across the board, each one of them was like, "Nope, you come into my house, I'm going to feed you." We spent the whole day together, you know, like going through family photos, all of this ephemera. Like it really, it was the manifestation of kinship, like the true definition of kinship. And they didn't have to, you know, allow me in that closely. But they did, because they fought and they understood. And that sort of exchange, I think, is something that gets lost, because like you said, the Academy is built to isolate, not to forge connection.
Lisa Woolfork 18:32
Yes. And I think what I get so excited about, and what you're sharing, is that kinship, community, solidarity, the way that these formations emerge again, and again, and again, as a solution to problems, really, I think, at least requires me to kind of evaluate (or reevaluate) this kind of American insistence on individual success and on individual achievement and individual... you know what I mean? We often get reminders from the universe from all around us that we are connected, and that it can behoove us to move in connection. And that's what I think that you've done, and you've kind of really represented so beautifully through your work. I want to take just a short break. And when we come back, we will talk about Stitch by Stitch. I am so excited about it. I want to learn more about it. I'm excited to participate. Yes, I am going to be a participant, and to find out more about the grants and supports for the program. So everybody hang in there. And when we come back, we will talk more with Dr. Sharbreon Plummer. Stay tuned.
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All right, everybody, we are back. Welcome back to the Stitch Please podcast. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. And I'm joined today by Dr. Sharbreon Plummer, who is going to tell us now about this fantastic conference coming up called Stitch by Stitch: Stitching Abolition. Tell us the full title and where that came from?
Stitch by Stitch, as we like to joke, began with one of my co-organizers, Rachel Wallis, who's a quilter as well, said "Let's get a bunch of quilters who enjoy one another in my backyard." And then it evolved into a convening, but the full title is Stitch by Stitch: Conversations on Quilting, "Healing" (specifically in quotation marks), and Abolition. And so a little bit of context behind that: my two other co-organizers, Dr. Savneet Talwar, and Rachel, we all are kind of attacking this from different perspectives. But Savneet, specifically, her life's work has been in art therapy. And so we really wanted to interrogate notions of healing, problematize it a little bit, but also examine how it sort of acts as this bridge between how it is that we engage with folks in the carceral system, how it can be the sort of connector to methods of restorative justice, and that sort of thing. But I'll pause because I know, you know, I can go on. But what would you like to know? I'm happy to share whatever.
Lisa Woolfork 21:48
Well, I think all of that sounds really great. And I guess what I'm wondering is, something I've been thinking through and would love to talk more about at another date, and something I'm actually writing about, too, is the idea of "master's tools." And you know, I'm thinking through Audre Lorde's The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House. I started to think about, you know, we know what the master's tools are right? Capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, you know, all of those different things. But what is absolutely not a master's tool? And what came to me was stitching, sewing, needle arts. Those things are not master's tools. Now, this is not to say that there's not somebody right now sewing a Confederate prom dress, or some Klan robes, right. So this is not to say that that's not a thing. But the thing that I get so excited about is this interrogation of that particular process that has been entrusted to the hands of women, in some ways dismissed and relegated to the hands of women; that this can also be a way to dismantle, to critique, to abolish, to transform. And so that's what I hear in the title when I hear Stitching Abolition. The idea of something that is a clear alternative to the structural violence that we see throughout these systems. Can you say more about - so instead of being in your backyard or Rachel's backyard, it's now going to be at the Chicago Art Institute, right? The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which is really another amazing place. It's partly through their art therapy department. And through - is it a textiles department, like there's another department involved?
So we were really fortunate to get the support of the Art Therapy and Fibers departments; they will both be supporting this endeavor in both, like, resource and generosity and time. But I think there's also a scholarly interest, right? We all have sort of shared ways that we interrogate it. Both Art Therapy and Fibers do a really amazing job through coursework, through external outreach, students that they have, to really dive deep into some of, like, problematizing fibers and textiles as well. But they also want to consider and support things that are re-envisioning new futures, and I think that's really the meat of what this convening is about. We are excited about kind of the power of radical imagination and how craft - specifically, like you said, stitching, needlework - has allowed us to, like, envision this future that can be profoundly better than the present. And we think about that timeline. One of the things that we want to emphasize, and post-convening will actually be shaping a publication around, is doing some of that mapping. So if you think about how textile-based making served as sort of a tool for promoting abolitionist views during enslavement, and when we were fighting for emancipation to present day, it has remained, for centuries, present in all of these narratives tied to separation. I think with that, now we want to not only create that thread to say, Okay, let's actually amplify that to show this continuation. But also we want to bring together organizers, makers, academics, because we know that we can't do anything in a bubble or vacuum, we need community. So we want to bring these voices together, to ideate together, to create together, to learn from one another, and even to be challenged. We know that no one group knows everything as it relates to this. When we come together, we can be stronger and better for it. So we hope that this space can cultivate some of it.
Lisa Woolfork 25:44
That sounds absolutely incredible. And I am so excited. My co-leader and I will be traveling up to Chicago, we're very excited, we both are ready for a vacation of some sort. And so yeah, and so we're really excited to be able to talk about our work and in the context of what you're doing. I'm really excited to learn more about the keynote speaker that you have secured for the event. Can you share more information about that person, and the work they're going to be doing, and what made you choose them to help to kind of anchor the commitments of the event?
Sure. Dorothy Burge is an amazing woman, Black woman, organizer, freedom fighter, quilter; if you ask anybody around Chicago, as it relates to organizing and advocating for Black life, especially as it relates to the carceral system and those impacted by police violence, you will find that Dorothy Burge is present within that space through and through. And just based on the work that she's done, we wanted to honor that and make sure that if we were coming to Chicago, we were able to, like, have this platform that allowed her to speak about her contributions in her work, and we wanted to hold space for that. But I think if folks are just interested in learning more about how quilting and abolition overlap, Dorothy speaks and creates in this way that's so relatable and has so many entry points for so many folks. It just makes sense, we couldn't envision anyone else doing it. She's also a member of the Women of Color Quilters Network and has made so many amazing quilts. If you look her up, I'll make sure you have her info, she's created so much visual work around Black Lives Matter and these larger issues that relate to violence against Black bodies, and advocating for those who have been either survivors of police brutality and torture or who have lost their lives. And that's something that, as far as it relates to visual culture, and how textiles can really be this tool for interrogating social ill, her work just has been a continuation of that for so long.
Lisa Woolfork 27:49
Wow. That is incredible. This looks to be amazing. The lineup has not been fully shared yet. I did see that the keynote had been selected, and I was like, okay, that's going to be great. And so, is there like one or two things that you're most excited about? Or is there something that you think that this convening is going to bring that one might not get elsewhere?
There are a few things. Well, you already know I'm excited about Sally Hemings University, I will be in attendance on the front row. But I will say, as it relates to the full lineup, which will be up soon - and by the time you'll hear this, it'll of course be up and available - is that we have a lot of different points of overlap. I think it speaks to the testament of, like, just the sheer knowledge and brilliance that is out there that relates to this subject. We have folks that are coming in from a museum's perspective, we have folks who are coming in from a social services perspective, dealing with mental health, restorative justice; we have folks who have been directly impacted by the carceral system present and speaking and engaging in workshopping and making. We have the sort of more theoretical artists' view. There's just so many different facets that are represented, I think that we were able to really cover a wide stretch of interest in such a short period of time. And we were of the good fortune to have Weinberg/Newton gallery agree to host an exhibition that will be in tandem with the actual convening. So we'll do an opening night event that evening of the full day of events. And the show will be up for about a month, and it'll feature some of the work of those who will be workshop hosts and facilitators and panelists, and then work from other quilters and makers from all over who are in these stories of liberation and fighting for freedom and in the future.
Lisa Woolfork 29:46
This is incredible. I am so excited. And y'all, this episode is going to be out on June 29. And so that's about two weeks before the conference is scheduled for, which is scheduled for - is it the 15th through the 17th?
Yes, so the keynote will happen on the 15th. The 16th will be a full day of events, and then the 17th we'll have a closing day that will be a sort of longer workshop, it will be a day of making that will happen off-site but nearby.
Lisa Woolfork 30:21
That is fantastic. So y'all, if you are in the Chicago area - or if not, you have two weeks to get to the Chicago area so that you can get you some Garrett's popcorn, and some hot dogs, they do hot dogs really special there - and then come see us at this amazing event. So Sharbreon, I have to ask you, I have to ask you the question that I ask everybody. And because the slogan, motto, of the Stitch Please podcast is that we will help you get your stitch together. And so I'm going to ask you for a recommendation, what would you tell our listeners? And what advice would you give them to help them get their stitch together?
And you know, I thought about this, I said I was going to think about it. And I have so many things. But what feels most present right now is, when thinking about how you might get your stitch together, really take a moment to check in with yourself. And ask yourself, Whose voice am I listening to? Whose voice am I following? And that could tie into, you know, larger pursuits. What's something that you want to do, something that you want to make, something that you want to achieve? Who is guiding that? That's more macro, but even more micro, like, "Oh, I have to stitch this this way." Who said that? And why? "I have to make this this way?" Who said that? And why? Always interrogate the who, whose voice is present. And if it's something that feels good or relevant, it doesn't always have to be negative. Maybe it was my mom, maybe it was you know, Mama said this thing, and it's something that has sentimental value to you. But on the other hand, we know that sometimes those voices don't serve us well and actually can be tied into memories, experiences, and processes that have been harmful or traumatic, or actually don't serve us well. So just check in with yourself and ask, Whose voice are you listening to? Is it yours? Is it someone else's? Where did that come from? And can you cast that out?
Lisa Woolfork 32:15
Wow. And on that note, I am going to practice that very same advice. And thank you so much, Dr. Sharbreon Plummer for being with us today. Tell us how we can find you on the socials?
Yes, yes, yes, yes. So you can find me personally at @sharbreon on Instagram. If you want to learn more about the convening, you can go to www.stitchingabolition.com. All the info that you need will be there. And you can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions you have, we're happy to answer them. And we hope to see you in Chicago.
Lisa Woolfork 32:53
Yay. Thank you so much. Thank you. All right, everybody, we hope to see you there.
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