The Garment Workers Quilt and Chinese American Immigrants Quilt were collaboratively created as part of community projects that quilt maker Debbie S. Lee conducted in Chinatown. In her work, Lee uses fabric which she has hand woven, hand dyed or hand painted to tell visual narratives of Chinese American lives and themes. She was inspired by and first learned to sew from the women in her family at an early age. As a child, she emulated the neat stitches of her grandmother, who sewed all her own clothes, and her mother, who began teaching her basic sewing, embroidery and knitting when she was eight.
The Garment Workers Quilt was designed by Lee and co-sewn by garment workers Yan Chai Mak, Cecilia Lo, Ng Mui Leung, Sheung Ngor Leung, So Fong Lee Ng, Sun Ng, and Heng Yu Yan for the exhibition “Both Sides of the Cloth” at MOCA (then the Chinatown History Museum) in 1989. The group photographs show Lee and her co-quilters stitching quilt panels at a group sewing session and proudly displaying the finished piece at the exhibition’s opening. The quilt depicts garment workers completing various tasks along a clothing production assembly line. As represented in the highlighted panels, in a garment factory, sewing machine operators typically received a bundle of cut fabric and repeatedly sewed the same portion of a garment, such as the collar, passing the completed portion to the next operator, who sewed another component, completing the garment as it progressed down the assembly line.
The second quilt is an “album quilt” preserving memories drawn from shared experiences of immigration and transplanting roots in New York Chinatown. It was created by community members learning basic quilting techniques at a weekly workshop Lee conducted while an artist-in-residence at the museum in 1990-1991. Each hand stitched quilt panel illustrates a personal memory, such as the ones highlighted here of an encounter between two mothers, one, Rose Luke, carrying her baby in a beautifully patterned wrap sling on her back, the other, pushing her baby in a stroller, and of a grandmother holding the grandchild she is babysitting in one arm while reading an issue of the Chinese-language newspaper 世界日报 (World Journal), a view of the Brooklyn Bridge and East River from the neighborhood of Two Bridges in the background.
In the last photograph, Lee and quilting workshop participants are captured in a candid shot, likely after having taken a group photo at the February 1992 exhibition of their Chinese American Immigrants Quilt, completed after nine months of collective effort. Workshop participants who signed the quilt include: Christine Fan, Barbara Luu, Kenneth Chiu, Grace Hou, Jenny Chan, Eulalia Chan, Maggie Tang, Rose Luke, and Fay and Patrick Eng.