Coffin Quilts

The coffin quilt series adapts a traditional pieced-quilt design, the medallion. “Coffin Quilt” (1992), the first of the series, is a pieced quilt, with an overall geometric pattern made from the interlocking silhouettes of hexagonal nineteenth-century coffins. more

Nancy Tousley describes the coffin quilts in the following excerpt from "Night Watch: Barbara Todd's quilts protect against the chill of the post-Cold War dawn,” Canadian Art 9/4 (Winter, 1992): 42-45.

Todd’s paradoxical Security Blanket series now contains ten appliquéd quilts. It is impossible not to look at any one of them and not think of the vulnerability of the body. This is even more true of her most recent quilt. With her own consciousness of mortality heightened by the birth of her second child, Adam, in 1989, Todd turned to a more philosophical contemplation of death, as though it were necessary to make a place for it in a society so bent on denying its presence. This work germinated for more than two years. Coffin Quilt (1992) bears an almost abstract, metaphysical image. It is a pieced quilt, queen-size, with an overall geometric pattern made from the interlocking silhouettes of nineteenth-century coffins. These hexagonal figures have an anthropomorphic shape – a flat top and angled shoulders below which the sides taper towards a narrow bottom. Like the bomber appliqués, the coffin pieces were cut from dark men’s suiting. But over the coffins, Todd has quilted another pattern, an ancient spiral motif derived from the quilted spirals and scrolls at the center of a Scytho-Siberian funeral carpet, and spirals carved into stone at prehistoric sites such as the Great Barrow Cemetery in Ireland. The spiral symbolizes many things to many cultures, among them the revolutions of the heavens, the cycles of the seasons, the creative life force and continuity. In the spiral, death meets with its opposite.

There is one other source for the Coffin Quilt: a bedcover made in 1839 by an American woman, Elizabeth Mitchell, who made coffin appliqués embroidered with the names of her family, and moved them from the quilt’s border to the centre – a garden-like representation of the family plot – whenever someone died. Mitchell slept under the quilt, feeling a closeness to her family, living and dead. Todd’s Coffin Quilt invokes a larger kinship — with the nameless, faceless nation of the dead. Yet in the cool nocturnal light shed by Coffin Quilt’s dark, rich colours, one feels the weight and significance of an individual human life.