Pier 21: First Blocks, First Stories

This is the second in a series of blog posts describing and documenting The Here & Elsewhere Bee, my project as the 2017 Artist-in-Residence at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. A list of the subsequent posts related to the project can be found at the bottom of the blog post.


I have spent two full days at the museum now and have met people from all over the world. Two fellows, one from India and one from Sweden, met serendipitously on the plane to Halifax and decided to visit Pier 21 together. Others are visiting for university graduations. A squadron of young cadets from Ontario. A family having a “staycation” in Halifax. One gentleman was a Pier 21 alumnus, who immigrated to Canada many decades ago from England when he was five.

The temporary setup for block backgrounds on a 12′ x 12′ design wall.

Below is Block #001 – my Bear Paw block. The images of the women from Melody Miller’s Fruit Dots collection for Cotton + Steel harken the era of Motown. But I thought of my Chinese grandmother. And I’m actually not the only one. Although none of the three of us who were reminded of our grandmothers are of African descent, the fashion from that era permeated our respective cultures of origin in Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Ireland. Many fabric designers talk about the joy feel when the see sewists appropriate their designs for their projects. I think Melody Miller would be delighted to know that her fabric resonates with people across cultures.

The three fabrics I chose ended up all related to sewing, garments, and design:

  1. Square (Melody Miller, Fruit Dots): As I mentioned, this was about my maternal grandmother. I didn’t get to know her well because she passed away when I was three, but from all accounts she was a fashionable and feisty woman. She was relatively well-off; her eight children all got new clothes, new pyjamas, and new shoes every Lunar New Year. She was a bit of fabric fiend, buying the newest collections from the textiles shop run by East Indian owners just downstairs from her flat. She had tailors make handbags that she designed in those fabrics.
  2. Pink triangles (Sarah Golden, Maker Maker): My mother sewed my sister and I matching dresses every Christmas and Easter. She would always buy an intricate dress pattern, and then add additional complicated details as she saw fit. This one time, she added light pink piping to the hems of our spring dresses. The way two stripes meet in Sarah Golden’s design made me think of how the piping might have met together just before she finished the hem.
  3. Blue stripes: My paternal grandfather was a elementary school principal. I thought of school uniforms when I saw this scrap of fabric. I was scrounging through the scrap bin at Patch Halifax, when I came across these stripes. Someone had tested a button hole in them. I think that prompted the school uniform association.

This story — my story — is only one of 49 that I have collected in 16 hours. This quilt is going to be rich with narrative.

And this may be a giant project. The photo above is the first 24 block from Day #1, organized by continent. The middle chunk is stories of European origin, Asia to the right and North and Central America to the left. As of now, I have no idea how I will organize these blocks into something interesting and cohesive.

Read the other posts:

5 thoughts on “Pier 21: First Blocks, First Stories

    • andrea says:

      Thanks, Linda! It’s like working with improv… I will have to write about that aspect more as we go along.

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