Subversive threads

The quilters didn’t intend to challenge the status quo. Or did they?

Canace Hunter/Pixabay Canace Hunter/Pixabay

The movement of the Mennonite adults around me was focused and purposeful — housework, yardwork, the transit to and from work, school and Sunday services. Women’s work was especially attuned to the reproductive labor of sustaining the bodily houses of our souls.

Among a small list of socially acceptable reasons for leaving the sermon time was putting the potluck casserole in the oven and readying the fellowship hall. As I doodled on the bulletin, I noticed, too, how work could release one from the discomfort of sitting silently while the men at the pulpit monologued.

It was middle school, and I wanted to learn how to knit. “Why don’t you ask someone at church?” my mother suggested.

The next Sunday morning, with knitting needles and a skein of scrap yarn, I cozied up to one of the church ladies known for her quilting prowess. I slid into the pew, presented my supplies and asked for help. As the sermon murmured on, I got lessons in casting on, knit and purl, and by the end of the year had completed my first “scarf,” more closely resembling a place mat.

A few years later, when my knitting teacher erected a quilt frame in the back of the sanctuary, I was initiated into the hand-quilting tradition of my Swiss German Mennonite heritage. Sunday after Sunday while the (mostly) men were at the pulpit, the (mostly) women were humming away at the quilt frame, listening or not listening to the sermon, silently agreeing or disagreeing with what was preached. 

As I became more uncomfortable with the gendering of God, I started to think of the busy quilters in the back of the sanctuary as the Subversive Sunday Sewing Circle. These were Mennonite women undermining patriarchal sermons with practical, comforting, communal, life-nourishing acts. Here they were maintaining the fiber art traditions that are some of humanity’s oldest technology.

The quilt tops that were produced got auctioned at the Mennonite relief sale. These quilts were not just works of art; they would raise funds to provide goods and services for people all over the world. These quilts were practical. These quilts supported lives.

It was nice that the sermons would still be preached and scriptures read. But, sermon or no sermon, women’s work must go on.

I doubt the quilters’ intent was to undermine a status quo in which all eyes, ears, hearts and minds were supposed to be fixated on the (usually) White cis-male speaker. 

But also maybe it was. 

The impact, at least on me, was a slight waft of subversion. And, where there is a waft, there is the potential for a whirlwind.

Despite European patriarchy, in early Anabaptist movements women could cross a boundary typically reserved for men by claiming divine inspiration. Prophesying was a role anyone could fill. As with the earliest Christians, direct access to the Divine was not ceded to men.

And, lest White cultural individualism confuses: This wasn’t just about individual relationships. This wasn’t about a church lady getting a personal prayer line. As historian Silvia Federici describes, Anabaptists and other “heretics” used prophecy as an organizing tool. This was about democratizing divinity for collective liberation. 

The same church mentor who taught me to knit and to quilt taught me to sing. 

While many Amish and Old Order Mennonites continue to sing in the single-note, unaccompanied style, other Mennonites adopted singing in parts. Unaccompanied four-part harmony became a staple of worship.

My home congregation, started as a multiracial community in response to Southern segregation, was an eclectic mix of traditions. But I have memories of controversy about singing from visits to my grandparents in eastern Pennsylvania. 

At their small-town church, “throw-up songs” — projected, or thrown up, on a wall because they weren’t in the hymnbook — were causing a fuss. Their name said it all. My grandfather spoke the words with a mix of disgust and urgency, as if he needed to get them out of his mouth quickly.

I had assumed his disgust was generational resistance to change. He cared about preserving traditional values, and new worship songs must have posed a threat.

But then, years after my grandfather’s passing, my uncle offered me a different perspective.

“His generation were such troublemakers,” my uncle said, a glint of mischief in his eye. The elders of my great-grandparents’ generation were against singing in parts.

“What?” I asked. “Four-part harmony was new then?”

He told me the young people stopped going to church or were kicked out for their newfangled ways. The traditions my father grew up with, my grandfather had not.

The solutionary threads I’d been tracing in my lineage were shorter than I thought. (“Solutionary” is a term used by the late author and activist Grace Lee Boggs to describe “the real revolutionaries” who are co-creating alternatives to harmful systems.)

In European choral music, the soprano usually carries the melody. But my cool, younger aunt sang alto, my grandpa tenor, my dad bass. I loved the harmonies that resounded throughout our yellow brick sanctuary.

In other Protestant churches, a choir of the best voices carried the musical worship. Catholic Mass usually had a soloist. But in the Mennonite churches I frequented, entire congregations unpinned their coverings, let down their hair (metaphorically) and burst into glorious song. 

Within the notes of four-part harmony, I sensed another waft of subversion. Singing binds people together. It creates a feeling of connectedness, belonging and collective intimacy.

While the four parts of harmony are gendered in theory, skilled singers can and do sing any part they please. Along with holding down the alto line, my knitting/quilting/voice teacher would frequently, mid-song, drop to the tenor. She might sing a different part for each verse. Our tiny congregation appreciated her strong singing voice, no matter which part she chose.

Clues for dismantling patriarchy had been right under my nose — in the hymnal and at the back of the sanctuary.

Not only is there potential for gender fluidity and gender equity within the notes of part-singing, genderbending is already an element. Four-part harmony offers room for experimentation and boundary pushing. It extends space for community intentions and individual needs. In resistance to puritanical patriarchy, it is an embodied activity. It summons feelings of interconnectedness, love and empathy. 

Four-part harmony presses against individualism and encourages inter­dependence. Each person has a re­sponsibility to the group. Like community quilting, group singers create something beautiful, soul-enhancing and life-giving — collectively.

Though contemporary singing might include accompaniment, at its root it suggests resourcefulness: All you need is yourself, your body and each other.

It’s important to place these wafts of subversion within the greater context of Mennonites for whom European traditions of quilting and choral parts might not resonate.

There are wafts of subversion there, too — in the disruption of Eurocentric traditions, in the wisdom of Anabaptism on the margins, in the unsettling of settlers, in the dynamic tension of dissonance.

Can we attune to the wafts of subversion among us? What can we learn from them? How will we nurture such wafts of subversion to be the solutionaries — the solutions-focused change agents — that we need?

Amanda K Gross is an antiracist organizer, fiber artist and author whose forthcoming book, White Women, Get Ready: Healing from Post-Traumatic Mistress Syndrome comes out in July. For more information, go to

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