Nell Battle Booker Sonnemann’s Wings of a Ragtag Quest

“It’s the spirit behind the traditional appliqué that I want to be a witness to, I am driven by a mission. We are losing the memory of another thing we cannot afford to lose.”
—Nell Battle Booker Sonnemann, letter to a friend, April 16, 1986

In 1973, as Nell Battle Booker Sonnemann was on sabbatical from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., she was seeking information about appliqué traditions in developing countries. During her research, she was dismayed at the lack of information at museums and in books. She sensed an urgent need for a comprehensive comparative study on current appliqué techniques before they disappeared because of industrialization. This study was to become her mission, even though she was already in her fifties, had lung disease, didn’t like to travel, and lacked stamina. Nevertheless, her calling took her to more than twenty countries on four continents. When her health no longer allowed her to travel, her friends and former students became her eyes, ears, and acquirers of appliqué.

Her remarkable perseverance and dedication comes forth in every aspect of this collection. She listened to and engaged with those she encountered, and the world answered back in the form of happenstance—with one thread connecting to another as she traveled. She instilled her passion in many others, including this collection’s editor, Patricia Malarcher, who said “Yes” to her dear friend Nell. After Nell died in 2004, Patricia spent a decade shaping photos, journals, handwritten notes, maps, tickets, receipts, and recordings into this splendid archival collection.

Ragtag Quest

Nell Battle Booker Sonnemann’s Wings of a Ragtag Quest. Photo by George Boe.

Every bit gathered is about the hidden voices and “dying art” of peoples who used whatever scraps of fabric and thread they had to stitch representations of their lives. This archival collection is an artist’s creation assembled in the spirit of appliqué—from the fabric flap on the box, to each cover printed with notes and images from journals, to the typewritten pages of field notes and the notes from the author who wrote about each country.

In “Salvaged Reflections: Excerpts from Correspondence,” Nell herself writes to a missionary priest in October 1984, someone she had met during her time in India. The last paragraph of her letter describes how her quest—with its initial intent to document appliqué in a scholarly manner—had evolved to a wish to convey the appliqué’s significance as human experience. “You have held me in contempt,” she writes, “to think rags is what I am about. Unless you mean rags and tatters of the human heart. Ancient knowledges are what I would serve, knowledges my world has forgotten, such as what it is to be human. There is where my book would reach, God willing.” [To learn more about history of Hawaiian appliqué quilts, read our This Week in History blog post.]

Convince your library or guild to purchase Wings of a Ragtag Quest. Then gather your textile- and travel-loving friends to share in reading the twelve journals, which offer great fodder for discussion. The softcover travel journals and an appliquéd fabric come in an archival box (10 by 7 by 4 inches [25.4 by 17.8 by 10.2 cm]). Compiled and edited by Patricia Malarcher; Hopewell, New Jersey: Sans Serif Studio, 2015. $250. Contact ragtagquest@earthlink.net and reference ClothRoads.

The 500+ textiles acquired during this quest now comprise the Nell Battle Booker Sonnemann Collection at the Gregg Museum of Art & Design, North Carolina State University at Raleigh. For more information, contact gregg@ncsu.edu; (919) 515-3503.

—Marily Murphy


Marilyn Murphy’s book review of Nell Battle Booker Sonnemann’s Wings of a Ragtag Quest is reprinted from PieceWork’s November/December 2017 issue.

Marilyn Murphy is the former president of Interweave, where she worked for sixteen years; she was PieceWork’s publisher from 2003 to 2009. Prior to moving to Colorado, she founded the Textile Arts Centre in Chicago in 1986 and was the owner of the Weaving Workshop there. She is a cofounder of ClothRoads: A Global Textile Marketplace (www.clothroads.com) and writes a bimonthly blog for the company’s website, curates its collection, lectures about artisan sustainability, and volunteers as cochair for the nonprofit Andean Textile Arts.


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