Sewing for Social Justice
How fiber art can tell stories and increase awareness.
By Sue Tomchin
Many of us moan when we have to sew a missing button on a blazer or restitch the hem of our favorite slacks. To Heather G. Stoltz, sewing and working with fabrics aren’t a chore, but a passion inspired by the pursuit of social justice and Jewish texts.
In November 2011, after two years of work, Stoltz completed “Temporary Shelter,” an art installation incorporating the stories of homeless New Yorkers. “I had been working at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue as community service coordinator and had a lot of contact with men staying in the shelter in the synagogue’s basement. I wanted to find a way to tell their stories through art,” she explains.
Stoltz created the installation in the form of a sukkah, the hut used on the holiday of Sukkot. Nine quilts make up the interior walls; each tells the story of a homeless New Yorker whom she interviewed at a faith-based shelter. She also led workshops for children living in nine different family shelters and incorporated 100 pieces of the fiber art they created into the outside walls of the sukkah.
The installation, which is being displayed at synagogues and churches, helps build awareness about the struggles of the homeless. “I wanted people to recognize that each homeless person you pass on the street has his or her own unique story and individual needs,” Stoltz says.
She is now helping others discover that art can tell stories by offering fiber workshops at JCCs, synagogues and religious schools. Under her guidance, participants of all ages create quilted designs inspired by Jewish texts or prayers. No sewing or quilting experience is necessary. “My favorite moments are when someone at a workshop says that she can’t draw, but at the end of two hours, she has something she is able to hang on her wall.”
Stoltz has bachelor’s degrees in engineering and Jewish studies, but had also done a lot of sewing and knitting growing up. She and her mother “learned to quilt and made our first quilt together after I graduated from college,” she says. When she returned to school for a master’s in women’s studies at Jewish Theological Seminary, she created a quilt based on biblical stories about women for her thesis.
Her unique pursuits are garnering attention: In 2012, she was named one of the New York Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36. Stoltz, who lives in White Plains, N.Y., with her husband, Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman, accepts commissions for custom Judaica and wall hangings, but she also has a site on Etsy where she sells challah covers, talleisim and other works. Learn more at www.sewingstories.com.