Bai Jia Bei: the One Hundred Families Quilt
Sometimes, when you’re passionate about a thing, your friends start to notice it to and tell you whenever they see it too. This can be a curse. At points in my life I’ve had not to scream when the fifth person in the day sends me the same thing — it’s so lovely they thought of me. Should they get a less enthusiastic reaction than the first because they saw it a few hours later?
When it’s quilts, though, they’re amazing and everywhere. If it’s not trending online, I haven’t seen it and I want to! And oh the quilts my friends encounter!
A couple weeks ago my friend Sari sent me a picture of a quilt she’d found in a Connecticut. It appears to be covered in spiders and scorpions and snakes and lizards. Not only was I intrigued, but I had just recently been thinking about how best to make a quilt for a friend in a kind of bug theme. These weren’t just appliqué, they were little stuffed figures stitched on with decorative loops.
I quickly responded to what had been a “this is cool, look at this” kind of message with questions about cost, availability, size, and construction. It turned out to be in a Habitat for Humanity ReStore and I could Venmo her the money to pay for it. As she was inspecting it further, I got more pictures of its astounding back, as well as notice that it was a little plasticky/papery inside, not lined with batting. The frogs mouths'! They open!
The amazing quilt arrived early the next week and I let it sit until I had time to repair a few issues, then took photos on my back porch. The photos are below. Click to open! (right-click for new window)
What kind of quilt is this? I wondered. Some of the fabric is cotton, but a lot appears to be satin and some polyester. Because the background squares are small and the folded stars are tiny, some incorporate bits ribbon. From the colors, it struck me as possibly Asian—I’d encountered very different Chinese quilts in an exhibit last year and knew that construction varied. It had dragons and pandas. But a few aspects struck me as possibly American… it had some of the feel of bright 70s projects and “Asian inspired” elements such as dragons or pandas wouldn’t have been out of place in those either. The papery feel inside made me think it might’ve been a pattern which was sold
On the advice of a friendly quilte expert, I sent some pictures and a question about the quilt’s style and origins to Dr. Marin Hanson, the Curator of International Collections at International Quilt Study Center & Museum (at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, my one reason to want to go to Nebraska). I got the following quick and helpful response:
What you have there is a “bai jia bei” – a “one hundred families quilt” from China. These are made specifically for the tourist market, but are based on traditional textiles that are intended to give spiritual protection to young children. All those little creatures you see (snake, spider, lizard, etc.) are part of the “wu du” or “five poisons,” which are actually auspicious symbols, as the poisons are thought to keep bad spirits away. They were traditionally embroidered onto children’s clothing and other textiles.
When we did a research trip to China five years ago, we met a quiltmaker who produces these quilts and clothing for the tourist market. Here is a video of her embroidering a scorpion.
Knowing the quilt was made for tourists doesn’t mean I’m not astonished by it at each turn. Amish quilts are much the same, made by hand, by women, often for tourists (and it can get more complex, even, than that). Seeing the video of a woman coaxing one of the critters to life delighted me. And the quilt is now in its new home, where it drapes over the sofa in the very role for which I’d intended that bug quilt I was first planning — a sign of love and a prayer for protection.