Tracking Traditional Appliqué to Its Source

By Patricia Malarcher

Patricia Malarcher is a studio artist and independent writer. She has exhibited throughout the United States and in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and has work in museum, corporate, and private collections. She served as Editor of the Surface Design Journal (1993-2011) and has contributed to the New York Times, American Craft, and other periodical publications. She has written numerous essays for exhibition catalogs and chapters for books including Michael James: Art & Inspirations, Objects and Meaning, and Helena Hernmarck: Tapestry Artist. As a Renwick Fellow (1989), she researched critical responses to artwork in fiber and other craft materials.



Nell Battle Booker Sonnemann’s Wings of a Ragtag Quest (closed and open)

More than a decade after she died in 2004, Nell Battle Booker Sonnemann’s Wings of a Ragtag Quest has emerged as a boxed set of twelve travel journals. (1) As the editor Nell assigned to finish her book on traditional appliqué, I had fulfilled a task bequeathed by a friend of more than 40 years. Over the years the project, which began in the mid-1970s, evolved from a comprehensive scholarly work to a cluster of anecdotal narratives sampling 20 years of research.

Nell was an artist who created adventurous, award-winning artwork from appliquéd fabrics and scraps as well as a professor of art at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Having developed an interest in folk appliqué, she sought information about it in major museums. Textile curators told her that no scholarship in that field existed. A curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where Nell was on sabbatical, advised her to do primary research herself.  Nell heard that as a call to proceed. Subsequently, an accidental glance at a calendar depicting lively figurative compositions appliqued by Inuit artists launched what became an impassioned commitment. Driven by belief that appliqué was “a dying art” soon to disappear, Nell made trips to 20 countries in North, Central, and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, with the intention of writing a definitive survey of appliqué traditions.

Two degrees in literature, as well as an Master of Fine Arts in visual art, had equipped Nell for research. She planned each trip in detail, consulting maps and cultural resources, working through bureaucratic mazes to obtain visas. One year her baggage contained letters of introduction signed by former Vice-President Walter Mondale. (He was then the American Ambassador to Japan and the husband of Joan, known to Nell as a friend who worked in clay before becoming Second Lady of the United States.)  Nevertheless, Nell’s reliance on serendipitous discovery was more in the mode of a wandering “hippie” than a sophisticated investigator. She tended to consider her finds revelations rather than results of systematic search.


Syrian applique traditions; Shipibo skirt

While Nell’s determination to track appliqué across the planet never wavered, obstacles invariably thwarted her intentions. For example: in the Arctic, government restrictions blocked her access to Inuit artists; forbidden to carry film into Benin, Nell turned around at the border, reluctantly leaving Fon flags behind. In addition, bouts with pneumonia wherever she went meant sojourns in local hospitals. Despite, or perhaps because of such challenges, Nell relished a mind’s-eye view of herself as an intrepid older female (followed by a translator or a companion), extracting treasures from remote troves.

Apart from limitations on research imposed from without, Nell’s experiences led to a change in the direction of the project. It might have been intimate encounters with appliqué makers that shifted her focus from a scholar’s detachment to a personal engagement with her subject matter. When she stopped traveling and started to write, she did so in the style of a memoir. But in the midst of writing about the Peruvian Amazon, a vivid memory came forth and stopped her abruptly. Recalling the negative look she received from a Shipibo woman selling trinkets, she suddenly saw herself as a voyeur using native people to serve her own ends. Thus, except for copious notes, raw but scrupulously taken, her post-Peruvian travels went unrecorded.

Egyptian tent detail; Indian goddess; map of India

Although the full scope of her project has never been documented in words, Nell inadvertently accomplished what she set out to do. As she moved through the world, she accumulated more than 500 appliqued fabrics to back up her photographs if they failed to develop. Those now constitute the Nell Battle Booker Sonnemann Collection of appliqué at the Gregg Museum of Art and Design, North Carolina State University, Raleigh. In 2000, the museum mounted a major catalogued exhibition of pieces from the collection, which appears in its entirety on the museum’s website. (2)


Nell with the Ainu; a Tibetan tent

With substantial material evidence of the quest available for study, had the book that motivated the project become extraneous? The chapters in Nell’s files barely hinted at the breadth and depth of her project. But there also were reports by “co-questors” Nell had commissioned to continue the search when failing health kept her home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In addition, cartons contained hundreds of slides with detailed descriptions that Nell inscribed on the frames, relevant catalogs and pamphlets, and correspondence related to the project. Nell had wanted Wings to be published with “all its loose ends and frayed edges.” Was there a potential book in the diverse ingredients?


Nell Battle Booker Sonnemann

While examining the documents, I found an answer to the dilemma in a copy of a letter from Nell to a friend near the end of her life. Reflecting on her explorations, Nell wrote, “From the beginning the joy of telling the story has been at odds with my sense of duty to my graduate training in bibliography and research. . . .For better or worse, Wings of a Ragtag Quest has been just—playing—and that is what it wants to be.” Nell’s words thrust the book into a new category—“play” is more aligned to the process of creating art than authoring a tome. I saw that from the motley array of elements, a book could be patched together like scraps of fabric in an appliqued artwork. It could be an artist’s book published in a limited edition, a multi-layered, richly textured saga uniquely itself.

  1. Wings of a Ragtag Quest was designed and published by Sarah Bodine at San Serif LLC, Hopewell, New Jersey.