Book Reviews

Read what folks from the quilt world and beyond have to say about my book, Pagtinabangay: The Quilts and Quiltmakers of Caohagan Island. Then order your own copy.

Review by Carol Ann Waugh, Fiber Artist, Denver

When was the last time you picked up a nonfiction book that warmed your heart and made you smile on every page? Dana E. Jones has written such a book, and the title says it all — Pagtinabangay — the Visaya word for people working together and helping each other. That is exactly what is happening with the close-knit community living on this tiny island in the Philippines named Caohagan. The people are working together and helping each other by making quilts. Creating and selling these quilts involves more than 100 people out of the 600 that live on the island, and this activity provides the island (with no hot water and only six hours of electricity a day) one third of its total income and helps fund the school and a much needed health clinic.

    If you are a history buff, you will enjoy an extensive description of the Philippine Islands’ history. For me, the most unique aspect of this book is looking at the charming quilts made by these interesting people, thinking about the simple and satisfying lives they live.

    The personal stories of two Japanese: Junko Yoshikawa and Katsuhiko “Saki” Sakiyama are incredibly inspiring and show how two individuals can change the fortunes of hundreds of people just by following their beliefs, hearts and dreams. Saki did it by buying the island because he wanted to live there and have a simpler life. Junko did it for the same reason but also brought her fashion and teaching background to encourage the islanders to see making and selling quilts could increase their quality of life. She started by buying the handmade quilts herself. Once the islanders saw the financial benefits of making quilts, they wanted to participate.  

    We are not talking about today's methods of quiltmaking: exact piecing and dense machine stitching. No matching of corners or points here! Like the Gee’s Bend quilters of Alabama, the quiltmakers of Caohagan Island use creative abandon when making their quilts. All Caohagan quilts are sewn by hand from beginning to end except for the binding of the quilts, which is done on the one sewing machine on the island. Their artistic aesthetic incorporates both geometric and pictorial expressions. Reading the in-depth description of how these quilters approach their quilt business as a community and reading the profiles and seeing the work of 16 of these quilters is a special treat.

    If you are a quilter or historian, this is a book you will want to add to your collection because not only is it inspiring but it draws you into this very special world of living on a remote island where everyone has a stake in supporting everyone else. Quiltmakers all over the world have traditionally been generous in sharing their materials and techniques but here is a special place where making quilts is not only an artistic expression of island life, but also pagtinabangay.

Flowers Made With Rotary Cutters, 72 x 60 inches, by Matea Manilag, 2004

Review by Martha Sielman, Executive Director Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA)

This is an amazing story of the power of quilts. In Pagtinabangay: The Quilts and Quiltmakers of Caohagan Island, Dana E. Jones describes how learning to make quilts changed the lives of an entire community. Caohagan Island is only 13 acres in size and is home to approximately 600 people,  more than 100 of whom now make quilts for a living.

    This book sketches how the history of the Philippines has shaped the history of Caohagan Island. In some ways an idyllic lifestyle, with beautiful surroundings and gorgeous weather, life on Caohagan lacked educational opportunities beyond second grade, adequate health care and a nutritional diet. When a Japanese couple moved to Caohagan in the early 1990s, they introduced new ideas for ways the people of Caohagan could improve their standard of living. One of those ideas was making quilts.

    Junko Yoshikawa had been a quilting teacher in Japan and director of Hearts and Hands Patchwork School. She began to teach women and men on Caohagan how to make quilts and then worked to locate markets in Japan through which they could sell the resulting products. Her efforts have now brought the Caohagan quilts to markets in the United States. While Junko Yoshikawa taught the Caohagan islanders the basics of quiltmaking, she wisely let them make their own decisions about color and design. The results are a unique quilt style that reflects their island life.

  This quiltmaking business has significantly improved the standard of living on the island. The school has been expanded through sixth grade and families can afford to send their children to the larger nearby islands for high school and college. Health care has also improved, and there is money to import foods to create a more varied and healthy diet. Televisions and cell phones are now ubiquitous, connecting the island with the wider world.

    The quiltmaking is done through a collective run by three Caohagan women: Anie Nanoy, Matea Manilag and Mira Abaño. They organize the purchasing of fabrics, thread, etc. for the entire collective every few months through an arduous all-day process. Since the supplies are only available on another island, their buying trip involves several boat rides, wading through the seawater from boat to shore and back again. They also supervise the training of new quilters, maintain quality control and manage the money. One of the strengths of this book is how it demonstrates the dedication and abilities of these women.

    The quilts are a wonderful reflection of Caohagan Island and the lives of their makers. They are exuberant, bursting with life and delight in where they live. Filled with bright sunlight, fish, palm trees, flowers, children and animals, they tell the story of life on the island. The many interviews of individual quiltmakers demonstrate how the variety of individual backgrounds influences their design styles. Their stories show how quilting has made a huge financial difference in their lives, but also how many of them find tremendous personal satisfaction in the quilting itself.

    When you read Pagtinabangay, a Visaya word meaning people working together and helping each other, you will be transported to an island paradise made possible in part by quilts. Learn about a very different part of the world and a very different kind of daily life. Enjoy photos of wonderful, joyful quilts and be deeply moved by how these lives have been changed by the power of fabric, needle and thread. It’s an amazing story.

Beautiful Flowers, 59 x 83 inches, by Jacqueline Babatu-an, 2014

Review by Shelly Zegart, Documentarian and President of The Kentucky Quilt Project

and Executive Director and Host of the documentary

"Why Quilts Matter: History, Art & Politics"

This unique and forward thinking quiltmaking effort that was begun by the teachers and mentors of the quiltmakers of Caohagan Island, Junko Yoshikawa and Katsuhiko “Saki” Sakiyama, have helped dreams come true for the approximately 600 people on this tiny island in the Philippines. From the quiltmakers’ love of fabric and design, to their desire to tell their stories through their quilts, to their learning of technical skills, to marketing their quilts to improve their standard of living, a better life has come for the people of the island. 

    It is one of the rare  recently uncovered “ big picture” reasons to validate yet again “Why Quilts Matter.” Who would have imagined that these quilts and their 100-plus makers would become the feature of this wonderful publication and exhibition? It took someone with the energy, talent, vision  enthusiasm, worldwide life experiences, a great love of quilting, much empathy, a deep soul and the grit of author Dana E. Jones to bring this project to us.

    Dana’s statement in the book tells it all: 

    “I was drawn to write this book by the quilts created by the women and men of Caohagan Island. They are unique, they are beautiful, they are art that comes from the lives and visions of the island’s quiltmakers. I was intrigued by how quiltmaking started on the island through Junko’s approach to teaching, which she prefers to see as mentoring as she works alongside the quiltmakers. I was inspired by the quiltmakers stories, lives and supportive community.”

   Rather than my pointing out specific quilts and quiltmakers to you, I encourage you to immediately add this miraculous and joyful book about quiltmaking to your library and to spread the word about a place and its people who tell their stories and support their families through the making of the most lyrical and magical quilts. I hope everyone who loves quilts becomes familiar with what quilting means in 2015 in this remote location. Just when we think we know about all the quilting communities that exist, every so often something like this comes along to knock our socks off and make us fall in love with quilts all over again! 

Dividing the Pandanon, 59 x 83 inches, by VicVic Aroy

Review by Judy Schwender, former Curator of Collections and Registrar,

National Quilt Museum, Paducah, Kentucky

Pagtinabangay: The Quilts and Quiltmakers of Caohagan Island is fascinating. Initially you wonder, “Why are quilts needed so close to the equator?” As you delve into this book, that question is answered. As I read,  the reasons I’m a quilter, quilt historian and quilt curator all came together as the women and men of Caohagan came alive.

    Reading Pagtinabangay, the art of Caohagan quilts — born of economic necessity — seeped into me. These people have something to say about their life on this tiny Philippine island, and they can make a living expressing that through their quilts. Can you think of a better way to support yourself and your family?

    Dana E. Jones has provided detailed background to set the stage for meeting the quiltmakers and Junko Yoshikawa and Katsuhiko “Saki” Sakiyama, who brought quiltmaking to the island. Through the text and more than 300 color images, I began to love this island. I wanted to know more about how quilting got started here, how it grew and how it continues. Dana provides all the answers.

    In the United States, we generally have free education to 12th grade without the need to pay for room and board far from home. It’s fairly easy for many of us to access food and find employment. These are not givens on Caohagan. In the United States, more than 16 million of us are quilters. The vast majority of us do not make quilts because we are cold at night, need to feed our families or send our children and grandchildren to school. Jones cautions us to not take a charitable view of the quiltmakers of Caohagan because they do not have our wealth and lifestyle. Instead, she opens the door to acceptance of the people and their art. These people create amazing art; they are a community of artists. We can go with that, and it is more than enough.

    If you have ever read a National Geographic article about a faraway place and when the article ended, you wanted more, then this book is for you.

Flood of Colors, 68 x 88 inches, by Gina Abayan, 2000.

Review by John Begley,

Assistant Professor of Fine Arts, Emeritus, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky

In a manner complementary to her subject, Dana E. Jones, in her new book, Pagtinabangay: The Quilts and Quiltmakers of Caohagan Island,

stitches a complex story into a rewarding patchwork that explains and contextualizes how history, culture and individual action coalesce to produce an integrated system of life and art.

    Beginning with an important overview of place, which is rather exotic and unusual in that it is a 13-acre island that is home to more than 600 people in the Visayas region of the Philippines, Dana quickly establishes the important role that visuals  — photography, illustration and maps — will play throughout the book in carrying and expanding the story. Using these tools, she rapidly situates the “place” both physically and historically. Following along with this prologue, she then brings into focus the specific individuals who will set in motion the main storyline of how art, in this case quiltmaking, can change lives.  Her meta–story in this detailed account of one small 13-acre island in a chain of 7,000 is how sustainability can be nurtured and supported through a culture that integrates daily life, art, economics, and “mutuality and reciprocity of vision,” to use her words, while also producing both exceptional beauty and a healthy and ecologically sound community.

    In her book, Dana begins by describing how quiltmaking was taught by Japanese fashion designer and artist, Junko Yoshikawa, to the women and men of Caohagan Island through the simple process of learning to put together individual blocks. Dana uses this block-building process to assemble her book, placing initial chapters that provide the social, political and economic context in close proximity to the stories of the individual artists who are the creators of fresh, vital and continually inventive quilts that have transformed life on this small island.

    In describing life on Caohagan Island, Dana covers the processes, from collective shopping for fabric by boat on a nearby island to the quiltmakers’ commitment to locally produced fabrics and motifs from their own environment. She details their inventive modifications to sewing and quilting methods and how they have developed communal structures to evaluate, market and sell their work. She further outlines how the creation of quilts is balanced with other daily duties and routines of the quilters living in a small and very contained island community. 

    Altogether Dana pieces together all the components required to tell the story of how these artworks come into being. Through carefully and progressively inventorying both the primary individuals connected with this enterprise and how they share the communal work necessary to both sustain themselves and their business, she builds the story. From detailing the shopping for materials that involves difficult travel and transport as well as mutual understanding of the needs and desires of the individual quilters, to the critiquing and evaluating of the quilts produced that will build common value rather than disrupting community, Dana stays on track by keeping the words and pictures of her subjects and their quilts foregrounded in the illustrations that accompany her writing.

    As interesting as the larger story of how the seemingly simple act of creating quilts can have an out-sized impact on the lives of a small community, the book also appeals in a number of other ways. The aesthetic impact of the large-scale reproductions of many of the quilts, and the clear delineation of individual stylistic characteristics between the individual quilters is striking and illuminating. The technical descriptions of the quilting process, which has been inventively adapted to meet the exigencies of life on Caohagan Island is also quite interesting and revelatory in understanding both the community and the creativity involved in these quilts.  

    Finally, Dana’s concern for humanity and the life-affirming attributes of this community infuses her book with a shared empathy that connects reader with subject. Although thoroughly researched and carefully detailed in documenting the history, culture and individuals she writes about, her personal voice is also an active intermediary in fully engaging the reader in a story that could be simply a “paradisiacal” account of exotic life, yet instead fully relates the complexity of the achievement and accomplishment of Pagtinabangay: The Quilts and Quiltmakers of Caohagan Island.

Ladies Ocean, 83 x 85 inches, by Helen "Nene" Samson and Ladislao "Ladie" Babatu-an, 2007.

Review by Larry Grieco, Former Library Director, Gilpin County Public Library, Colorado

I first met Dana Jones when she stopped by my office in the Gilpin County Public Library to drop off her letter of application for artist-in-residence in the spring of 2012. It was an easy selection to make, and Dana soon became, somewhat unexpectedly, our first “quilter-in-residence.” It was during her summer of leading quilting workshops that I got to know her. It seems we had no problem having 30- to 60-minute conversations about everything under the sun. So, I wasn’t surprised that her literary background —  first as a journalist and then as editor of a national quilting publication — led her to the writing of a book based on her visit to a tiny island in the central region of the Republic of the Philippines in the early spring of 2014. With the eyes of a journalist and the sensibilities of an anthropologist, Dana has infused the pages of a relatively short book with the arts and crafts, the hopes and dreams, of the people of Caohagan Island, population 600, of which around 100 women and men are quilters. 

    First, the single-word title of the book, Pagtinabangay, is a Visaya word used to describe the manner in which the Caohagan islanders rise to meet the challenges of life: “through a sense of community,” or, in other words, cooperation and collaboration. The art of quilting has only been present on the island, in an economic sense, since the mid-1990s. Most of the quilters on the island have been taught —  mentored might be a better word —  by Junko Yoshikawa. It was Junko who also envisioned “a quiltmaking enterprise run by the women and men who make the quilts.” Out of Junko’s relaxed manner of teaching developed a unique style among the quilters, a natural style in which they embraced all the elements of their surroundings and incorporated the animals, plants, flowers and even stories of everyday living into the patterns of their quilts. Many islanders shared the nuances of their art with Dana during her three-and-a-half week visit to Caohagan. It was as though quilting became not only a way of generating income but essential to the continued success in the islanders’ niche, or way of life. There is quilting going on, in various stages and venues, throughout the island from morning until night. A person walking can’t help but see it happening all around. 

    Junko established the Quilt House in 2005 “as a gathering point and also with space for storing supplies and finished quilts.” The Quilt House is managed and maintained by seven women: three who are managers and four “shopkeepers,” of which at least two of the latter are on duty whenever the Quilt House is open. This is the enterprise Junko and the quilters started with funds from quilt sales. And it is in conjunction with the Quilt House and individual sales of quilts that many men and women on the island are able to make a living and provide for their families. 

    Dana deftly describes practically all you need to know about Caohagan Island. She begins with a brief history, which is really a history of the Philippines, with much about the twenty-year rule of Ferdinand Marcos, and then his ouster in 1986, when his political rival, Corazon Aquino, took over the presidency. Next we learn about Katsuhiko “Saki” Sakiyama, the Japanese businessman who fell in love with the island and even “purchased” it (although it remains part of the Republic of the Philippines.) Junko Yoshikawa visited the island in the 1990s and likewise fell in love with it and its people. She also fell in love with Saki and became his wife. The two have had a major impact on life on the island. There is a chapter devoted to short biographical sketches of 14 of the women and two of the men who are at the forefront of the quilting community. And the book concludes with a look at the future of Caohagan Island.

    Now, having saved the best for last, let me describe the photographs that are found throughout the book, and often more than one on a page. There are brilliant color photos of the island, of its inhabitants, and most compellingly, of many of the quilts themselves. Nothing would beat actually visiting the island, as Dana did, but the next best thing would be to bask in the bold, bright colors of this book’s illustrations. Some of the quilts tell stories of the people, and some depict the flora and fauna of the island, and the sea creatures, all of which form the ecosystem of the island’s life and culture. One can see the peace and tranquility in the faces of the quilters that are depicted in natural poses straight out of everyday life. The photographs, combined with Dana’s excellent prose, make this book a double-dip treat. Artists and craftpersons and quilters, and those of us who are none of the above, will all find something to enjoy in this lighthearted and stylistic work.