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Zak Foster was surprised when he received a random message on Instagram with a somewhat dim picture of a puff quilt from the late 1970s. The obscure message ended up being from ERL designer Eli Russel Linnetz, one of the most influential fashion designers in California.
Linnetz had seen Foster’s work and was originally hoping the North Carolina-born quilter would be able to remake the piece they had purchased at a thrift store for artist ASAP Rocky’s Met Gala red carpet look. The project would change a bit, and in the end Foster, just quilted the back (or inside), while re-using the original vintage piece for the outside.
The design played with Foster’s style of building onto the existing. He’s known as an expert in repurposing, specializing in burial and memorial quilts. Foster says that Linnertz wanted the back to be all red, something he imagined as Rocky’s own little square of red carpet, an effective visual when Rocky dropped it on the white carpet. That stunning moment soon went viral, making the garment one of the most talked about looks of this year’s event.
“I was actually happy to pivot in that direction because it gave me more creative latitude,” says Foster. With less than a week to do the project, Foster got to work in his home studio in Brooklyn, a small six foot by ten foot space just off his eat-in kitchen.
“Vintage quilts just have their own magic that can’t be replicated,” continues Foster, noting the stories from all the people that had used the quilt and the original maker. “My quilts are about half cloth and half stories.”
Linnetz sent him pieces of clothing that held important memories, including part of his dad’s bathrobe and some boxers. One of the ways that Foster works is to flat press or leave parts of a garment and just sew it down on the quilt. “It allows the garment to continue telling its own story without being deconstructed or reconstructed,” he says, “It feels very organic.”
Those stories and working with the vintage quilt made Rocky’s look resonate so clearly with this year’s Met Gala theme, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.”
The story of that vintage quilt is now forever changed and Foster wondered aloud about what the original maker might think. “What would they think of a gay man working with their quilt in this way, and then what would they think of it going on the shoulders of a Black man wearing their quilt?” asks Foster, “So I found myself thinking a lot about queerness and Blackness and how acceptable or not it is in various circles, thinking of that particular person.”
Foster grew up in Clemmons, N.C. and moved to Brooklyn with his partner in 2008. He’s been teaching high school Spanish for the last 18 years and building a solid online following with his custom memory quilts. His work space is just large enough for him to sit down at his sewing machine. Standing up and turning 90 degrees to the left, he maneuvers to a combination ironing, cutting and sewing table. Boxes of fabric fill the space and a felt design wall allows him to layout new quilts. “It’s a lot,” he says.
He recently ended his teaching career and plans to move back to North Carolina in the next couple of months. “I’ve been making these big quilts in small spaces and I’m really curious to see what happens when I get a big space,” says Foster.
He starts each day with quilting and designing and spends a few hours later in the afternoon to follow up on e-mails and managing his social media. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my day,” says Foster, “The days where I start with actual quilting — the sewing itself, the design itself — those days feel balanced, in order and satisfying.
Foster also dreams of quilting in the fresh air when he moves home to the South, something that rekindles stories of his great grandmother’s quilting bees under old oak trees in rural North Carolina. He’s also helping to share more stories of LGBTQ quilters throughout the country.
Foster and his friend, Grace Rother, launched Queer Quilters Tell All, a zine “to all the queer folks in the quilting community.”
The two did a call out to other quilters, asking what it meant to be a queer quilter. So many people submitted stories that they’ve had to split the project into four different issues, each with a different theme. “Each one was so thoughtfully written and so full of insight and experience and truth, we couldn’t cut a one of them,” said Foster. From examining how quilting changes you as a person to how queer quilters fit into the larger quilting community, the zines are available for free on his website.
Quilting has a historic tie to storytelling, from the places where quilts are made to the people who have been warmed by them. There are deep associations and history involved in each piece, the connection between maker and recipient and how they connect us across time and place.
In the last week, a woman reached out to Foster saying that she thought the Rocky quilt was made by her great grandmother. Details were very specific and the two are talking by phone this week. “This particular quilt was so high profile that we have been able to connect it back to the original maker who never signed their quilt,” says Foster. To him, that’s a beautiful thing.
To learn more about Zak Foster, you can find him on Instagram @zakfoster.quilts.
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