As a little girl, I had a favorite blanket. It had Winnie the Pooh characters on it. I remember that one corner was slightly frayed, and I loved rubbing my fingers over this worn patch. I slept with this blanket every night. It wasn’t big enough to cover my body, but that didn’t matter. I didn’t want this blanket for warmth. Instead, I would hold this blanket close to my chest, wrapping my arms around the soft, faded material, finding comfort in the familiar scent and feel.
Years later, I no longer sleep with this Winnie the Pooh blanket. But I still find myself drawn to blankets – to their comforting presence and the ways in which they carry and communicate meanings beyond their intended function of covering and warming my body. For instance, right now I am sitting with a purple and pink striped blanket on my lap. This was a gift from my Nana, a feisty, Italian woman who has made her living as a seamstress. Nana made this blanket for me several years ago. In the bottom left corner of the blanket is a patch that reads, “Wrap yourself in the warmth of my love. Nana.”
When I use this blanket, I recall my Nana’s capable, strong hands skillfully moving material in and around the sewing machine, up and through the needles. I see the spools of thread sitting on display in her sewing room: various shades of red, green, blue, and brown. I remember the times in which I would quietly creep into that room as a child, always in awe of the ways in which she could create a lovely dress or shirt out of what seemed to me to be random pieces of fabric.
This is not all. I look across the room and see another blanket. This one an eclectic arrangement of various patterns and colors, strips of fabric arranged in rows. I see maroon plaid, green vertical stripes, red polka dots, and small green diamonds. The word “Lou” is sewn into one of the corners, underlined by a simple blue thread.
This blanket was sewn together by a woman named Libby, a woman who outlived her husband Lou by several years. After Lou passed away, Libby cut Lou’s pants into small strips. She sewed these strips together, repurposing them into a 5×7 foot blanket that now finds it home within a wicker chest in my living room. When I use this blanket, I cannot help but recognize the ways in which this blanket offers a visual testament to Lou. Each strip offers a memory, a piece of Lou’s life. I wonder about the times in which Lou wore each pant. What was he doing? Where was he going? Who was he with? I think about how Libby might have felt as she turned her husband’s pants into this keepsake. Which of the pant strips made her smile? Invited a laugh? Brought tears to her eyes? It is also not lost on me that Lou had an incredibly diverse sense of fashion – the various patterns and colors of his pants are nothing short of a rainbow – and I recognize how very boring this blanket (and his life with Libby?) would have been had Lou only worn brown and black pants.
There is more. Laying across the side of my couch is yet another blanket. This blanket is also made from pieces of clothing; but this time, it is my clothing – fronts and backs of shirts I received as markers of specific activities in which I participated.
When I use this blanket, I am transported back to the swim meets – the pungent smell of chlorine water and the unmistakable beep of the buzzer that marked the start of each race. I remember the cool, fall air of my cross country races. I can once again feel a bit of the nervousness buried in the pit of my stomach as I stepped up to the start line and the sense of relief that washed over me as I lunged across the finish, legs shaking and unstable. I smile when I think about the Turkey Trots my family and I did together: the chilly Thanksgiving mornings we layered on warm clothes, pinned racing bibs to the front of our jackets, and joined the rest of our town in a 5 mile jog before heading home for turkey and stuffing.
So, why this trip down blanket memory lane? What insights do these blankets suggest that we can apply to our lives as educators and researchers? Here, I’d like to offer three specific suggestions.
- These blankets invite us to adopt expanded notions of what counts as a text. Texts come in many shapes, sizes, forms, and materials. Jody Shipka defines a text as “any coherent constellation of signs that constitute a structure of meaning for some audience” (Ch. 2). This “constellation of signs” can be comprised of words, images, paper, fabric, shirts, pants, or something else. When something communicates a message – even if this something is a blanket – it is a text. This has exciting potential for our pedagogy and our research. What might it mean to invite students to rhetorically analyze a blanket? What if we focus our research on the messages communicated by regular household items such as blankets, shirts, and pants? How do repurposed texts facilitate mourning and remembrance?
- Material artifacts often carry multiple layers of shifting meaning. The blanket my Nana made for me, for instance, offers me warmth. This is one layer of meaning. It also represents her talent as a seamstress – an additional layer of meaning. It further reminds me of her sewing room and the spools of colorful thread I can find there. And, when the sad day comes that Nana is no longer with us, the blanket will take on a new layer of meaning. The meaning of this text-that-is-a-blanket will shift and come to symbolize the woman I will miss and the special times we have shared. As a researcher, this invites me to recognize that the texts with which I work are rarely stable or finished. Rather, they are in flux – and my research methods and approaches must recognize and account for this potential fluidity.
- The blankets gesture to the creative ways we record and share memories. We have many ways of doing so: photo albums, video recordings, and written journals are several of the most common. Yet, if we look around, we might begin to recognize other forms of memory preservation in the everyday items that make up our worlds – the blankets that adorn our beds, the recipe cards tucked away in our kitchens, the student evaluations we receive at the end of every semester. As a researcher, I am interested in what these texts allow us to remember. What do the blankets, for instance, allow me to recognize about myself – who I currently am, who I once was, and who I will one day be? As an educator, I want to consider how I might use this perspective to promote my student’s growth as writers. That is, what sorts of pedagogies can I enact that invite my students to recognize their potential to use discourse in creative ways as a means of recording and sharing their ideas and memories?
Perhaps next time we reach for a blanket, we will do so with an increased awareness that we are doing more than covering ourselves in fabric. Rather, we are immersing ourselves, quite literally, in a text – one that communicates a message, shifts in meaning, and creatively preserves memories. My hope is that this awareness will extend into other parts of our lives, positively impacting the ways in which we approach our teaching and our research.
Shipka, Jody. Toward a Composition Made Whole. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, Kindle file.