TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Baghdad Burning, A Powerful Quilt by Donna Hussain

Baghdad Burning

When I first became a quilter my quilts were traditional geometric patterns that required only basic quilting skills. By taking advantage of classes sponsored by my quilt guild and local quilt stores, I have learned many advanced quilting techniques over the years, which I try to incorporate in my quiltmaking. Recently I have been sewing pictorial art quilts, like Baghdad Burning, an artistic stretch for me.

I drew my inspiration for Baghdad Burning from a number of sources: my respect for my husband’s Muslim heritage, my appreciation of the beauty of Islamic art, architecture, and décor; my interest in the lives of women throughout the world, and my despair over the war in Iraq. But how could I express these feelings in the fabric of a quilt? For several months I wrestled with this problem before realizing that the quilt should have symbolic images: a tiled mosaic or tapestry to represent the culture of Iraq, a fire to represent the devastation of battle, and an anguished woman to represent innocents whose lives are ravaged by war.

The first steps in construction of the quilt were to design the pattern for the background mosaic on graph paper, then shop for fabric and a pleasing color palette. With luck I immediately found a decorative fabric of gold swirls on a green background which shifted gradually to gold swirls on brown. Green scorched to brown. Perfect for a fire. This one fabric turned my “perhaps quilt” into a feasible working design. I then found matching fabrics, a blue for the background, a soft purple, and golds for the quilt that that looked well with the chosen scorched green.

Scorched green fabric

The unburned mosaic quilt blocks were easy to sew: the burned sections were the challenge. I spread all of the fabrics from my stash onto my bedroom floor to look for pieces that could be used to represent smoke damage.

Burned and unburned sections

I frequently use interlacing designs made with bias tubes for my quilt borders. In Baghdad Burning the interlacing border needed to be damaged on the right side of the quilt. I first tried to dye a section of the border for the burned portion, but the lacy trim would not absorb the dye. Instead I changed the color of the bias tubes and background, then covered the burned section with two layers of black tulle.

Burned interlacing border

To help me draw templates for the appliquéd flames, I looked at photos of forest fires on the internet. That is where I got the spiky shapes for my smoldering flames and hints about the color of fires.


For the major focal point of Baghdad Burning, the woman’s face, I adapted a technique I learned in a class with the quilt artist Sandi Cummings. Sandi makes stunning colorful quilts with dot-matrix black and white photos for the heads of her quilt figures. I clipped a small face of an Iraqi woman from newsprint, enlarged the face on my computer, and printed it on lightly-colored fabric. In order to run the fabric through my printer I had to first iron the fabric onto freezer paper for stability.


The woman had to be a large figure in order for her facial expression to be seen. But how could I give her all black clothing visual interest? My solution was to make a pleated three-dimensional skirt, and to quilt heavily the fringed shawl with parallel lines of stitching. Unfortunately, photographs of the quilt do not show the contrast between the two blacks that are apparent to the eye when viewing the quilt on display.

Baghdad Burning has not been a prize-winning quilt, but it draws the attention of those who pass by at quilt shows. I would very much like to know your reaction to the quilt. Please leave me a comment at the end of this blog.

Baghdad Burning has been juried into the International Quilt Festival in Houston, October 30-November 2, 2008. If you attend the show you can see the quilt in person.

Note from Rachel: I saw Baghdad Burning at the AQS show in Paducah that took place here in Paducah this past April. I was zooming down the rows of displayed quilts, saw Baghdad Burning and stopped in my tracks. This quilt led me to find Donna and invite her to become a regular contributor to Fiber Focus, which she graciously has! If you attend the Houston show, do make the effort to find this quilt. It is powerful!

California quilter, Donna Hussain, has exhibited in major quilt shows around the country, authored books, and is a regular contributor to Fiber Focus. Click on her name to see all of her past articles.

The photo shows Donna with her husband, Pascha.



  1. Donna, When I saw your quilt at the Paducah quilt show, it took my breath away! I couldn't believe it didn't have a ribbon on it, and I wondered what was wrong with those judges!

  2. Donna,

    This quilt brought tears to my eyes - an amazing work! Thanks for sharing it and how it was created. Perhaps judges wrongly shy away from quilts with "political" themes, but your reminder of one of the many big costs of the Iraq War - the loss of human life and property - is very eloquent and skillfully done. I too wonder about viewers' reactions - have they been supportive or angry?

    Have you ever read the blog by that same name - Baghdad Burning? A young Iraqi woman who started blogging before the war began, and stopped last year when the family had to flee to Syria. A very compelling account of daily life in Baghdad for an average family...

  3. Here is the link to the blog Catherine mentioned: http://riverbendblog.blogspot.com/

    It was also published as a short book: http://www.feministpress.org/Book/index.cfm?GCOI=55861100869560

    The author now lives in Syria.

  4. Heartstopping.

    Incredible work. The flames and smoke damage are astounding. The woman's despair so apparent.

    Keep submitting it to shows.


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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