Fidget quilts are often lap-size and are intended to be comforting and welcoming, with elements that can be worked many times, like zippers and snaps. They have grown in popularity in the past few years, as members of libraries and religious groups have begun sewing them for people with memory loss conditions, to distract from the anxiety caused by those conditions. Like many other quilts, they are associated with memory, in this case through their connection to coping with its loss. Their comforting colors and textures also link them to protection.
The image of a fidget quilt – like the one pictured – is that of familiar objects bizarrely juxtaposed. A zipper and a key share space with ribbons, buttons and belts, all intended to engage the hands. “Fidget quilts” are sewed for patients with memory loss and other cognitive issues. And they’ve experienced a growth in popularity in the past few years, with members of various community organizations donating them to assisted living facilities.
Many people with memory issues already work objects with their hands, and the quilts facilitate this action. They demand tactile use, intended as a distraction (or redirection) from the anxiety and confusion of memory loss. Consequently, quilters sew them with the intention of being welcoming and non-threatening. This is sometimes done to the point of explicit childishness, with soft fabric, bright colors, and anthropomorphized natural elements. The quilts also allow for continued and repeated use. If fidgeting with the quilt pictured above, one can zip and unzip a zipper, button and unbutton a button, and move pieces of plastic pipe back and forth along strands of fabric. All of these actions are easily repeatable and have no “finish”; once a zipper is zipped, it can always be unzipped again, and once it is unzipped it can be zipped again. This never-ending task allows for sustained engagement and distraction. Also, while the plastic pipes sewed onto the fabric are a bit odd, all the objects are recognizable and understandable, meaning they can be manipulated without fear of unexpected retaliation. So the creators of fidget quilts encode familiarity even as each of their quilts is a unique creation. Though often no larger than lap-size, the quilts serve as a psychic protection for the whole body.
The use of quilts as a method of coping with memory loss offers a new twist on the social meaning of quilts, which are often associated with the retention and protection of memories. Passed down through families and cultures, specific quilt designs preserve oral histories. Many of these designs are abstractly geometric, but quilts recording heritage can also be representational, such as story quilts that chronicle the experiences of specific ethnic groups and diasporas. Quilts do not just remember, but memorialize, as with “memory quilts” stitched from the clothes of deceased loved ones. The AIDS Memorial Quilt, a gigantic quilt dedicated to the memory of those who have died of AIDS, reflects a certain intimacy and ephemerality through its use of fabric, despite its monumental scale and purpose. Through memory, all three of these examples also serve as protection. A sense of common heritage and past struggle protects an ethnic identity from dying out; the many memories triggered by the sight of a loved one’s clothes protects that person from being forgotten, and the powerful image of the AIDS Memorial Quilt (demonstrating the AIDS pandemic’s sheer magnitude) has the potential to protect marginalized groups from the threat of AIDS in the future. Fidget quilts are literally much smaller, and might seem less important, but they deal with memory and protection in surprisingly similar ways, albeit at a more individual scale. The actions scripted by a fidget quilt protect from the unknowns and anxieties of memory loss. They also have the potential to trigger memories in themselves, particularly if a quilt is sewed for a patient by someone they know, incorporating objects from the patient’s life.
The meaning of fidget quilts is more complicated, however, because there’s a tension between “memory” and “distraction.” A manager for a chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association explains that fidget quilts help redirect the attention of patients during “sundowning” – the period around sunset during which many people with dementia become more confused and anxious, wondering when they will go home. Handing someone a fidget quilt in this situation serves to help them forget that they can’t remember. The initial effect of the quilt is not exactly remembering, but forgetting forgetting.
As fidget quilts become more popular, it also becomes more common that the quilt’s donor does not know the recipient. These quilts aren’t only created by the friends and relatives of patients with memory loss – they’re constructed by both experienced quilting groups and interested amateurs, through donation programs facilitated by libraries, churches and the like. Quilts in these situations are being created for nameless, faceless “seniors” rather than known loved ones, and this creates another tension – between the handmade, person-to-person intimacy of the object and its indirect exchange. It’s possible for engagement with the quilt to establish a better connection between the quilt maker and a person with dementia than words could, but there are also many ways that designing a deep sensory experience for a stranger could go awry. What if a flower with a face is reinterpreted as a monster in the eyes of the patient, or a white tree viewed as a skeleton? Comfort and protection look different for different people. This is a good thing to keep in mind when creating quilts like these.
While their function may seem isolated and utilitarian (to help people with memory loss be less anxious), the construction of fidget quilts imbues them with as much social significance as any other quilt. Through their zippers, buttons and widgets, they request sustained use with no clear finish. Their aid to memory loss associates them with memory, like many other quilts, and their comforting colors and textures tie them to protection. Their physical appearance is structured around the socially established definition of a welcoming landscape waiting to be explored, new and yet oddly familiar.