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Museum of Art and Design Atlanta

Handcrafted blankets on display at MODA destined to be gifts for new immigrants

Blink, and you might miss the pop-up exhibition of colorful, handcrafted blankets on display in the gift shop at The Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA). But The Welcome Blanket Project (through January 16) is a perfect metaphor for the monumental changes that are possible when art provokes activism.

Jayna Zweiman, an architect who uses design to enact social change via crowd-sourced art projects, is the creator and founder of Welcome Blanket. She started the initiative as a rebuke to anti-immigrant sentiment fomented during the 2016 presidential election cycle.

“After seeing the response to Trump’s proposal for a border wall, Jayna wanted to set up a way to connect us . . . and her connection was through yarn,” says Miranda Hazelwood, MODA’s visitor experience manager, who curated the exhibit Welcome Blanket.

Museum of Art and Design Atlanta
Zweiman was deeply moved by letters from craftspeople that they sent with their blankets.

The project is a reconceptualization of the 2,000-mile length of the proposed border wall as a 2,000-mile length of yarn used to make individual welcome blankets for immigrants coming to the United States. More than 6,000 blankets from around the world have been knitted, sewn, quilted, crocheted, woven, felted and donated since 2017.

Selected exhibitions have been hosted, including those at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, The Smithsonian in Washington, DC,  and MODA, which received up to 50 blankets a day when they hosted a precursor to this year’s show, Making Change: The Art and Craft of Activism, in the summer of 2018.

“[The blankets] are the first thing you see in the project,” says Zweiman during a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles, “but underlying them is connecting people, making spaces and harnessing passion to help make positive change.”

The criteria for extending a warm welcome to people whose lives have been upended by forced relocation are simple.

Participants can deliver or mail 40” by 40” blankets and welcome notes to MODA. The museum will photograph, catalog and hang selected blankets in the museum’s lobby for visitors to enjoy before delivering them to newcomers via refugee resettlement partners. MODA has also created spaces to amplify the message of welcome by hosting craft circles, performances, discussions, forums and legal assistance for immigrants.

The significance of seeing heirlooms elevated to art objects in a museum context is not lost on Zweiman. A self-avowed “terrible knitter,” she is keenly aware of how the value of handcrafts, or other work typically attributed to women, is typically downplayed and overlooked by curators and cultural gatekeepers. It would be a mistake, she says, to underestimate the major impact of seemingly humble gestures.

“My grandfather used to tell the story of seeing the Statue of Liberty when he first came from the old country — knowing that he’d arrived,” says Zweiman, whose elders migrated to the United States from what is now Poland. “Modern ports of entry don’t offer that [heightened] experience. There’s no sense of arrival at the Los Angeles airport’s baggage claim carousel. But we have an opportunity to create intimate symbols of welcome through the welcome blankets that recipients can see and feel, touch and wrap themselves in like a warm hug.”

Zweiman has worked for the Democratic National Committee, Bill Clinton (while she was an undergraduate at Brown University) and the National Economic Council. She was no stranger to political activism even before she launched the Pink Pussyhat design with fellow craftivist Krista Suh in 2016. Both grassroots efforts attracted a tribe Zweiman describes as “kind, proactive, creative and courageous.”

So far, furriers from France have contributed blankets, as have children from the Lab Schools at the University of Chicago, where K-12 pupils took on the project as part of their curriculum. Native Americans, descendants of the Mayflower, Holocaust survivors and recent immigrants have also responded to the call for kindness. And the heartfelt notes that have accompanied blankets are a testament to people’s capacity to recognize their shared humanity in the faces of complete strangers.

Museum of Design Atlanta
In 2018, MODA was only the second venue in the country to engage in The Welcome Blanket Project.

Zweiman laughs as she recalls one of the more succinct messages a second-grader from Brookline, Massachusetts, delivered with his blanket: “My family came from India. Welcome!” And she chokes up while considering letters that seek to amplify the point that all new neighbors are welcomed here.


Welcome Friends, My family came to this country from Ireland. I do not know their particular story. But I do know that only poverty, starvation, war or another extreme hardship would have driven them from their homes. This all immigrants have in common so my family shares in your journey.  Please know that you are welcomed here with love and support.

Warmly, Jane, Atlanta, Georgia.”


“Hello! I am reaching out across Our Friendly Universe to welcome you to the United States! May my quilt surround you with a colorful hug and remind you that you are always loved. Always. May you find joy and renewed peace here and be enfolded in your new community’s loving embrace. Yes!

With Love and Delight,

Frances, Artist and Delight Detective, Port Townsend, Washington.

Care: This quilt features my screen-printed designs on 100 percent cotton surrounded by colorful morsels of fabric. Please wash in cold water and hang to dry so the printed images remain vivid. You can also tumble dry on low if desired. Enjoy with my blessings!”


On February 5, MODA will host Quilting with Hope: Preserving a Legacy, an in-person workshop presented by Atlanta-based master quilter Marquetta Bell Johnson of Marquetta B Quilting.

Bell Johnson learned to quilt as a little girl under her grandmother’s loving gaze. As an adult, she came to understand how the intense, luminous colors in her signature quilts could trigger subtle changes in individuals. When she leads MODA’s quilting bee this winter, her intention to subliminally inform, enlighten and even heal whomever receives the quilts will be top of mind.

“I hope that the finished quilt could be a source of joy and happiness to the family that receives it,” she says. “I hope it will convey that there are people who care about their wellbeing. Even though it is made of fabric, batting and thread, I hope it resonates the positive energy that is created when many hearts and hands come together, making art as one.”

Regardless of a person’s facility with a pair of knitting needles, crochet hook, needle and thread or lack thereof, Zweiman believes everyone can help shift the paradigm of the next wave of refugees from “other” to one of us.

“We can’t solve the problems of over 80 million people displaced in the world in a couple of weeks, but giving a symbolic and practical gift of welcome is something we can do,” she says. “Even if you’re not crafty, you can still make a connection by visiting MODA’s exhibition, telling a crafty friend about the project, being a loyal volunteer or giving whatever skill you have to keep connecting with our newest neighbors.”


Gail O’Neill is an ArtsATL editor-at-large. She hosts and coproduces Collective Knowledge — a conversational series that’s broadcast on TheA Network — and frequently moderates author talks for the Atlanta History Center.