A new way of remembering: the AIDS Memorial Quilt

Words: Connall Maclennan

On October 11, 1987, the National Mall in Washington DC was adorned with a quilt made from almost 2000 individually-sewn and beautifully colourful panels.

The strange sight, which covered the front pages of newspapers across the world, was the first exhibition of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Foundation Quilt, founded by Cleve Jones. Each of the panels was in memory of a victim of the disease that had been tearing through the gay community since 1981, designed and created by a friend or family member. 

The AIDS Memorial Quilt, as it is more commonly known, became the largest folk art project in the world and continues to grow to this day. The quilt is a people’s memorial, hand-crafted and perfectly imperfect. It stands out in the sea of stone and metal that most monuments are made from. 

The Quilt has its origins in San Francisco, the epicentre of the AIDS crisis. On November 27, 1985, Cleve Jones was preparing to lead the annual candlelit memorial for Harvey Milk, the openly gay politician who had been assassinated in 1978. By that time over one thousand gay men had died of AIDS in San Francisco alone, and Jones had lost many of his close friends. At the memorial he asked people to write the names of their friends and family who had died on posters, because, as he put it in a 2014 interview, ‘We’d lost a lot more than Harvey.’ These simple posters were then taped onto the wall of a federal building, and the first version of the Quilt was born without anyone realising it.

The display gave Jones the idea for the Quilt, and he realised that having a visual representation of the sheer numbers who were dying would serve as an effective tool in raising awareness about the virus and its victims. 

In early 1987, the project was formalised, and Jones sewed together the first patch for his late friend and partner Marvin Feldman. Soon, panels were arriving for the San Francisco team from across the country. 

Each panel is 3 ft x 6 ft, the average size of a grave. The Quilt was intended to symbolise what it might look like if all of the victims’ bodies were laid out together. ‘If this was a meadow with a thousand corpses rotting in the sun,’ Jones said, ‘then maybe people would look.’ 

The Quilt was first displayed with 1,920 panels in Washington DC in 1987, and it returned the following year with 8,288 panels. The massive growth showed not only how large the project had become, but also how devastating the virus was, and was shocking for those who visited it in person as well as those who saw pictures of it on the front pages of newspapers and in the headlines of TV news. The project drew attention to the recklessness of the Regan administration in countering the disease, and put both national and international pressure on the government. 

Most memorials, like cenotaphs or statues of famous individuals, are created after an event has taken place. But the AIDS Memorial Quilt was being produced during the peak of the crisis, and was serving the dual role of both memorializing those who had died and raising awareness for those who were living. The therapy that creating a panel gave to the friends and families of victims was extraordinary: Mike Smith, general manager of the project, called making a panel ‘a way to get over the fear, the sadness and the paralysis.’ 

Seeing the Quilt – which can be done online through the foundation’s web page – is, unsurprisingly, very emotional. It’s impossible to lose focus on the fact that behind each of the panels lies a person who had a life and purpose. For example, on the panel for Doug Bessette, who died in 1985, there’s an outline of the state of Vermont, a small picture of some mountains, and an artist’s palette. Each of these symbols helps viewers to understand the kind of person Doug must have been. 

On normal memorials, you might see a name and a date. The deceased is listed with hundreds of others, their name in the same font and format as those they died with. In the AIDS Quilt there are panels that simply say ‘A Friend’, or have just the victim’s first name on them, but even these were handmade by someone who clearly cared for that person. All the victims – young and old, gay and straight, men and women – deserve to be not only remembered, but recognised as individuals. 

The Quilt is also unique in that it serves as a travelling memorial. After the inaugural display in DC, the Quilt went on a four-month tour of the United States, visiting twenty different cities and raising almost $500,000 for various AIDS organisations. People from the various cities came to add panels to the Quilt, entrenching its legacy as a truly national work. In each city, the panels of victims from that place or the surrounding area were displayed. This brought home the personal nature of the project – the victims were members of local communities, not abstracted names from faraway places. The Quilt toured eight countries on the first World AIDS Day in 1988, receiving global significance, allowing people from across the world to better understand the impact of the crisis, and humanising the death statistics that had been plastered over newspapers. 

The last time the Quilt was displayed in its entirety was in 1996, when it covered the entire National Mall in Washington DC, as had been the dream of its founder Cleve Jones since its inception. President Clinton visited the Quilt, the first time a President had done so. This was how dramatically the response to AIDS had changed in a decade. 

By now, the Quilt has helped raise well over $3 million dollars. It’s also served as a crucial reminder of what inaction and bias can cause. It’s a special kind of memorial, one made from soft fabric rather than hard stone. The true impact of the Quilt cannot be measured in how much money it has raised, but rather how many hearts it has moved. It continues to grow as the virus continues to claim lives, but thanks in part to its own power, there is hope that one day the final stitch will be sewn. 

learn more

  • BOOK: How to Survive a Plague: The Story of how Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS – David France
  • DOCUMENTARY: Common Threads: Stories from the AIDS Quilt (1989)
  • BOOK: And the Band Played On – Randy Shilts

Connall Maclennan is a second-year student of History and Politics at the University of Edinburgh. He is originally from Inverness.