Quilting the Arabesque

MAAS alum takes inspiration from ancient Islamic designs to quilt kaleidoscopic works of art.

By Grayson Lee

Flanagan and his dog Daphne show off one of Flanagan's latest quilts.
Flanagan, with his dog Daphne, shows off one of his latest quilts.

When Tighe Flanagan (MAAS ‘12) began quilting, he realized that he could draw inspiration from the decorative art traditions of the Middle East. “The world of quilting and the world of Islamic design and geometric design are natural fits,” says Flanagan. “You see it wherever you find the Islamic Empires of old, where they left their imprint.” Taking his cue from the Arabesque patterns of places like Marrakesh and Al-Hamra, Flanagan translates between two traditional art forms—quilting and mosaics—to sew colorful, geometric quilts based on ancient Islamic designs.

As a child, Flanagan learned to sew from his mother. He earned an undergraduate degree in Visual and Communications Arts, but after college his passion for art took a back seat to other professional interests. After serving in Jordan as a Peace Corps volunteer, Flanagan wanted to build his academic knowledge of the region he had lived and worked in, so he joined Georgetown’s MAAS program, focusing on Culture and Society. He then accepted a job as Senior Program Manager of Education Programs at the Wikimedia Foundation. Though Flanagan appreciated the opportunities the job gave him to travel to the Middle East, after a nearly five years, he felt the need to introduce more creative endeavors into his life. “I felt like my whole life was on a laptop or on a mobile device,” says Flanagan. “I decided I needed to get back into non-electronic spaces and to do that I reconnected with my passion for making stuff.” Flanagan made a New Year’s resolution to sew a quilt, and soon discovered a new passion.

The cutting, assembly, and final product stages of a quilted pillow inspired by a Moroccan zellige
A QUILTED PILLOW INSPIRED BY A MOROCCAN ZELLIGE, FROM ITS EARLY ASSEMBLY STAGE TO THE FINAL PRODUCT

 

Flanagan uses digital software to translate geometric motifs into quilt patterns and to stay true to the original design. After creating his digital pattern, he begins the intensive work of cutting and sewing. For Flanagan, the most rewarding part of fashioning his quilts is researching “new” motifs. He is interested in how Europeans in the 1700s often exaggerated designs from the Arab World. “They got the shapes right but missed the construction,” says Flanagan. “It was almost like the othering of the design and being fascinated with exoticism in a visual form. There wasn’t fidelity—it more so captured what they thought it should look like.”

Flanagan says his time at MAAS has influenced his desire to provide context to his quilts and attribute the designs to their original sources. “There’s almost a grammar to Islamic geometric design,” says Flanagan. “When it comes down to geometry, no one has ownership over shapes, but you want to get the most faithful representation.”

Although Flanagan has sold several pieces, the cost of a full-size quilt can be prohibitive to many would-be buyers due to the time, labor, and materials involved. As a result, he is focusing on selling patterns and tutorials, which will be available soon in his online store (tigheflanagan.com). You can view more of his work on Instagram.


Grayson Lee interned at CCAS in the summer of 2018 and currently studies at Brown University.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 CCAS Newsmagazine