November 2013 Features

From Triangle to Tazreen

More than a century after the Triangle fire, women are still dying in unsafe sweatshop conditions; artist and activist Robin Berson ’67 is making sure we don’t forget.

By Kathy Boccella


Artist and activist Robin Berson ’67 in front of the Brown Building, once the site of the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Photo by Corinne Chace.

The most haunting thing about the large quilt that commemorates New York’s deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is the mosaic of faces of some of the 146 who perished—fresh-faced young women, mostly immigrants, with optimistic gazes that hint of dreams snuffed out on March 25, 1911.

“I wanted lots and lots of faces and young eyes looking out at you,” says Robin Berson ’67, the historian, librarian, and quilter who conceived and carried out the project. “I didn’t want unrelieved horrors. I didn’t want only images of fire. Why would anybody look at that? I wanted to emphasize what had been lost. The youngest kid was 14; almost nobody was over 22. You just look at these pictures, and it breaks your heart.”

Berson said she hopes the 10-by-7-foot memorial quilt, which has been displayed in several New York museums, will rally support for a proposed permanent memorial at the fire site, a 10-story building near Washington Square Park. But she also wants to call attention to today’s sweatshops in places such as Bangladesh, where a fire killed 112 at Tazreen Fashions in 2012 and where the Rana Plaza building collapsed in 2013. The building collapse killed more than 1,200 people—again mostly young women. Both buildings housed garment factories employed by multinational apparel companies.

“What we’ve done,” says Berson, “is exported tragedy.”

The Triangle factory manufactured shirtwaists, a type of blouse popular in the early 20th century. Horror stories from the blaze—of young women trapped on upper floors who pushed unsuccessfully against locked factory doors or jumped to their deaths on the sidewalk below—were seared into the national consciousness. The fire was a turning point for the American labor movement and fueled the rise of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and led to new factory safety laws.

Berson admits she knew nothing of the tragedy as a student at Bryn Mawr, where she studied medieval history in the mid-1960s. She moved to upper Manhattan, raised two children, became managing editor of a quarterly history journal at New York University, and published three history books authored from what she calls “a left-wing troublemaker perspective.” The quilt, Berson says, “represents the braiding of all those threads of experience.”

She became interested in the Triangle fire as activists were gearing up to mark the 100th anniversary in 2011; an artist friend asked for help in making replica shirtwaists as props for commemorative events or labor protest marches. Eventually, Berson joined the board of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. After the centennial, Berson and other activists turned their attention to gaining approval and raising money for a memorial that would be built at the site of the fire. The building is called the Brown Building and is owned by NYU.


Berson spearheaded the creation of this 10-by-7 quilt that commemorates the Triangle fire. Photo courtesy of the site of the fire. The building is called the Brown Building and is owned by NYU.

“We were discussing how do we keep attention up, and how do we educate people,” Berson says. “The 101st anniversary doesn’t have the same ring as the 100th anniversary.”

The quilt idea, partly inspired by the massive AIDS Memorial Quilt, was a natural fit for Berson, who once sold baby quilts and pieced kimonos at New York craft fairs. She thought it was an especially fitting tribute for Triangle victims who had died while working as seamstresses. Last year, Berson created an online database of images from the fire and from relatives of the deceased and sent out a call to other local artists, quilters, and fashion students to contribute 12-by-12-inch squares.

Berson made between 50 and 60 of the blocks herself. Interspersed among a couple dozen portraits of victims are representations of a shirtwaist ad, a notice for a memorial march, pro-union quotes, lyrics for labor anthems such as “Bread and Roses,” and a rendering of families looking for their loved ones amid coffins in a temporary morgue.

Sewing the blocks and building the frame “was a real challenge in a crowded New York City living room, with cats running around,” Berson says. But since last fall the finished work has been shown at the Eldridge Street Museum, the Tenement Museum, and other venues, including one near her second home in Lenox, Mass. It is scheduled to be on exhibition at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan during the spring and summer of 2014.

While still crusading for the Triangle memorial, Berson is also working closely with labor rights activists in Bangladesh on a “sister quilt” that she hopes to finish in time to show in St. John’s alongside the Triangle quilt. The new piece, Berson says, “embraces the horrors of multiple fires since Tazreen, as well as the Rana Plaza building collapse, and focuses on the nascent workers’ rights movement in Bangladesh and on the courageous young people who are helping to coordinate the struggle.





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