Rebecca Ratzlaff Union

Rebecca Ratzlaff

Recently I have found myself inundated with facts referring to the increasing income inequality between  “America’s richest 1%,” and “everyone else” …

  • “The richest 1% of families controlled a record-high 38.6% of the country’s wealth in 2016, according to a Federal Reserve report published on Wednesday.” [1]
  • “Wealth — the value of a household’s property and financial assets, minus the value of its debts — is much more highly concentrated than income. The best survey data show that the share of wealth held by the top 1 percent rose from just under 30 percent in 1989 to nearly 49 percent in 2016, while the share held by the bottom 90 percent fell from just over 33 percent to less than 23 percent over the same period.”[2]


I began to conceptualize the piece, Look for the Union Label”  back in 2008.  I had just successfully graduated from two graduate programs (MFA and MLIS), and found myself in a new city in October 2008, “overeducated” and completely incapable of finding any form of employment.   I had a lot of time to think.  I began haunting a local thrift shop, stunned by the sheer volume of merchandise flowing through.  Once a month the employees would remove all of the unsold clothing from the racks, in order to make room for a new, seemingly endless, supply of surplus.  I asked the workers what exactly they did with the carts of removed clothing.  They replied that it was compressed into large bails, and sent to “Africa.”  (It’s a large continent … I could never get a more specific response than the almost “fairy-tale” response of “Africa.” As if there was some mystical land just waiting to soak up and sort through all of “America’s” unwanted detritus.)

As I wandered the racks, I began to notice a trend that disturbed me.  A substantial percentage of the clothing labels were marketed through the referencing of “American Patriotism,” but were invariably manufactured overseas.  I began to purchase these cognitively dissonant garments at $1 each, on the day before they were to be bundled up to be sent to mystical “African” lands.  (i.e. “American Eagle Outfitters,” “Cherokee,” “Harlem,” “Manhattan Field Club,” “Saks Fifth Avenue,” “U.S. Expedition,” “Puritan,” “Boston Store,” etc. … all manufactured in foreign markets.)  As I stared at my ever increasing pile of patriotic detritus, I realized that the garments themselves were beginning to recreate a physical geography of their own.  I began to cut the labels out (including the backing garment … I wanted to try to express the fact that these items were in fact “waste” … and mapped out skewed American geography.  I put the “Puritans” up in east coast (top right), the “Cherokee” Trail of Tears cut through the space, etc.

I then worked the map into a quilted representation of the American Flag.  I went back to my local thrift store and rounded up fifty garments (mostly men’s wool suits, about to be sent to “Africa”) with American union labels.  Each of the fifty stars on the flag was given it’s own small star … an actual union label ripped from a garment that had officially been designated garbage.

The final project, and the piece I am contributing to this show is a 14’ 4” x 9’ 2” quilt, based on the “log cabin” motif.  Each 8″ square within the red and white stripes frames a clothing label (still attached to the original garment).  Each star within the flag’s blue area frames a union label.  All clothing labels incorporated into the stripes are foreign made, and have corporate logos referencing America.  Additionally, the area within the stripes geographically maps out the United States.  The 4” photographic border includes images of past and current American labor issues, along with present day images of foreign workers (often children).