Quilters Own the World
Natalia J. Garland
Beauty is an essential quality of everyday life. This is especially
apparent in American quilts. Even though the early quiltmakers were
poor and worked with small scraps of fabric, these women carefully
assembled their limited shapes and colors to express themselves. They
used their imagination to say something about their homes and culture
which, with the passing of time, became historical records.
Do quilts belong under
the category of arts-and-crafts or fine arts? This is a difficult
question to answer because quilts are both artistic and functional.
Barbara Wysocki, a quilter and writer, reflected on this controversy.
Today we find as broad
a range of subjects and styles in quilt shows as we do in art shows.
With the art world so all-embracing we are not really breaking new
ground when we say that quilts should be considered art. In fact, many
museums have textile collections that include both traditional and
That's not to say that
all authority rests with established art institutions. Many of the
works that are revered today were rejected and derided by the art
world of their time. The fact that the nineteenth century
impressionists had to mount their own show to get recognition may sound
all too familiar to quilters who wish to have their work viewed as art.
Those who do not see quilts as art today may revise their opinions in
Whether or not a quilt
is art is a question that relates directly to what was in the heart and
mind of its maker. Quilters who come from an art background have
always viewed their creations as art. Others may begin quilting to
keep the family warm and find themselves unlocking the door to their
hidden artistic talent. Once they recognize their own gifts, they view
their quilts as art. It may even take the encouragement and praise of
others before a quilter sees the artistic merit in her work.
Ultimately, each quilter will define her own quilts.
An easy way to
distinguish (perhaps superficially) between arts-and-crafts and fine
art is to decide whether the quilt is more appropriate to be used as a
bed-covering or to be displayed as a wall-decoration. Normally, people
do not use a work of fine art for a practical purpose, but for
aesthetic enjoyment. However, quilts combine utility with creativity.
The distinction, then, could be further narrowed to the size of the
quilt. Large quilts are generally used as a covering, while small
quilts can be hung on the wall like a painting. And, small quilts are
easier to embellish with trims and other design elements.
Regarding materials and
styles, there are two types (again, perhaps a superficial distinction)
of quilters. There are traditional or true quilters, and quilt-artists.
Traditional quilters sew scraps or pieces of fabric together to create
blocks (usually 10-to-14-inch squares), and then sew the blocks
together to form repeated patterns. Each block can consist of strips,
squares, rectangles, triangles, circles, or other geometric shapes.
The result is an overall pattern of design and color. In addition,
traditional quilters also use a technique called appliqué
which involves cut-out shapes. These shapes are usually of people,
houses, trees, flowers, and animals. The shapes are sewn onto the
quilt with decorative stitches.
The problem is that
sometimes quilt-artists also use blocks and appliqué. However,
many quilt-artists use non-traditional, original, one-of-a-kind shapes
which may or may not be repeated within the quilt's design. There may
not be an overall pattern, but rather a uniquely balanced abstraction.
Moreover, quilt-artists often use different fabrics (cotton, wool,
synthetics) in the same quilt, as well as trims (laces, braids, yarns)
and non-traditional items (beads, buttons, sea shells, etc.) for
decoration. Nobody would want to use such a quilt for a cozy covering.
Whatever the distinction
(if it exists at all), between quilts as arts-and-crafts or as fine
art, quilters have always expressed their feelings and portrayed their
surroundings with as much beauty as their supplies and imagination
would permit. Quilters transform their worlds into objects of beauty
which can be owned and used for function or for aesthetic pleasure.
The process (quilting) results in the product (quilt). Both the
traditional quilter and the quilt-artist sit at the sewing machine and
make decisions regarding shapes and colors.
The artist and teacher,
Robert Henri, was able to define the connection between living and
creating, and the human ability to perceive and identify with beauty.
Life and art cannot be
disassociated, nor can any artist, however he may desire it, produce a
line of "sheer beauty," i.e., a line disassociated from
human feeling. We are all wrapped up in life, in human feelings; we
cannot, and we should not, desire to get away from our feelings.
In fact lines are only
beautiful to us when they bear a kinship to us. Different men are
moved or left cold by lines according to the difference in their
natures. What moves you is beautiful to you. To all men in a general
lines have significance.
In all great paintings
of still-life, flowers, fruit, landscape, you will find the appearance
of inter-weaving human forms, the forms we unconsciously look for. We
do but humanize, see ourselves in all we look at.
Because we are saturated
with life, because we are human, our strongest motive is life,
humanity; and the stronger the motive back of a line the stronger, and
therefore the more beautiful, the line will be.
Perhaps the artistic
value of quilts is that we are enabled to recognize our true selves.
Our feelings, culture, and history are communicated to us in humble,
odd, sewn-together pieces of fabric by someone who gave attention to
the ordinary objects and events of domestic life. Geometric shapes,
animals and flowers, laces and yarns, color and design: these elements
invite us to remember and appreciate the good things of everyday life.
(Written 06/23/08: bibliography available.)
Until we meet