Yesterday morning I awoke with a thought nagging in my head from the night before; I was struggling with just how I would go about defining the term patchwork. The sort of nagging that comes from the sense that a word or idea you felt so comfortable with may not be just what you thought; I’m sure we’ve all had that moment. So, being me, I went to my books and some trusted sites to try to suss out just what was nagging at my wee noggin. Alas, I didn’t get much help. Depending on where I looked I found a range of approaches to the term that only added to my uncertainty. Typical…

You see, I grew up with what I now see as one of the narrower definitions of patchwork: quilts or sewing that was based on patchwork blocks, typically four-patch and the like, regardless of how space was subdivided within those blocks. This understanding wasn’t based on a particular style, but the approach, a technique for organizing space and color within a quilt. Patchwork was not better or worse than other methods, say applique or what I understood as pieced quilts (piecing that was not based on the above mentioned patchwork blocks, typically with larger pieces of fabric). It was a technique as well as an aesthetic model. While my mother was not a quilter, and I didn’t come to quilting as a practice until recently, quilts were always in the air in my life; heck my family is from Lancaster, PA; my grandmother just passed away there last year.

So, when I started seeing more places speak of patchwork as any type of piecing I was confused; was this a regional difference, an international one, a misunderstanding I had, or was there something more fundamental I was missing? So, I wrote a blog post and turned to Twitter for help. Who would have guessed it would become so ferhoodled (one of my favorite Lancaster words there).

It seems that there is quite a resistance to defining things, as though definition inherently limited activity, or necessarily included hierarchical evaluation intent on disparaging all things not within the purview of a particular term, and that quite simply confuses me. In my understanding definitions, whether strictly determined or loosely spun, are about facilitating conversations. They help clarify the words we use so that the ideas and activities those words represent can be more easily shared and discussed. Grouping things is not about exclusion, rather it facilitates comparison, both among things within the group and between groups. It is a way of learning and growing; it encourages the cross-pollination of ideas, or at least it should when it is done openly and honestly.

Yesterday I learned two things. One: that patchwork properly refers to the piecing together of various stuffs to form a larger something, but that within different areas there are colloquial usages for the term such as the one I grew up with. Two: definitions are scary, or so it seems. Do we wish to resist categorization, demanding some pure individuality that is ourselves, or has the quilting world just become that contentious that anything that even hints at our differences in approach or understanding has become taboo. I just don’t know.

It seems to me that there is a whole giant world of quilting out there, and an even bigger world of ideas that can be drawn upon. I love those giant worlds; that’s why I ask questions, and keep asking more. I want to find the similarities and the differences; I want to delve into the nuances. Quilting has rapidly become something very important to me, as a practice, as a place of calm and reflection, as an aesthetic outlet, and yes, as an intellectual pursuit. I want to explore the quilting tradition, but also see how it relates to a thousand other traditions, as well as to the trivialities of everyday life. I want to connect it to the last 20 years of my professional life as an artist, and to my soon to be three-year-old daughter. But all of that is too big to look at all at once, hence definitions, groupings, categories. I think people are capable of loving a million categories at once, at least hope so, and to see among and between those categories an infinitude of possibility. It is there that I pass my daydreaming moments. It is there that I see the quilt I want to and hope to make, someday.


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3 Responses to Ferhoodled

  1. 1

    Was interesting to watch the conversation unfold yesterday. I was trying to decide how I felt about labels & definitions and being categorized by the terms discussed or terms I had considered on my own. I see many of the points made with a nod.

    I do think, tho, that it’s impossible to consider what is new without considering what has come before, whether overtly or not. (Kinda like utopia not being able to exist without knowing what is non-utopian.) Any adjectivial term you use can’t exist without an opposing view, a corollary or historical usage, even if it’s not self-evident to the person using it. That person’s lack of awareness is not a reason to verbally castigate them either, as we’ve seen so often in these discussions. That’s where I get a little bothered. At the most basic level, all quilting is a form of self-expression. Lambasting a quilter for describing their quilt a certain way is like telling them to shut-up. Oy vey.

    For example, I don’t have any formal training in art whatsoever, and I know very little about terminology, movements and techniques. I’m sure I incorrectly label and define things in my descriptions about my work and on my blog all the time. Does that mean I’m not allowed to do these things b/c I don’t know what I’m talking about? No. Does that mean it degrades the integrity of someone else’s work b/c I talk about my own through the lens of artistic ignorance? No. Does that mean I’m not allowed to continue bringing my art into the world in whatever format I choose? No.

    It does mean I have a deep and sincere appreciation for those who DO know the techniques, history and terminology, and that as long as they’re willing to discuss and impart their knowledge in books, blogs, conversations – I will listen, glean what I can and incorporate these concepts into my vernacular as the need arises. We are all students and teachers on some level, regardless of training and experience. That’s the beauty of art – let’s keep it that way!

    • 1.1
      thomas says:

      The odd thing is I never saw anyone in that discussion try to tell anyone else what there work was or wasn’t, or what it should or shouldn’t be. It seems to me that language and ideas make sense through comparison with what they are like and not like; that is how we discuss things. I don’t know where the assumption comes from that to do so is to prefer one thing over another.

      Somehow I believe we all make things for reasons, are drawn to ideas and practices because of something other than random interest; how else is it that we make one thing rather than the million other things we could make. I find those choices interesting, and learn from the choices I and myriad others make. It isn’t a value judgement; it is just looking and considering.

      But the oddest thing of all is the odd sentiment that seemed to arise that in asking questions about something it is fundamentally about trying to replace it. My discussion was simply a matter of trying to suss out a word that seemed to be getting used a lot of different ways, and thus confused me. Now if we want to shift to the word Modern, not sure how that happened, I don’t see why people see it as an attempt to replace other approaches to quilting. There are more than enough questions to be asked to go around.

      For me difference does not mean opposition; it simple means things are different from other things and in my mind that is the beauty of the universe.

  2. 2
    Amy says:

    curious… I always assumed that patchwork was piecing 2 pieces together with a seam, while the other was applique – where you apply a piece to another piece… (I has always been that simple in my mind.)
    I do see subsets – traditional/precise/wonky/improvisational…

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