My Wager…

Everything I am doing these days as a artist, as a fabric designer and a quilter and a writer, is based on a wager, one that may hold some real risks to my future in this industry. At the same time I think it offers some genuine rewards, and not just economic ones; I think this wager—or perhaps series of closely related wagers—are my path to contributing to a tradition that I think is extraordinarily.

Here is the wager, or wagers (in no particular order):

I think people want to make smart, amazing quilts, but don’t quite know how, or more accurately are so intimidated by the idea of creativity that has been reinforced by the mythos of the artist as creative genius that they don’t even know how to begin.

I think that people are already tiring of the modern fad, as distinct from a true engagement of modern quilting or quilting as a profoundly modern act.

I think the marketing/advertising complex that works to reduce modern to sellable bits and units, discrete and narrow styles to be emulated and sold has radically underestimated the quilting audience and its deep engagement with the quilting tradition. In fact one editor actually told me that a certain press’s readers “don’t like a lot of words.” (I nearly cried.)

I think every quilter who makes a quilt with the intent of that object being used is only a few tiny steps from profoundly modern conceptual quilts. Quilters make things instead of buying them believe that making matters, that there is something important about not just buying something mass-produced, an object most likely made by exploiting the cheap labor available in developing economies. That decision to make is already steeped in political and social issues, ones that can easily inform the things we make.

Quilts don’t have to be about something big; small ideas are often the most profound ones. At the same time I think the truly modern quilts are indeed about something.

Looking modern, whatever that might mean, is not enough. Style must never be confused with substance, and modern is fundamentally about substance.

I think that modern is really big and has room for a million styles. Just look at the history of modern art. If modern quilting does not move beyond stylistic markers it will run its course in five years, about the same time the book-buying public’s shelves are full of modern quilting books.

I think that all of this is both easy and hard. For the most part making smart things is not that hard, just think a bit, talk a bit, and be willing to totally fuck up and the smart stuff will happen. It is a skill to be learned, just like sewing a decent 1/4” seam allowance. As long as you don’t expect it to be instantaneous it will come. It is hard because we so often just assume that it is hard. There is an entire complex built up around showing people how to do things the “quick and easy” way; that way is bullshit (pardon the French). It will only get you the surface, the trappings. Substance is always unique; you just need to sit down and find it. From there all that remains is the making.
Not everything has to be modern. It is okay to make lots of stuff. You can like whatever you want, though liking it doesn’t make it modern. Not everything is modern and that is okay. Stuff is kinda awesome.

I think that the hegemony of “fresh and clean” needs to go away fast. As long as that sticks around modern is going to be small, limited, and exclusive. I have no idea what modern looks like and I’ve been living with the practice of making modern/postmodern art for 25 years. Modern is a type of engagement with the act of making. Fresh and clean is a mere instant, a tiny piece in the modern lexicon. As long as it defines modern modern will not actually be modern. (Yep, that last sentence actually works.)

I think as long as people are asking whether they are modern quilters they will be making small, narrow quilts. If you try to be a modern quilt then you will try to make modern quilts. And if you try to make modern quilts you will likely try to make quilts that look modern. And if you try to make quilts that look modern then you will likely emulate other modern quilts because they have been deemed modern. If you emulate other modern quilts you are not making quilt that stem from your relationship to the world around you; you are not actually making your quilts. And if you aren’t making your quilts you might as well just make historical quilt because every quilt made before your current quilt is already history.

So, that’s my wager, or at least a bit of it. I am pretty sure there are quite a few more propositions that weave their way through all this.

Of course these aren’t hard and fast rules; rules are stupid except when it comes to the public safety and things like that. They are perhaps first principles, or maybe second or third, but you get the gist. There is nothing wrong with emulating something you really love, or following a pattern, or whatever at times. At the same time I think we need to keep looking at our relationship to quilts and quilting.

I may be insanely wrong, both in my ideas and in my read of the modern quilting scene, but I don’t think so. Now it’s time to cross my fingers and go at it…

Yay wagers!!!


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19 Responses to My Wager…

  1. 1
    Daryl says:

    Amen brother. Well said. I enjoy reading your blog. I appreciate that you challenge us to think and stretch. Keep up the great musings! Yay thought-provoking!

  2. 2
    Mary ann says:

    So its Friday night and I’d rather be sitting playing a mindless FB game and instead, once again Thomas, you have me thinking about my quilts. This sentence keeps resonating, “Substance is always unique; you just need to sit down and find it.” I think I need to open another bottle of wine now.

  3. 3
    Maggie Magee says:

    A quick note to say that I agree.

  4. 4
    Colleen says:

    I agree with a lot of what you said. A few things to remember. First I have been a modern quilter for 20 years. I could show you quilts I made that with the change of a fabric or two could have been made today. I did wonky before there was the word. Second there are always newbies entering the quilting world for which quick and easy is good. There are also some who do not need to grow beyond those techniques. I always enjoy your writings.

  5. 5
    jill says:

    Great, thought provoking ideas, as always. Definitely going to link to this blog, once I’m finished stitching eyes on some penguin friends (I love that I get to make presents for my 6 yr old’s friends’ birthdays).

  6. 6
    Rachel says:

    Oh so much you said. All I can say is yes! Yes.
    Brilliant. Thanks. I really hope to see the scene as it stands now, evolve.

  7. 7
    Joanne Jones says:

    Always thought provoking writing here on your blog and I end up wanting to write loads! I think much of the ‘modern’ quilting movement comes from the plethora of fabrics that are now available to use. I personally find it hard to keep up with the volume of collections that are released now.

    I am really new to quilting and I am still learning the ropes and the basics. I don’t try to be modern but try to make quilts that fit the person that they are destined for.

    Often I think modernity in art/design/music/fashion is often confused with simplicity or a stripping back of ideas, or the advent of a new material/product that changes the construction process. I just think it’s very hard to be completely original these days!

  8. 8
    Mary Ann says:

    I agree. I don’t care for all the “quick and easy” either. I enjoy big words and will say a good percentage of quilt mags irritate me- all seem the same, the same…

  9. 9
    Peggy says:

    OK Thomas, I think I finally understand. At least I understand after reading the comments. Modern is a relative term that may mean something different to each individual. I can look back in my quilting past how some of the quilts I have made could be considered modern if the fabrics were changed to today’s prints.

    When I was learning to quilt I used patterns designed by others, using just 3 to 4 fabrics. Today I design my own patterns and usually use 8 or more fabrics in each quilt. I have never been a fan of lots of background, even if I have several quilts that are mostly background.

  10. 10

    I always love to read what you have to say for it is said well.

  11. 11
    Kristin L says:

    I think there’s a difference between a Modern Quilting aesthetic and a Modern mindset while making a quilt. I would love to agree with your wager and assume the majority are in the latter category. But I’m not buying it. Based on the deluge of rainbow colored large scale prints and designer lines being gobbled up, the interview with MQG Austin leader that pretty much dismisses anything that came before, or does not exist within, a MQG group, and the response at Quilt Con to the pushing of conceptual boundaries, I’d say the majority are about making simple quilts to a prescribed formula and feeling like their part of the popular clique. Yay having an aesthetic that appeals to younger/new quilters. Boo having these same people who don’t want to be pigeon holed with old ladies and the quilt police creating new boxes for others to be excluded.

  12. 12
    Stevii says:

    I think you are talking about making art and I agree with you. It applies not only to modern quilts, but all types of quilting. However, there are tons of people who just want to sew or be social. Some folks like the process of sewing and some just like the idea of hanging out and belonging to a group. If it makes them happy, let them do their own thing. It might be like paint by numbers, but as long as I don’t have to hang one in my house, they can paint away.

  13. 13
    Nikki says:

    Wow. I have the perspective of reading this after attending QuiltCon, and I couldn’t agree with you more. I wish I had been able to attend your lecture!

  14. 14
    Marcia Larson says:

    Beautiful. You’ve so eloquently articulated a developing sense I’ve been feeling but have been unable to describe so completely. Go with it. We’ll catch up.

  15. 15
    Donna says:

    I am still mulling over what Modern/modern really means in the quilt world. A quilt of mine was accepted and took first in its category, but I am a quilter, not exclusively a modern quilter. Many quilts there reminded me of others from years past with influences of Ruth McDowell, Gees Bend Quilters, Amish quilts, Sylvia Einstein, etc. They felt modern, though, because they often exhibited the look of mid-century modern, or ‘organic’, or were a bold graphic, or had a bit of controversy, or just because they used some of those big bold fresh designer prints that quilters who like civil war reproductions wouldn’t know how to use and had light backgrounds that anyone who has ever washed a quilt wouldn’t use. Still, I enjoyed Quiltcon and the quilts on display and I am still excited to have participated. Let’s hope this keeps going. It does entice a broader base of people into quilting and encourages experienced quilters to try something different than they have been doing. Keep sewing, everyone. Keep making things and exhibiting. It’s all (ok, most of it is) good and good for us to do. Most of all, keep learning and improving your work. It’s something to savor, not hurry through.

  16. 16
    Rachel says:

    Wow. I just found your blog thanks to Allegory. I was wondering if anyone was talking about this stuff. So glad to find that someone is, and with intelligence! Thanks for the thoughts.

  17. 17

    […] then, I read the three posts by Thomas Knauer on just this: My Wager, Impasse, and One More Thing.  I remembered the lecture given by Denyse Scmidt about her journey, […]

  18. 18
    molly says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful writing. If I had all the time in the world, I’d probably try to read your whole blog like a novel. Words do matter and your are making a huge contribution with your works.

    My goal this year (and hopefully forever!) is to make the quilts that make ME most happy to make. Chawne K. had a thoughtful post that spurred this in me. Three cheers for thoughtful fiber artists like you and Chawne, and many others, btw!

    And one last side note — I was commenting to a friend recently that every time I use a text print in my quilt, I feel like I am dating my work. It doesn’t necessarily make me feel like I’m being modern. It just feels trendy. I like text prints (well, some of them) so I am OK with that! But I do picture my daughter looking at one of my quilts in 20 years and saying: Look at this quilt my my mom made. It is so early 2010s.


  19. 19

    […] And it turns out that it isn’t as crazy an idea as I thought. (On a corresponding note,Thomas made a Wager recently that’s worth a read. It’s not about ugly things but more the state of quilting affairs. It’s very much […]

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