Why I Ask…

I ask a lot of serious questions around here, and sometimes I’m sure it can be annoying. The questions are partly just part of my nature; a lifetime in the academic realm has that effect on a person, or in my case just nourishes the tendency. But that is not the only reason I ask the question; I do it because I truly do care about quilts. They matter to me not just as objects and family traditions, but as cultural artifacts, as a symbolic form, as a vital practice and as a means to understanding just who we are. Almost all of the questions I ask circle around a single concern: why do we make quilts?

That question, though, is not as simple as it may seem; it is only in part a matter of why each of us individually makes the quilts we make. The questions that really compel me are those of why the form, the practice of quiltmaking, indeed persists. Or more accurately, the questions I ask contemplate the concern of why people will or will not continue to make quilts in the future.

To simply assume that people will continue to make quilts because they have for the past two centuries or so seems somehow naïve. The history of quilts is rich and varied, and just as the pace of transformation has increased in the world at large, our relationship to quilts has being changing ever more rapidly. Or to put that more succinctly, perhaps, the role quilts play in society is ever changing, and continues to change at an ever-quickening pace.

To put it directly, those generations of quilters — my great-grandmother, my wife’s grandmother — who made quilts largely out of necessity, the need for warm bedcovers, are leaving this earth. The percentage of quilters who have known that necessity is dwindling with each passing year. Many quilters learned to quilt from someone of that generation, but most of them have lived their lives in a world where mass-produced blankets are plentiful, and are more accessible and affordable than handmade quilts. Quilting has lived on as a tradition and a hobby, done because of an intimate connection with the practice or a love of beautiful patterns, but with each year the real connection to the necessity of quilts grows less palpable.

I have long found the phrase “traditional quilting” interesting because it rarely has much to do with the traditional basis of quilting: necessity. In the later part of the 20th century quilting has focused heavily on a certain historicist tendency, the revival of forms from times past, and there may always be a thriving space for reproduction fabric and quilts. Within this space, quilting shifted from being a practice based on need to one more associated with hobby. As new quilters came into the practice they had little connection with the larger heritage of quilting and learned the forms, practiced the techniques.

So much of the quilting world seems to be focused on the question of why quilts were made. While I obviously find that to be an important question — heck as an art academic I am the first to jump up and down in support of understanding the historical context — I think there is a lot to be said for looking forward as well.

The exciting thing for me about modern quilting is that it has sparked a significant public conversation about why we make quilts today. Certainly art quilting sparked a similar conversation decades ago, but in many ways that was a very different question, one tied to the relationship between craft and art. The current discussion seems to fundamentally inquire into what role quilts can and do perform today. Certainly many of the issues reach all the way back to the roots of quilting, but many more stem from the ways in which we interact with a world that has changed profoundly in just the last ten years, let alone since my parent were my age. We no longer make out of necessity, so why do we do it? Yes, each of us loves making quilts (at least some of the time), but why are quilts still being made?

At the moment quilts speak; the very act of making something rather than buying it resonates with care, with concern, with intimacy — though often at a distance. I cannot but see the current wave of quilting as a response to a fragmented and often alienating world. Quilts are a practice that produces a location: a quilt is more than a thing; it becomes a place to be. I could go on forever, and probably have elsewhere, but I love that the discussion of why quilts today and what they mean is growing all the time. Yes, quilts are personal, but they are also enormously social; just look at the relationship that has grown up between quilting and social media.

Even as quilting perpetually looks back to its history, I hope it — writ large — can continually recognize the shifts in the context that surrounds quilting. Quilts have always been wrapped up in issues of class, race, gender, and age. The community still struggles with many of these issues, assumptions, and misperceptions. A quilt made today can never be the same as one made a century ago, even if it is a faithful reproduction; context matters. Making a quilt today is a profoundly different act than making one150 years ago. An Amish quilt can never be just an Amish quilt again. History changes things, and every passing day changes history.

And that brings me back full circle. While I enjoy the current discussions about quilting, and have my favorite voices out there on the topic, what really interests me is considering why people will continue to quilt. Just as my great-grandmother has passed, so will I. If I’m lucky I’ll get another fifty years to make quilts; when I succumb to bouts of pride I hope that my voice might in some way matter in that time. Who knows? But what I do know is that my practice is very likely to be very different by the end; heck I expect it to be enormously different in ten years, and not just because I will have changed. The world may be very different; the questions surrounding quilts will change just as the bigger picture does. Who knows what the industry will be like, the technology, the way we communicate?

The questions I want to explore go beyond what we make, beyond what motivates any particular quilt, to why quilts are made at all. In so many ways it seems like a minor miracle that the practice has survived the radical industrialization, commodification, and commercialization of the last half-century. It has taken a lot of work on behalf of some amazing people, inventing and reinventing ways to keep the practice vibrant. For all of those people I am sincerely grateful.

This all leads me to a very simple question: not to be morbid, but as we all pass from this earth what is going to compel new generations of quilters? What are the ideas that will resonate? The art world has survived by being flexible enough to accommodate an endless stream of new ideas, techniques, and materials. Is quilting prepared for that? The future is always a progressive endeavor, so where do we want it to go? Those iconic Amish quilts, for example, were reflections of deeply held social and religious values; their simplicity was a manifestation of a life that rejected the trappings of the materialistic world. What values do we want to imbue our work with now; how do we want quilts to be seen? The path will not lay itself; the conversations we have today matter not just for now, but as signposts toward tomorrow.


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10 Responses to Why I Ask…

  1. 1
    Casey says:

    I like the way you frame your questions as dealing with collective rather than individual behavior. I realize now that the reason I am uneasy with talking about some of the motivators I believe underlie the modern DIY movement/s is because I am afraid that people will misunderstand an analysis of cultural drivers as a mis-characterization of their own individual reasons for crafting/making/creating (when, in actuality, the two sets of reasons co-exist and are equally valid).

    Is this the question you’re hoping to address in your next book? It does seem like there’s a book in there somewhere 🙂

    • 1.1
      thomas says:

      Thanks Casey. It is that bigger picture, the cultural and sociological picture, that is so interesting to me. Of course, each quilt matters, but that wider view is so incredibly interesting at the moment. I’ve always been interested in objects that continue to be made when they are no longer strictly needed (i.e. a material necessity). In that investigation there is so often such profound meaning.

      And yes, a bunch of this is what I am thinking about as I frame a possible second book… Fingers crossed.

      • Casey says:

        Absolutely–I think communicating meaning often *is* the reason things continue to be made after they cease to be strictly necessary. And I would really like to read that book, so crossing my fingers for you.

  2. 2

    I make quilts because they tell my stories. The modern quilts are often simple and made quickly. The old style, traditional, took time. Women did their “stint” each day, a reprieve from the harder chores. Just so, I spend an hour most days doing hand quilting. I love the meditation of the process, and I love the look and drape of hand quilting. Scorned by some for only 8 stitches per inch as compared to machine quilting, it is a skill to hand quilt stitches that tiny. I love the variety of choices in quilts and quilting available today. Every quilt tells a story.

  3. 3
    Patti. says:

    Maybe it is true that quilts are no longer made for practical necessity, that the skill is no longer handed down through the generations but maybe they are being made for creative necessity. I have no skill with a pencil or paintbrush, my word skills are only fair, but creating a quilt block gives me the sense of what it might be like to have artistic talent. There is much mass produced art today yet the painter potter and sculptor still create. That’s what quilt making is for me, the satisfaction of creating. The sense of being part of the art world, of creating something that will last past me and yet will hold a part of me forever.

  4. 4
    Paula says:

    There is no history of quilting in my family, or at least none that I know of. But we are a family of crafters. There has been sewing, knitting, crochet, needlework. I do or have done it all and now I also quilt. Why – because for me it is creative, it is the ability to create exactly what I want for the purpose it is intended – my quilts are all for use, not for show. It allows me to practically use fabrics I love in yet another form. Will I pass my skills on to the next generation? Well I don’t know. My sons are very young, my eldest is nearly five at at the moment he loves to help me sew and to sew himself. I encourage that just as I encourage all of his creative endeavours. He may or may not decide to maintain these skills as he grows older but I firmly believe that even if neither of my sons take up my crafting and quilting heritage there will be others who will, just as I have done.

  5. 5
    Anna says:

    I hope when my two boys look back to their childhoods they will see the love that surrounded all the hand made things I gave them. I made them quilts for their beds for the same simple reason I’ve made all but 1 pair of pyjamas for them both since they came out of sleep suits, so they go to bed each night surrounded by something that expresses my love for them.

    I think nostalgia plays a large part in the hand made movement, we remember things that our older relatives made for us and want to try and give some of that to our kids. Hopefully they will then remember that and want to pass it on to the next generation, if not then maybe their kids will see the pictures and want to learn the skills.

    The other reason I make stuff is because it’s a part of who I am, if I’m not making something I don’t feel whole and I get itchy if I go too long without something to show for my time.

  6. 6
    Mary Val says:

    I believe quilts are still made for warmth – practical necessity. Mine certainly are made to keep you warm. What I see that has changed perhaps is the poverty that created a dire necessity. I recall reading an article about a gentleman who hated quilts, because they reminded him of the poverty his family lived in. His family had quilts on the bed made from worn fabric scraps because that was all they could afford; he found quilts a humiliating reminder of those terrible years. My Irish grandmother made quilts from my grandfather’s old wool suits. Houses didn’t have central heating; bedrooms were generally upstairs under the eaves of the roof in uninsulated houses. Even when I was growing up, ice would form on the inside of the windows of my bedroom. Grandmother’s wool quilts kept us warm. My children are late 20s, early 30s in age; they report to me a huge increase in interest among their peers in hand made, crafting, sewing, quilting. These are young families with small children who find an outlet for their creativity, personal satisfaction, and financial savings in upcycling, repurposing items, refinishing items, and making it themselves. When I began quilting 35 years ago, there were fabric stores, but very few quilt shops in the country. I was the only person I knew that quilted. I knew many ladies who sewed, but none that quilted. There were no classes, very few books, no local guilds. It seemed a dying art. I am astonished and thrilled at the HUGE upsurge in the number of quilters, in the resources available, especially via the internet, since I began quilting. I find it fascinating now to see that many quilters didn’t start as sewers. They made quilts, but didn’t sew, they weren’t making clothing, or costumes, or household items. I am seeing a change in that too, I see another big increase coming in the numbers of dedicated quilters now sewing items other than quilts.

  7. 7
    Lynn says:

    For me, there are memories tied into a lot of the quilts that I make. I love sewing all sorts of things so I also make gifts for my children and other family members. I choose fabrics that will mean something to them. Scraps from these projects will end up in scrap quilts that I make. I get to go down memory lane when I make the quilts and also when I use them.

    When my niece was small, she came to visit me and we made a dress together. I saved the scraps from that dress and some of that fabric went into the quilt that I made for her high school graduation. She remembered that visit here when she recognized that fabric piece. There were bits of pajamas I had made for her and her brother, and pillow case scraps that I had made for her whole family. It makes me very happy to think of her wrapped up in love and memories while she is away at college.

    I have other memories of the fabric I use, some may have been given to me by a friend, or I remember where I purchased it or who I was with at the time. I guess I’m pretty nostalgic about the whole thing.

  8. 8
    Sally Nicol says:

    Your questions are designed to make us think. In an increasingly digital world where we communicate at arm’s length I think quilting gives us the chance to connect to our creative side and make something unique.

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