Why quilts (a nascent manifesto)…

I love quilts. A few years ago I had no idea that I loved quilts, but now I do. I mean I always loved quilts in a basic way, in a-snuggle-under-them and like-to-look-at-them kind of way, but now I love-love quilts. I love what they represent, what they can mean, and meaning for me is what quilts are all about.

Of course I like beautiful quilts, who doesn’t? But I must admit I am always wary of aesthetics; I mistrust the very notion of the beautiful. History is littered with works that were once beautiful, but soon became grotesque. Today’s avant garde is tomorrow’s fad and the next day’s yard sale. I am no believer in the timeless.

Now, I am not opposed to beautiful quilts; I am just drawn to the Why? far more than the What? of quilts, though Why? may be far too vague a term. There are so many reasons why we make quilts: we enjoy the process, we think they are beautiful, we need them, etc… Perhaps the more accurate question for me is: What does a quilt mean?

While the meaning of a quilt can be enormously vague, I think it is a somewhat better question than Why. Meaning can seem simple: I am making a baby quilt for a newborn because I think handmade quilts matter, that the act of making this quilt resonates through the object. Meaning can be direct: quilts can tackle social, political, cultural, and historical issues in extraordinary ways. The thing about meaning is that it is there whether we intend it or not; our every choice imbues what we make with meaning.

I know that I am rather new to the quilting world, but it feels like there is something happening here, that a conversation is underway. The Modern Quilts movement has sparked a lot of conversations, and is bringing a new community to quilting that may not have come here otherwise (most likely including me). While I do think something unique is happening within the Modern Quilts movement, I do not see it as outside of the quilting tradition. I am actually dubious of the terms “modern” and “traditional”; they both seem like words that are far too prone to misunderstanding.

Personally I would ditch the term “traditional quilt” and replace it with the premise of the quilting tradition, which intentionally evokes a continuum of practice. Myriad styles inherently fit together in the quilting tradition, which invariably changes over time and depending on region. Everything then is in dialogue with everything else, which seems far more accurate than a “traditional” v. “modern” duality. It seems to me that at the inception of the Modern Quilts movement, the term Modern was in reference to capital-M Modernism as an art, cultural, and social premise, not small-m modern, referring generically to, well, now as opposed to the past.

But I digress (as usual). The Modern Quilts movement seems to have sparked a conversation about the place of quilts within our lives. This is not a new conversation, but it seems to be happening at a rather explicit level at the moment. Furthermore it has prompted an examination of a variety of “modern forms.” At some point nearly every “modern form” has been utilized by some group of quilters or another, but usually for different reasons than an expressed concern for a “modern aesthetic.”

For me aesthetics are a tool, not an endpoint. For example, “clean and simple” is not fundamentally modern; that visual vocabulary evolved in response to an enormous variety of cultural, historical, and aesthetic factors and in dialogue with wider practices. And that aesthetic is but one small component of the broader history of Modernism. Some day I would like to take an extended time to really look at that broader history through the lens of quilting, but this is not that time. What I do want to do here is ask a question: Why Modern?

There are a lot of potential answers to this question, and no one answer is fundamentally more valid than another, but I do believe that it is an important question to ask. In many ways I feel like the fate of the Modern Quilts movement rests in the balance (though I may be verging on the hyperbolic there). In no way am I saying that every single quilter must answer this question, or that it is even necessary to everyone. It is a systemic question, one for the community to discuss (if it so desires), not an imperative for every individual. Nor do I think it is a question with a single answer; I don’t actually think it would be desirable to have a solitary answer in this case. What I think matters is the question.

Why Modern? What is it that has drawn people to the notion of Modern Quilting? What does it represent? What is the meaning behind it, the overt and latent significances of the choices behind Modern in this context?

For me it is all about making meaningful quilts, quilts rich with symbolic significance in response to the world I live in. At times this may be subtle, and other times it will be more overt, more immediately about an issue. I am interested in the interaction of conceptual concerns with practical quilts, with bringing cultural critique to bed quilts (or baby quilts, or lap quilts, etc.). I am interested in how those issues play out in quilts that become part of our lives, in what it means to wrap ourselves in those concepts, in how those ideas change over time as our lives do, or as the quilt falls apart through a lifetime of use. (I see this as the difference between Modern Quilts and Art Quilting.) I am interested in quilts as a response to modernity and post-modernity, and as a means to talk about it. Most of all I am interested in why.

Perhaps Why? is not so vague a question after all, once it is wedded to the idea of meaning. Perhaps it is the essential question after all. Why is Modern Quilting more than just another fad? Is it? Should it be?

I think it is more, even if I don’t necessarily think it is all that new, but I don’t think new is really a relevant question. (This quest for the new is steeped in 20th century advertising, and has probably done more harm that good.) So many of the classic quilt patterns are fundamentally about meaning: Double Wedding Ring, harvest and basket blocks, heck, sampler quilts (and embroidery) are quintessential rites of passage. Quilts are rich in a heritage of meaning, and the potential of the Modern Quilts movement is that it offers another set of questions, new concerns, and renewed interest in making meaning.
I feel like Modern Quilting is at a bit of a crossroads: its presence has been announced, it has a platform; now what? Why Modern?

And then of course the next question: Where is it going?

-T

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9 Responses to Why quilts (a nascent manifesto)…

  1. 1
    Pepper Cory says:

    Thank you for a very thoughtful essay on quilting, its characteristics and terminology, and how it might evolve in the future. There seems to be this ‘skipped generation’ dynamic happening here. Face it, quilts made by skilled 50-70 year old quiltmakers (the generation MQG might call “our moms”) often involve complex piecing, juxtapositioning of discordant prints, and a general joy in mixing it up and jamming lots of eye candy into the project at hand. Remember that’s the generation that grew up being told: white goes with everything, red-heads can’t wear pink, and for god’s sake don’t put that polka-dot blouse together with that patterned skirt! (The last was once said to me.)That’s the generation that’s still rebelling against the rules, whatever the rules are. My personal pin-up quilts are 19th century Southern scrap quilts, often made from poor materials and in a slap-dash manner. In other words, quilts my grandmother or great-grandmother might have made. For years I didn’t think my Mom (seamtress though she was) had ever made a quilt and I certainly wasn’t interested in what I thought was her quasi-modern post-war make-it-all match decorating style. I was a snob in tie-dye and blue jeans.
    MQG’s are finding a different style and as long as this style is not rigid or dogmatic, I’m for whatever will interest people in learning to quilt. It’s intriguing that 1950s modernism, which seemed to me as a young woman to be so stark and joyless, can be inspiring to a different generation. Am always awed at the power of television’s style i.e. Mad Men. Here’s what I’m NOT interested in: making quilts from one line of fabric and being an advertisement for a particular designer. For me, there’s no point in being a quilter unless I am creative and can shape and personalize the art. I am truly excited about MQG and hope it continues to grow. FYI: I make quilts because finding the pattern and bringing it to life is important. I make quilts to celebrate births, to wrap the dead in, and to fly as flags.The act of quilting unites me with other people in a positive act. Maybe if we could get more folks to the quilting frame, we’d bring about world peace!

    • 1.1
      Colleen says:

      Amen and while I don’t usually make quilts from all one line, some lines are almost conversational and I can see some of the stories I want to tell either with the designs and/or colorways-people like Tula Pink and Denyse schimdt very different styles but making fabric that I cant, yet they have the paints I want to play with to make my picture story.

    • 1.2
      thomas says:

      The thing about Modern (or Modernism) for me is that it has so very little to do with any particular style. The quilts I am most interested in (and most of the quilts I make) are all over the place aesthetically. I love intricate small piecing every bit as much as massive improvisational piecing. I believe that aesthetic choices best follow conceptual decisions, whatever those decisions may be.

      I think there is a lot of potential in the discussions prompted by the MQGs, but I am nervous about them being reduced to stylistic generalities. Now that the conversation has been engaged I hope further and deeper discussions can really take root.

      On the personal side, I actually find 50s Modernism to be the least interesting thing ever. Now the Cubo-Futuro-Dadaist period, that was some serious Modernism. Also, I am a serious baby quilt maker. I would love every baby in the universe to have a handmade quilt. I do believe there is a resonance that carries through a quilt, a meaning that accrues to it that carries forward. It is actually that fundamental significance that so intrigues me, that I see as a space for specific, meaningful making.

  2. 2
    Colleen says:

    Love your thoughts. As someone who learned to quilt in the 1990s with an online quilt guild I was caught between wanting to express myself and feeling the need to follow the quilting rules. I that is what separates a modern quilter from a traditional. I actually put quilting aside for about ten years because of illness and a move and partly because I felt conflicted and alone with little support for my more individual ideas. When I returned to the online quilting world in July 2010 a revolution had taken place and I found myself and others like me. It is amazing! Thanks for the deep quilting thoughts. You should come and chat Tuesdays on twitter at #talknt, 9p-11p EST. We sometimes chat deep quilting thoughts.

  3. 3
    Mary ann says:

    Thank you for such thoughtful prose Thomas. I do think hard about my quilts and how they talk about who I am and what I have to say. That being said I love to see a little one, or a big person wrapped in something I made just for them.

    • 3.1
      thomas says:

      I love that too. I think that experience is an essential part of the Modern Quilts movement (or whatever it is). I am most interested in when meaning-rich quilts are used and develop lives, how concepts play out over time and in use rather than on a wall.

  4. 4
    Teresa L. Hoagland says:

    Thomas, My what an interesting topic, and done very well I might add. I believe your correct in the question of Why Modern?
    Personally, I can’t quite get to the why as I still stuck at the question of what makes one quilt ‘modern’ or another one ‘traditional'[yep, I definitely misunderstand the terms].
    I come from a long line of seamstresses who produced everything from clothing to quilts, draperies to tents. Quilts are an expression of a person, no different than the work of the great Masters in Art, or the crayon work of an eight yr old. We all have something to express and sometimes it is easier to do that in a media different from language. That said, I don’t agree with the first responder, Ms.Cory. Of all the artist, in all the media’s I have been exposed to, and in the quilter’s that I have been associated with, none of them are “rigid or dogmatic,” and none of them are using “poor materials and in a slap-dash manner”. The guidelines for producing a quality quilt are just that, guidelines, not rules. And every designer and quilt teacher has encouraged individuality in their students. I am blessed to be among the “moms” quilt generation and I will put my best imagination and skills to work in my ‘modern’ quilts. Keep up the great conversation, Thomas. Teresa

  5. 5
    jill says:

    I agree that the term Modern is mis-leading. I think originally, people like Denise Schmidt and Joelle Hoverson were looking to an aesthetic that was based on Modernism and the Gees Bend quilts. And improvisational quilting seems to me to have some basis in improvisational music or poetry like jazz or spoken word from the same era.

    But I also wonder how much Modern refers to the influence of Modern technology. The Modern quilt movement has a lot to do with the internet and the sewing machine and the speed with which we can pass along patterns and techniques and ideas, and the speed with which we can finish quilts. I think Flikr and blogs accelerates the dialogue between quilters and designers, and at the same time machine quilting accelerates the speed with which quilting can be done.

    On a personal level, my quilts often start out with fabrics I love or a design or block that I love. Then they develop a story as I sew and quilt them, and usually take on literary resonances, as I’m an English teacher, or personal resonances depending on who I’m making them for. Then they take on the additional meaning given to them by the use of the quilt or the person I’m giving it to and what they use it for. One of the best things about quilts and other practical objects is the layers of meaning they take one, isn’t it?

    I have more thoughts, but my 5 yr old is going to trample me if I don’t feed him.

  6. 6
    Casey says:

    This is a great post, and you raise lots of thought-provoking questions.

    I wonder if one of the relevant sub-questions in defining modern quilting has to do with who self-identifies as a “modern” quilter, as well as how “non-modern” quilters would describe themselves. Not that I think that we should put everyone in a box, but I do think that movements like this often define themselves in opposition to other approaches. Also, while I agree that aesthetics aren’t everything, it does seem like many of the ways self-identified modern quilters would describe their creations are rooted, at least in part, in those objects’ formal aspects. For example, quilts that comment on social issues like the ones featured recently on Pattern Observer , embrace the question of meaning in a deliberate way, but I’m not sure we would categorize them as “modern” based on their aesthetics and intended use. Just as with other types of design, I think that formal descriptors such as “modern” and “traditional” can be a valid way to understand the differences between objects that are/were made at the same time.

    I think another aspect of the modern quilting movement is it’s level of self-reflection. I’m not a specialist in modern/contemporary art, but I always understood them as being informed by a strong tendency to consciously and deliberately position themselves in the context of the history of art, and this seems to be true of modern quilting, as well.

    Also, it seems like modern quilting is tied closely to other aspects of the modern crafting and DIY movements, especially in its emphasis on creating useful objects that carry more meaning than mass-produced goods. But even this isn’t limited to so-called “modern” movements–my mother-in-law puts as much thought into the blankets she makes for her grandkids as I do into things I make for my sons, but I doubt she would describe her practice as particularly “modern.” Perhaps part of this is generational–growing up I know that my friends and I under-appreciated homemade things and viewed store-bought goods as signs of status. I wonder if part of crafting’s draw for twenty- and thirty-somethings isn’t an attempt to redress similar attitudes, as well as to redefine the handcrafted object in ways that deliberately avoid what they may have perceived as the shortcomings of the crafting styles of their parents.

    The broader social and cultural significance of modern crafting is especially interesting to me right now, so I look forward to you future thoughts on this topic!

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