Why words matter…

So, if you’ve spent any time here reading the words I post you will have likely picked up on the fact that I think words matter. The reason I am so interested how we use the word Modern is not so much because I think we need to use a particular definition (though I certainly have an understanding that I favor), but because there seem to be so many definitions floating around out there that it is nearly impossible to actually have an in-depth conversation about modern quilting.

I’m not going to dive back into that right now; the combination of Bee and Rabbit is keeping me on a rather short leash these days, especially with QuiltCon and my manuscript deadline right around the corner. But I was thinking about how words get used last night and remembered this example, from Cracker Barrel…

We stopped in a Cracker Barrel to feed Bee on a road trip last summer, under duress I might add. I was drawn to the wall of quilts, such as they are, and ran into this description:

thomas-knauer-sews-cracker-barrel

I love this phrase: “It has an intricately designed hand crafted pattern.” What the hell does that mean. There is nothing hand-crafted about this actual quilt, but I suppose the pattern could have been hand-crafted. Pretty much everything, if you go back far enough, has a connection to the human hand. But for Cracker Barrel this is a way to slip the phrase “hand crafted” into the description; it doesn’t say it is hand made per se, but does a lot to put a potential buyer into that frame of mind. It is not a falsehood, but an obfuscation, or at least an equivocation.

(I also love the phrase “a soothing cream-white color,” you know, in case you are buying a Cracker Barrel quilt for a dangerous psychopath, but I digress.)

You see, the words we use and how we use them matter. Far too often I see words like fresh and clean and modern used so casually without a regard for what they might really mean or imply. If your quilt is fresh, does that mean that other designs are stale? Are fresh and clean fundamentally components of modern? Is modern necessarily a good thing? Modern is a complicated word with a fraught past; as modern history has show the line between the utopian and the totalitarian is razor thin.

Perhaps it is the process of finishing up my QuiltCon talks, and re-editing my manuscript for the umpteenth time, but I am feeling really close to words these days. In a lot of ways I feel like this may be the year of words for Modern Quilting, and an important one for determining its future. And in that process I just hope we can always keep in mind the notion that words really matter.

Yay words!!!

-t

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11 Responses to Why words matter…

  1. 1
    Peggy says:

    Interesting. I am thinking “contemporary” is a word I like better than modern. Modern seems so old and wore out from the art world.

    • 1.1
      thomas says:

      I actually think modern can be useful, when used carefully. Contemporary, on the other hand, drive me nuts; every quilt made now is by definition contemporary. Revival quilts are steadfastly contemporary as they reinforce their relationship to now through the process of looking back…

  2. 2
    Jen says:

    Realistically it probably IS hand crafted — by a woman in a factory in Bangladesh or some other place for something like 7 cents an hour. Perhaps not what one thinks when one encounters the term “hand crafted” but nonetheless a human being used her hands (and an industrial sewing machine) to make it.

    • 2.1
      thomas says:

      Sadly, you are quite possibly right, though that makes it all the more disturbing. The phrasing then carefully avoids that reality by not speaking to the object’s relationship to the hand per se, but the hand crafted pattern. Add likely covering for exploitative labor processes into the woes of the language here (and the object). All the more reason to consider words very carefully…

  3. 3
    Mary Ann says:

    Most of us know words matter especially in the context of relationships and interactions with others. I have only begun to think of words in the context of my quilting since you began the discussion. Yay words!

  4. 4
    Stevii says:

    Recently I happened to look at a 1982 copy of Knopf Collector’s Guides to American Antiques: Quilts and was amazed at how many “modern” quilts I found there. The concentric square quilts? … Mennonite 1890. Examples of 1930 quilts using solid fabrics with simple block designs look modern. Amish quilts become modern by replacing black with gray or white. I found it to be fascinating way to look at this book.
    I love words, but “modern” is a word I find confusing.

    • 4.1
      thomas says:

      I love confusing words. But in this realm there seems to be a lot of confusion about modern vs. modern-looking. Furthermore, applying the conceptual framework of one time or culture (say Modernism) backwards or sideways onto another time or culture (such as the Amish and Mennonite communities, which are resolutely non-modern) is always a problematic. Taking the surface appearance of a thing as the sum total of a thing is always, always, always problematic. We usually remind ourselves that you can’t judge a book by its cover when it comes to people, but the same applies to objects, including oddly enough, books. Modern really isn’t that confusing; it is the all to frequent misuse of the term that is confusing…

      • Stevii says:

        Good grief, you sound like a college professor! LOL
        Not sure I completely understand your thoughts, but it does give me something to think about.
        I went to one of your Schoolhouse presentations this fall in Houston. I’ll be at QuiltCon, so may show up at one of your lectures.

  5. 5
    Sarah says:

    Thomas- Your Quiltcon lecture was fantastic! I so appreciated the educational aspect of it, and your humility. Starting the lecture by showing us Bee’s bracelet gave so much insight into who you are and what matters to you. The word from your lecture that stayed with me the most was “relevant.” The concept of “Modern” is relative–wheels were a “modern invention” to cavemen!

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