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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