The Discontinuation of an Icon: Some Thoughts on the Quilting Industry…

Today it was announced that Quilters Newsletter will no longer be published after its October issue; news that brings a major loss for the quilting world, one that I believe is a harbinger of things to come. QN has been around for 47 years; it is both godmother and godfather of the quilting industry as we know it, a magazine not simply about making quilts, but one dedicated to the extraordinary tradition of quiltmaking. I have been lucky to write for QN these past three years, and feel privileged to have contributed to the enduring legacy it will leave behind.

So, in the light of that news it only seems fitting to share my answers to some interview questions Mary Fons sent to me for her upcoming MQG Webinar. Below you will find Mary’s questions and my answers, though I have tweaked (but not significantly changed) my answers for the sake of grammatical decency (sorry I didn’t proofread before sending these to you Mary).

Here we go…

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1. Who, in your view, in painting, sculpture, etc., are close cousins to the modern quilt? (E.g., Albers, no?) And looking at the trajectory of the Albers-like artists, what do you think could come next in terms of style for quilts in America? Are we going to go totally like, floral and Laura Ashley again after all these hard lines?

Let me start with a bit of honesty. I don’t really see the influence of Albers and the other colorists/minimalists (Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Barnett Newman, Warhol – he was such a colorist with his series, Donald Judd, et al) very much in modern quilting. To me it feels more like modern quilting has associated itself with those names as a means to clarify its aesthetic without really connecting with those artists. It was a logical connection as so many of the shapes and color approaches that those artists used naturally lent themselves to comparison to quilts, but the substance of their work rarely if ever shows up in the modern quilting universe. Albers used color in remarkably subtle ways to explore the visual effects of color interaction, not just in pleasing ways, often in radical and jarring ways as he worked through many of the implications of gestalt psychology for the nature of perception and color; his work was so much more than just simple colorful shapes. For the most part modern quilting seems to draw much more from existing elements of traditional quilting: most of what is done in the color field genre borrows more from Amish quilts and stained glass windows than Albers. Same for minimalist quilts, but with some mid-century aesthetics added in; I see almost nothing of Agnes Martin or Kazimir Malevich. In short, I don’t really see modern art as a major influence on modern quilting.

That isn’t to say I don’t like the quilts, just that the influences are coming from different areas. Really it feels more like a freshening up of quilting for a post-Ikea audience. I think most modern quilts are essentially traditional quilts that have adapted to another visual styles, which is what quilting has always done. Much of this likely comes from my belief that modern art was not so much about style as it was substance, which is why there are more schools of modern art (Isms) than you could shake a modern stick at (would that be a highly polished stainless steel rod?). If modern quilting were really about responding to modern art that radical diversity would be reflected. I am not saying that it is a shortcoming for quilters to not be responding to modern art, nor do I think quilters need to be looking to the art world for ideas and inspiration (the quilting tradition is no less important and has profound depths to offer). It is just an explanation of what I see as happening in modern quilting.

That said I would love it if quilters looked more at artists like Agnes Martin, Rauschenberg, Duchamp, Picasso and Matisse, Futurism in general, Stuart Davis, Kurt Schwitters and Jean Arp, Charles Sheeler, Lee Krasner, and Paul Klee. There is so much to be gleaned from these artists even without going very deep into what they were thinking about. I think that would provide a much richer vocabulary for modern quilting than simply appealing to the artists that made work that already looked like quilts.

As far as where I see quilting going, I expect modern quilting to essentially fold into quilting in general within about five years; it will be another style in the panoply of quilting. The word modern will likely survive for a while longer after that, but as far as being seen as distinct from traditional quilting I think it has a limited run left. In the absence of some major and readily affordable technological innovations in the quilting world I don’t imagine the future of quilting will be very different from it is right now. In many ways like it is trying to figure out how to maintain the expansions of the last decade more so than really looking to the future. I don’t see anything new on the horizon; handwork will rise a bit more and then fall back just as the period of idolizing longarm quilting is already receding (that whole rock-star status for longarmers has already diminished so much). Fabric seems to be going more and more toward pop-culture tie-ins with TV shows and popular novels. We are seeing an even greater surge of make-it-simple quilt publications as the wave of modern enthusiasm ebbs and the industry tries to find ways to grab new quilters to fill the vacuum, and as the Mods buy less and less stuff because they already have their machines and tools, their stashes have grown adequate, and the realize they don’t need patterns.

In short I don’t really see quilting going anywhere new; if anything I think the industry is in for a contraction as the salad days of the Mods wanes.

2. Why do you design quilts instead of, say, paintings or drawings? Why is it that a quilt communicates your particular/personal message/art better than another medium?

For me it is all about making things that are genuinely part of the world. Over my career in art academia I went from sculpture, to installation, to performance art, and finally to net.art in order to get closer to viewers interacting with the work in world at large rather than in a gallery. In essence it was about breaking down the inherent distance that arises between individuals and art on walls or pedestals, about getting away from the problems that arise when work is seen first as art and second as what it tangibly and conceptually is.

Though I found myself in the quilt world largely by accident because of extreme illness, quilts actually achieve almost everything I want to do as an artist. They have an extraordinarily rich tradition that means they hold deep cultural resonance, the making of quilts allows for almost any form via standard piecing, foundation piecing, appliqué, handwork, and computerized machines. And finally, they are used; they are a part of people’s lives and homes. Even as they are incredible things, quilts are still just blankets when it comes right down to it. So for me quilts are a perfect vehicle to deal with serious issues and embed those concerns in my own home and other people’s as well. In no longer making work that is so explicitly art I have found a medium that I believe allows me to make the best art of my career.

3. The internet isn’t quite as new as it was before. People have stopped believing no one will ever, ever read a real book again or ever, ever make anything with their hands ever again. Do you agree that handmade is safe? What can quilters today do to make sure it stays that way?

Books may go somewhere eventually, but that time is not particularly near. The same holds true for quilts, though the timeframe for quilts is probably several generations longer. We still need things: silverware and sofas, tables and chairs, beds and blankets. Many of the things that we need have become industries largely immune to handmade, but quilts will continue to hold a place as long beds and bedding remains essentially unchanged. Between the heritage that quilts carry and the reality that people like making stuff, having touches of the individual in their lives, quilts seem pretty safe. I don’t think we really have to do anything to protect that. We may want to get a little more skeptical about the quilting industry, but that seems unlikely. The drive toward consolidation may be good for the bottom line (though I have real questions about the legitimacy of that economic model). Realistically, I think quilting is going to shrink quite a bit in the coming years; as Instagram and Pinterest take the place of blogs the quilting world is become more impersonal, style and appearance is replacing words and the thoughts an feelings that only language can convey. Online tutorials are taking the wind out of the sails of the pattern industry so there will be less impetus for innovative design. The fabric world is so oversaturated with chasing trends, following rather than innovating, that there is likely no choice but to contract there as well, especially as I expect the Downton Abbey effect to grow more an more common. Quilting isn’t going anywhere, but it is going to get smaller again. The real question is whether the artists and designers, the quilt makers and quilt lovers will rise to fill the space.

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So, there are just a few of my thoughts on the quilting industry today, thoughts that I believe needed to be shared today as we are about to lose an iconic publication.

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