Perhaps ironically, simple is a very complicated word, one that has become increasingly contentious in the quilting world. For so many, the idea of being simple has largely been associated with easy, something that requires little thought or skill. In many contexts it has been used in a derogatory sense with regard to the modern quilting movement. I’ve heard it used in so many different ways, and with such different tones of voice, that I think it is a word worth some serious consideration, especially when it comes to truly making sense of modern quilting.
While simple can mean easy, I think ease is often a by-product of something more fundamental. Simple is about a certain lack of decoration, a paring down to the essentials. It is the basic impulse that drove modern art for much of the 20th century. Indeed there is something almost Classical in the ideal of simple; it draws on the philosophical underpinnings of Platonic ideals and the Socratic method – looking ever deeper to find the essence of a thing.
To me the opposite of simple is not difficult, but complicated. It seems important to ask why so many quilters – of varying experience and levels of expertise – are drawn to a simpler aesthetic right now. Some of the interest is driven by trends in the larger marketplace; modernist-inspired goods are almost everywhere. But I think there may be a deeper reason, the same one that is bringing a whole new generation of quilters to the tradition: people are looking for a resting place, a center or an escape from the vicissitudes of a chaotic world. Our lives are increasingly fragmented, so the idea of simple represents a return to the essentials, a stripping away of the endless layers of complexity that occupy our every minute. Simple forms mirror a desire for a certain simplicity, a connection to the materials and things that share our physical spaces.
As such, the renewed interest in the simpler traditional patterns – four-patches, nine-patches, and log cabins – comes into focus. Yes, they are excellent starting points for novice quilters learning the basic skills, but they also represent a stripping away of embellishment. In reinvesting in some of the most traditional quilting patterns there is a bit of wishful thinking, a degree of nostalgia for what might be perceived as a simpler time, or at least a more connected one.
While some practitioners (myself included) are pushing their quilts into the esoteric realms of postmodern life, I think the larger notion of modern quilting represents an investigation into the basic nature of quilts and how they fit into the modern conditions of the world we live in. It is too easy to say modern quilting is about simple quilts; simple is just one avenue of exploration within a larger framework. Simple brings up one of the most essential questions in quilting; just what comprises a quilt?
We can see the manifestation of simple in a renewed interest in whole-cloth quilts, the emergence of extraordinary minimalist compositions and the return to classic patchwork patterns alike. Yes, some simple things are indeed easy to construct, though in my experience, many of the simplest visual effects are the most technically demanding. In many cases the notion of simple is regarded as a rejection of technique, but that evaluation so often feels simply unkind.
In recent decades, with the emergence of more and more quilt shows, technique has often been reified as the endpoint of quilting, as the goal; quilts sometimes become means to display expertise. While most quilters certainly admire and respect the remarkable skills shown in such quilts, those pieces are far removed from the practices of most of the quilting world. In many ways the idea of simple goes far beyond the aesthetic level; simple quilting represents a focus on the role of quilts in the world. Many of my quilts have indelible grass stains from stints as backyard pirate ships, something that would never happen with a quilt I spent a year making.
That is not to say that simple quilts are in any way better than technical masterpieces; it is just that they require different criteria. For me technique is a means to an end, the process through which a quilt is made. More often than not I want the particular techniques to disappear into the totality of the quilt; if a user or viewer spends their time reacting to the technique I feel I have fallen short in constructing a meaningful whole. The quilt is what matters; the parts are just the building blocks.
In the end I believe that is the true point of simple. The word simple traces its meaning back to the idea of being “composed of a single element.” In that basic idea we can see so much of modern quilting, whether it be the tendency to move away from block-based quilts or a preference for less complicated techniques. Many of the common elements of modern quilting truly ought to be seen in the light of this larger context of simple: straight-line quilting often mirrors the fundamental construction of a quilt; large pieces allow the fabric designs to speak on equal terms with the composition. All of this comprises a gesture that is as much reverential to tradition as it is a response to modern conditions; in eschewing embellishment we see an emphasis on the quilt as a whole, on its form, technique and purpose. And after all, isn’t that what quilts are all about?