Why I Ask…

I ask a lot of serious questions around here, and sometimes I’m sure it can be annoying. The questions are partly just part of my nature; a lifetime in the academic realm has that effect on a person, or in my case just nourishes the tendency. But that is not the only reason I ask the question; I do it because I truly do care about quilts. They matter to me not just as objects and family traditions, but as cultural artifacts, as a symbolic form, as a vital practice and as a means to understanding just who we are. Almost all of the questions I ask circle around a single concern: why do we make quilts?

That question, though, is not as simple as it may seem; it is only in part a matter of why each of us individually makes the quilts we make. The questions that really compel me are those of why the form, the practice of quiltmaking, indeed persists. Or more accurately, the questions I ask contemplate the concern of why people will or will not continue to make quilts in the future.

To simply assume that people will continue to make quilts because they have for the past two centuries or so seems somehow naïve. The history of quilts is rich and varied, and just as the pace of transformation has increased in the world at large, our relationship to quilts has being changing ever more rapidly. Or to put that more succinctly, perhaps, the role quilts play in society is ever changing, and continues to change at an ever-quickening pace.

To put it directly, those generations of quilters — my great-grandmother, my wife’s grandmother — who made quilts largely out of necessity, the need for warm bedcovers, are leaving this earth. The percentage of quilters who have known that necessity is dwindling with each passing year. Many quilters learned to quilt from someone of that generation, but most of them have lived their lives in a world where mass-produced blankets are plentiful, and are more accessible and affordable than handmade quilts. Quilting has lived on as a tradition and a hobby, done because of an intimate connection with the practice or a love of beautiful patterns, but with each year the real connection to the necessity of quilts grows less palpable.

I have long found the phrase “traditional quilting” interesting because it rarely has much to do with the traditional basis of quilting: necessity. In the later part of the 20th century quilting has focused heavily on a certain historicist tendency, the revival of forms from times past, and there may always be a thriving space for reproduction fabric and quilts. Within this space, quilting shifted from being a practice based on need to one more associated with hobby. As new quilters came into the practice they had little connection with the larger heritage of quilting and learned the forms, practiced the techniques.

So much of the quilting world seems to be focused on the question of why quilts were made. While I obviously find that to be an important question — heck as an art academic I am the first to jump up and down in support of understanding the historical context — I think there is a lot to be said for looking forward as well.

The exciting thing for me about modern quilting is that it has sparked a significant public conversation about why we make quilts today. Certainly art quilting sparked a similar conversation decades ago, but in many ways that was a very different question, one tied to the relationship between craft and art. The current discussion seems to fundamentally inquire into what role quilts can and do perform today. Certainly many of the issues reach all the way back to the roots of quilting, but many more stem from the ways in which we interact with a world that has changed profoundly in just the last ten years, let alone since my parent were my age. We no longer make out of necessity, so why do we do it? Yes, each of us loves making quilts (at least some of the time), but why are quilts still being made?

At the moment quilts speak; the very act of making something rather than buying it resonates with care, with concern, with intimacy — though often at a distance. I cannot but see the current wave of quilting as a response to a fragmented and often alienating world. Quilts are a practice that produces a location: a quilt is more than a thing; it becomes a place to be. I could go on forever, and probably have elsewhere, but I love that the discussion of why quilts today and what they mean is growing all the time. Yes, quilts are personal, but they are also enormously social; just look at the relationship that has grown up between quilting and social media.

Even as quilting perpetually looks back to its history, I hope it — writ large — can continually recognize the shifts in the context that surrounds quilting. Quilts have always been wrapped up in issues of class, race, gender, and age. The community still struggles with many of these issues, assumptions, and misperceptions. A quilt made today can never be the same as one made a century ago, even if it is a faithful reproduction; context matters. Making a quilt today is a profoundly different act than making one150 years ago. An Amish quilt can never be just an Amish quilt again. History changes things, and every passing day changes history.

And that brings me back full circle. While I enjoy the current discussions about quilting, and have my favorite voices out there on the topic, what really interests me is considering why people will continue to quilt. Just as my great-grandmother has passed, so will I. If I’m lucky I’ll get another fifty years to make quilts; when I succumb to bouts of pride I hope that my voice might in some way matter in that time. Who knows? But what I do know is that my practice is very likely to be very different by the end; heck I expect it to be enormously different in ten years, and not just because I will have changed. The world may be very different; the questions surrounding quilts will change just as the bigger picture does. Who knows what the industry will be like, the technology, the way we communicate?

The questions I want to explore go beyond what we make, beyond what motivates any particular quilt, to why quilts are made at all. In so many ways it seems like a minor miracle that the practice has survived the radical industrialization, commodification, and commercialization of the last half-century. It has taken a lot of work on behalf of some amazing people, inventing and reinventing ways to keep the practice vibrant. For all of those people I am sincerely grateful.

This all leads me to a very simple question: not to be morbid, but as we all pass from this earth what is going to compel new generations of quilters? What are the ideas that will resonate? The art world has survived by being flexible enough to accommodate an endless stream of new ideas, techniques, and materials. Is quilting prepared for that? The future is always a progressive endeavor, so where do we want it to go? Those iconic Amish quilts, for example, were reflections of deeply held social and religious values; their simplicity was a manifestation of a life that rejected the trappings of the materialistic world. What values do we want to imbue our work with now; how do we want quilts to be seen? The path will not lay itself; the conversations we have today matter not just for now, but as signposts toward tomorrow.


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