Part IV of VI, “Threading the Needle”
That initial and long-ago look at a crazy quilt did not set me on a quilt-making path. Nor did I see, understand, or appreciate then the deep tradition of quilts or the irony of how the symbol of stitchery and its stitchers had been diminished in the spaces of time. I had yet to engage on the mired ground of what is art or more specifically, what is fine art? Or even more troublesome, can a quilt be art? And if not, why not?
I had not yet found what lies hidden in plain view — how what we create is the mirror of our landscapes, whether physical, cultural, or imaginative. It is the manifestation of what has been called our voice. It simply IS. And it doesn’t need defining in useless and general adjectives such as fine or beautiful.
That manifestation bears the mark of the soul, the mind, the spirit, and the hand of the individual who made it. It moves us because it pushes beyond simply being what pleases us. It provides the artist a path to give form to an idea, to create a concrete expression that carries a relevance about life. And, because of its universality, we are drawn to it, appreciating its depth and meaning.
Quilting has long been considered a traditional art, but only recently has it begun to be considered “worthy” of showing in a museum or gallery. That bifurcation of art into separate silos seems to have divorced art from our lived experience. Instead of seeing how art infuses our daily life in the comfort of the cup that holds our morning coffee or the quilt that we nestle under on a chilly night, we begin to see art as only the framed piece that hangs above the sofa.
Walter Gropius, architect and Bauhaus founder, saw drawing distinctions between art and craft as a failed exercise. For him, arguing over where quilts belong in an art hierarchy was “an arbitrary exercise that revealed arrogance.” He wrote:
“There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman…The artist is an exalted craftsman. In rare moments of inspiration, moments beyond the control of his will, the grace of heaven may cause his work to blossom into art. But proficiency in his craft is essential to every artist.”
Locking ourselves into a string of silos does seem troublesome at best. The hair-splitting discussion of what is and isn’t art can push value to the two-dimensional, the painting on canvas, asserting “that is fine art.” The terminology and use may even carry the assumption that a formally trained artist created the painting and that because the pottery cup or the hand-made quilt is “only” functional, the object lacks aesthetic intent.
Quilt artist Michael James sees such assumptions about “a lack of aesthetic sophistication” as problematic in a world of people he believes:
“…intend to create art but only talk themselves and others into believing they do. I also see people who study art subjects and use the vocabulary and the accoutrements but who never produce anything to suggest that they have even one original artistic idea.”
And at that point, we have moved into a stultifying place described by sculptor Robert Smithson, who warned of the impending danger in brief, but chilling, terms, “Hardening of the categories leads to art disease.”
Recently, some have worked to free the word “quilt” and stitching from its association with women’s work, which has been viewed as craft not art. Some artists use alternative phrases like “fabric collage” or “fabric construction,” while others name their work “studio quilts” or “nontraditional quilts.” However, in trying to clarify, these phrases begin to feel like someone is merely playing with words, creating generalizations like the coded phrase, “fine art.”
To simplify this discussion, consider this: A quilt is simply three layers of cloth stacked and sewn together. The top piece of textile can be a whole, woven cloth or a pieced design of fabric and color. The middle layer of batting provides the heft, the opportunities for dimensionality, and the warmth as bedding. The bottom layer is a woven cloth back. The three layers are joined by stitches that can add a stitching design that also secures the fabric sandwich.
And that is where the simplicity ends, for quilting fabric has been done for thousands of years. Some believe it appeared first in Egypt around 3400 BC, with quilted floor coverings appearing around 100 BC in Mongolia. The Crusaders, returning from the Levant, brought back quilted material that was worn under armor and later evolved into a man’s quilted doublet, fashionable from the 15th to 17th centuries.
The U.S. has held a long tradition in quilting both because of early use and need. People used quilts to keep bodies warm in bed. Also, in the early colonies, fabric was either imported and unaffordable or locally woven and time-consuming to produce. Colonial quiltmakers devised ways to salvage and recycle every scrap of fabric, believing that nothing should be lost no matter how trifling.
Stitchers joined the small scraps of fabric to create a block, which, with other blocks, some plain, some embellished with patterns, were repeated, eventually creating the top layer of the quilt. In time, designs for these pieced blocks became standardized and popularized, such as log cabin, shoo-fly, nine-patch, double wedding ring, or star patterns.
Diverse cultural landscapes and uses called for adaptations to the designs. Chief Justice Sidney Edgerton, who would become Montana’s first Territorial Governor, lived in a cabin in which his wife, like other settlers, hung quilts on the walls to baffle drafts and add color. This idea moved the family’s quilts from only being seen horizontally to being viewed vertically, like a painting.
Plains Indian tribes adopted and adapted star designs in quilts that would replace buffalo robes in giveaway ceremonies planned for honoring on special occasions. In Seminole Indian patchwork, the overlapping horizontal strips created geometric patterns that formed an effective clothing protection against southern Florida’s biting and stinging insects.
Traditional Amish quilts follow a prescribed meaning and style in using blocks for construction. During the Civil War Era, quilt patterns used hidden symbols to signal slaves escaping to freedom in the north on the Underground Railroad. Quilts made statements about causes like temperance (the Drunkard’s Path pattern), suffrage, prison reform, and education.
A confluence of circumstances fed the development of the art of the quilt. Most women knew how to sew. Even the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Montana’s own Jeanette Rankin, worked as a seamstress after college graduation in 1902. She also learned first- hand about the social issues of the women sewing in the garment district of New York City.
Widespread sewing skills were a fact, but there was also the increase in availability of affordable sewing machines and the advent of the mail-order catalog. First patented in 1846, sewing machines were the first appliance available on the installment plan, putting the machine within the reach of more women. And mail order provided quick delivery. A spring 1874 issue of The Helena Daily Independent advertised sewing machines as low as $10 with no packing or shipping charges.
Each stitch, each cultural use and adaptation, each invention to save time, each sewing style, each digression sparked by originality has moved the quilt beyond a simple function as a bed covering for warmth. Although some may argue that quilt-making is merely following a pattern, that the craft doesn’t fulfill the intent of “an emotional art process,” the fact remains that the quilt has become bound by the Seamstress of Time ever more firmly into the country’s identity and cultural consciousness.
(From a six-part excerpt from “Stitching a Crazy Quilt,” in Crossing Bird Creek, a collection of essays by E.L. Kittredge. To read more about our places and how they impact our ways of learning, knowing, being, and thriving, visit www.elkittredge.com.)